A WITCHCRAFT JUDGE SAYS SORRY

Professor Richard Francis, Bath Spa University College, on 20 November 2002

Professor Francis's paper was derived from the biography of Samuel Sewall he is writing on commission from his publishers, Fourth Estate.

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was a Massachusetts merchant, judge and diarist. He was one of the team of judges appointed to the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 to try accused witches in Salem Village and the surrounding townships. Five years later he performed two acts of atonement for his involvement in the miscarriage of justice (twenty innocent people were executed); an analysis of these penitential gestures sheds light on the fears and confusion that underlay the witchcraft crisis, and helps us to define a moment of cultural transition.

The first of these acts took place on 14 January 1696/7 (the colonists were still using the old calendar, by which the new year began in March). On that day Sewall stood up in church while his minister read a letter of repentance on his behalf. None of the other judges said sorry, though other people involved in the crisis - the minister of Salem Village, one of the accusing girls, and a number of the jurymen - also made public statements repenting the part they had played. In each of the latter cases, however, the confessors explained that they were the victims of forces larger than themselves; only Sewall took the blame squarely on his own head. The significance of this is that throughout the trials both accusers and accused saw themselves as played on by dark external forces, as if they were puppets, and the devil (and beyond him, God) were the puppeteer. The particular way in which Sewall confronted his guilt marked a switch to an internalised and psychological way of assessing human behaviour.

Later in 1697, Sewall published his book Phaenomena quaedam Apocalyptica, a strange rambling text that contains a beautiful paean in praise of his hometown of Newbury, Massachusetts and of America in general, but for the most part consists of an attempt to demonstrate that the Native Americans are the Lost Tribe of Israel, and that America represents the fulfilment of the prophecies of the seven vials in the Book of Revelation. From this one can infer that the hysteria of the witch crisis was brought on in part by a loss of confidence in American destiny, and in particular by the ever-present threat of a hostile alien culture. Sewall attempts to address these particular issues, and establish that despite ferocious battles between the two races and cultures there is a providential destiny that will ultimately link them together as a spiritually coherent whole.

Sewall was a far-sighted, tolerant and progressive thinker. He wrote the first anti-slavery tract in English, and was a consistent advocate of Native American land rights. It is ironic that his name is now mainly known to us because of his involvement in one of the most notorious miscarriages of justice to take place in America. Nevertheless his response to that involvement was impressive and comprehensive. He learned to look on evil in a much more modern way than he and his contemporaries had adopted at the outset of the trials and he proclaimed that through cultural reconciliation American ideals could still be vindicated.

Richard Francis

Discussion

The discussion revealed a complicated history during the development of America. A sickening atmosphere was revealed where mindless and irrational supernatural and religious beliefs and a parallel scientific ignorance prevailed. Puritans believed in witches and the Devil, and the Bible instructed that witches should be hanged. The victims were men and women accused of witchcraft by adolescent girls with no real evidence. Their reports of seeing spectres by the privileged few could never be disproved, leaving the victims defenceless. Witches were supposed to have teats or moles on various parts of their anatomy. Francis quoted the case where William Harvey, discovererof the circulation of the blood, diagnosed such so-called witches mark as simple piles.

Francis suggested the `Satan' of those times represented the beginning of rational liberalism and a forgiveness of what would be seen to day as minor crimes or simply human behaviour, including pathological states such as epilepsy.

The most interesting theory to emerge was that Satanic elements represent a transitional stage, analogous with that between the medieval and the age of enlightenment in Europe. Professor Francis suggested this enlightenment had its origins in a developing egalitarianism in the manner of John Locke (1632-1704). This was particularly pertinent in the light of the Founding Fathers attention to Locke's philosophy when later drawing up the American Constitution.

The answers to questions posed by members seemed to result in more questions and uncertainties, although the speaker said the trials were documented in detail at the time.

The convener felt it strange that so much could be written and discussed about an incident that occurred three centuries ago, and with so much uncertainty around it, and yet religious fundamentalism and fanaticism with its cruel intolerance still existed today.

Members will look forward to reading Professor Francis' book when it is published next year.

Peter Valentine