Samuel Sewall; portrait by Nathaniel Emmons, 1728

Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston/Bridgeman Images

Samuel Sewall; portrait by Nathaniel Emmons, 1728

By the time Samuel Sewall made his way home to Boston from Cambridge, across the frozen Charles River on January 13, 1696, it was well after dark. He found his wife anxiously awaiting him just inside the front door. Their fifteen-year-old daughter Betty had seemed out of sorts all day; after dinner she emitted a howl of anguish, startling her siblings, who burst out crying in turn. Hesitantly, through floods of tears, Betty revealed that a few lines from the Gospel of John tormented her. A passage she had read from Cotton Mather further exacerbated the distress. She was destined for hell.

It was an anxious season in the Sewall household: Betty’s seventeen-year-old brother soon began to mope and weep as well. He could not sleep. He fainted dead away. His father was still sorting out Sam’s despair when, in mid-February, Betty appeared at the bedroom door, moments after their father had woken. Again she was inconsolable, fixated on her damnation. Sewall comforted her as best he could. He was familiar with her doubts; father and daughter had wept together over a passage from the book of Isaiah six years earlier. Again that February morning the two prayed, side by side, in tears. Betty begged God to “give her a new heart” but months later was still without relief. In August she was packed off for a change of air. The wailing continued through the winter.

Betty’s three-century-old spiritual crisis survives not because she set it to paper but because her father did. In 1674, months before earning his Harvard MA, two years before his marriage, the twenty-two-year-old Sewall began a diary. A merchant and magistrate, the manager of a printing press, a militia captain and a pillar of his church, he nonetheless found the time to document his life, more or less regularly, over the next fifty-five years. In his first pages he tackled his brother’s laundry, a few personal honors, the weather, Harvard politics, a haircut, and the hanging of a Roxbury teenager for “Bestiality with a Mare.” (The malefactor’s partner, Sewall noted, was “first knocked in the head under the Gallows in his sight.”) In his last entry Sewall negotiates a match—a fine one, he thinks—for an orphaned granddaughter. He died ten weeks later, on January 1, 1730.

In between, the wealthy, portly, and popular Sewall—he would be elected to the Massachusetts council thirty-three times—comes to radiant life. We know him better than any other seventeenth-century American. Constant in his devotions, he is a man of habit and precision. He disapproves when his minister ends a sermon fifteen minutes early. He complains when—fumbling the pitch—the congregation sings tunelessly. He thrills to learned discussions of theology. More intimately than anyone else, he charted the current of faith that coursed through every aspect of Puritan life, from the fall on the stairs to the food on the plate. When the time came to prepare Betty for marriage he read to her from Adam and Eve. (It proved less of a balm than he expected. She hid in the stable when the suitor arrived.)

We know what most affronted Sewall: Maypoles, Christmas, April Fool’s Day pranks, the wearing of wigs, a card game on a Saturday night. When in 1708 Boston’s Quakers finally won the right to build a meetinghouse, he fumed. He preferred not “to have a hand in setting up their Devil Worship.” On a scorching August day he came across a Wenham farmer tending his flax stark naked. Ever the devoted public servant, Sewall threatened to fine the man, who reached for his clothing.

Steely in his faith, Sewall was gentle in his manner. How happy he would be, he thought in 1699, were he “wise as a Serpent and harmless as a Dove!” He took nearly sensual delight in his surprisingly agreeable world and in the word of God. He leaves abundant accounts of the Massachusetts menu; the family larder was as well stocked as Sewall’s mind. (A recipe for elderberry wine appears on the inside cover of his commonplace book.) If the off-tune psalms annoy him it is because he enjoys music—so long as that music is not played in New England. A gratifying gossip, Sewall knew how to laugh. He kept an ear out for the return of the swallows each spring. “Agreement makes kingdoms flourish,” he cheerfully reminded a daughter. He could think of no better motto. He had a gift for and appreciation of friendship, “because real friends are the principal comfort and relief against the evils of our life.”

Sewall charms as an open-minded man in fundamentalist dress; he was as worldly as a seventeenth-century New Englander could be. He composed North America’s first antislavery tract. He balked at the idea that there would be no women in heaven, as—according to Puritan theology—there was no need of them there. “To speak the truth,” reasoned Sewall, “God has no need of any creature.” Heaven was moreover an awfully roomy place. During a year in London Sewall explored the Mile End Jewish cemetery. Over a glass of beer he informed its custodian that he hoped they might meet again in heaven.


He reveals himself with easy honesty; for good reason, he has been called the Puritan Pepys. Not every diarist is so generous as to leave us the details of a late-life courtship. Having lost his wife of forty-one years, Sewall set his sights in 1720 on Katherine Winthrop, a friend’s widow. The suit plays out in a series of Thackeray-esque scenes. Might he, ventures Sewall, having made a number of choreographed calls, remove a glove? The fifty-six-year-old widow wonders why. The difference, Sewall explains, was that “between handling a dead goat, and a living lady.” He all but pumps his fist in the air with his next line: “Got it off,” exults the sixty-nine-year-old suitor. (The relationship went nowhere. Madame Winthrop had little interest in Sewall if he had no interest in keeping a carriage. She also took the liberty of informing him he needed a wig.)

From his pages we know even what disturbed Sewall’s sleep. In 1716 he dreamed that a French fleet had docked in Boston harbor. It was not the first such nightmare; he woke panicked on both occasions. He dreamed that all his children were dead but one. He dreamed—he would sit on the Massachusetts bench for fifty years—that he was a condemned man, awaiting execution. He dreamed of his wife’s death and lustily embraced her on waking, a series of events he consigned to Latin, the language in which he blushed. During a bitter January he dreamed that Christ had arrived in human form in Boston, where he took up residence with Sewall’s father-in-law. He woke grateful that the Savior had chosen to spend “some part of his short life here” and ashamed that he had not shown greater respect for his elder.

Even in the absence of divine visitors the misgivings tended to accumulate. Sensitive to slights, easily rattled, Sewall felt himself stabbed by the disapproving glance, the pointed comment, the nonarriving invitation. He lived on intimate terms with shame. He crumpled when Cotton Mather loudly criticized him in a bookstore; he attempted to placate the minister afterward. At the same time he did not appreciate having to sacrifice his principles for the sake of public harmony. Agreement might well make kingdoms flourish, but he was aggrieved to find himself “wheedled and hectored” by his colleagues. He discovered that it is difficult to serve as a moral arbiter when you agonize over what your neighbor thinks of you.

The dead-goat gloves and early morning anxieties aside, we return to Samuel Sewall again and again—is this always the case?—for a chapter of his life that he elected not to preserve. In 1692 he was appointed to the court that would preside over the Salem witch trials. Sewall sent nineteen innocents to the gallows; he appears not to have missed a court session. From the start he also seemed discomfited by the witchcraft. He mentioned it for the first time that April, when he traveled to Salem to observe a preliminary hearing; the screeching and writhing of the bewitched girls stunned him.

He referred only once to the crisis over the next months, eliding his participation on the bench and the first executions from the diary, returning to the subject finally in mid-August. He spent the nineteenth in Watertown. That morning, in part by his sentence, five alleged witches were hanged in Salem, a Harvard schoolmate of Sewall’s among them. As he had earlier, he that day consigned the subject of witchcraft to his diary margins. “Woe, woe, woe,” he had scrawled next to his April 11 entry, in Latin. In a different pen and presumably at a later date, he appended the word “witchcraft.”

What can we read in his discomfort? Few have so nimbly conjured with Sewall and his silence as Richard Francis, author of an excellent 2005 biography of the Salem justice. He devotes about a third of the volume to 1692, making the case that Sewall took the path of least resistance that year. Now Francis has revisited the episode in a work of fiction, arguably the closest a biographer comes to setting his book to music. The quiet “must haves” of the biography burst into exuberant set pieces in the novel, Crane Pond. The biographer is out on a joyride after the long haul as designated driver, and Francis seems to have enjoyed himself from the start. Still in his nightshirt, wrapped in a coverlet, Sewall greets his family at the breakfast table on a chill January morning. “First prayer,” he announces, “then pie,” leaving his wife to frown at the casual conjunction.


We are on familiar territory. The frozen bread rattles around the communion plate. Betty collides with Isaiah. The naked flax-harvester returns. But the rules are now off. The novelist is meant to put words in people’s mouths; he is expected to make scenes. In February 1692—just as the first witchcraft diagnoses emerged from Salem—the Sewalls lost their cow, badly mauled by their dog. Sewall dispatched the incident with one line. Francis takes it from there. Already our hero is on edge. Howls had disturbed his dreams; he initially heard them as the damned, moaning in hell. We see the bloodied animal. We hear of an Indian attack. Sewall’s servant mentions a black dog that has been roaming about the property. “Many dogs are black: nothing extraordinary in that,” Sewall tells himself, shivering all the same. Several days and two pages later, Cotton Mather calls, with news of strange happenings in Salem.

‘A witch trial at Salem, Massachusetts, 1692’; detail of a nineteenth-century lithograph

Sarin Images/Granger

‘A witch trial at Salem, Massachusetts, 1692’; detail of a nineteenth-century lithograph

Even when he veers from the record, Francis remains faithful to the texture and tone of New England life. In a fraught discussion with William Stoughton, the future chief justice of the witchcraft court, Sewall thinks: “He is pink and Stoughton is grey, which sums up the difference between them.” Sewall was too decorous ever to have committed such a thought to paper but the comment rings true. Cotton Mather speaks to his friend “as though Sewall is a roomful of people.” Wig askew, he races about as no biographer has suggested but as his bibliography does. The New England buffet—all gleaming venison pies, roast lamb, and raspberry tarts—is on glorious display, as are each of Sewall’s preoccupations. He rails against those blasted wigs. He frisks his day for providential signs. The avoidance of Christmas takes the form of a feast “to celebrate not celebrating Christmas.” Cheekily, Francis invites Madame Winthrop to haunt Sewall’s dreams.

As invested as is Francis in Sewall’s inner world, he has in mind a specific destination. The book is subtitled: “A Novel of Salem.” He plunges directly into the 1692 lacunae, fiction rushing in to take us places that nonfiction cannot. It is no easy task; Francis after all ultimately needs to explain how this pinkish, pious, affable, upright man finds himself convicting innocents.

Happily, he has a fresh set of tools at his disposal this time around. If a Mather sermon has an unwieldy title, Francis can revise it. “A memorable apothegm” may come to Sewall’s mind in 1692 although it would not be written until 1698. Francis transposes lines from preliminary hearings to trials; he allows a teary seventeen-year-old to deliver a confession in court that she in fact submitted on paper. And now we know what a girl who admitted that she had falsely accused her grandfather looked like. (He would hang hours later.) In the spirit of accurate-if-not-necessarily-true, Francis moves incidents around. He has a shapely tale to tell; a diary is a shaggy dog story. Sewall was after all on a spiritual journey. His thousand pages were the ledger of his life.

Francis bends and folds time to especially fine effect at the outset. Betty’s initial spasm of doubt—the 1690 collision with Isaiah—is quickly followed by her brother’s outburst, then by a middle-of-the-night visit from a third wailing adolescent. That petrified fourteen-year-old was a Sewall servant, who would not actually knock on the bedroom door until 1713. In compressing the three, Francis dials up the intensity. He also hints at a contagion factor. His Sewall will be able to connect the bewitched children in Salem village with the agitated ones in his own household, a thought no one seems to have entertained in 1692, despite the fact that in an earlier witchcraft case a teenager had moaned, weeks before the onset of her diabolical symptoms, “that she was in the dark concerning her soul’s estate, and that she had misspent her precious youth.”

For Francis a greater mystery than what bedeviled the girls is what motivated a righteous man to condemn innocents. He has a field day with a theory from his earlier volume, in which Sewall tripped over “the great pitfall of public life: being overeager to attract the good will of others by not being true to oneself.” After a conviction of several men for piracy in 1690, Sewall’s colleagues browbeat him to issue a last-minute reprieve. He complied—to the disappointment of the crowd awaiting the execution and to his own lingering disgust. Throughout he feels manipulated by his fellow justices, dissatisfied with procedures. Torn between conscience and consensus, he worries that he is an appeaser.

Francis keeps the reprieved pirates close at hand, a guilty bit of gristle on which Sewall might routinely choke. After a witchcraft hearing, his colleagues add another name to the list of the accused. Sewall freezes for a moment, his heart thumping. To voice an objection “is exhausting, like bellowing into a strong wind.” He speaks up. He makes a bit of headway. He then lets the matter drop. He prefers not to appear querulous.

While Francis breathes new life into the material, he also takes us on a bit of a detour. He prefers Sewall the witchcraft skeptic; certainly he is a more palatable hero that way. Indeed by late summer, as Francis notes in his biography, “unease had begun to percolate into his mind.” Sewall was however troubled by the forensics rather than by the sorcery. No shred of evidence survives that he harbored doubts in 1692 about witchcraft. As the 1973 editors of his diary had it, at the time one no more questioned its existence “than we question the passage of radio waves through the air today.”

Clearly Sewall was ill at ease with the events. It is indeed possible that he kept the witchcraft at arm’s length because he subscribed to it only halfheartedly. But it is no less possible that he kept it at arm’s length because he feared it wholeheartedly. The very word was loaded; one did not toss it around lightly. He had avoided it on an earlier occasion. It seemed curiously contagious. There was every reason to assign it to the margins, as if in quarantine.

Francis comes down on the halfhearted side, his prerogative as a novelist. But while the elisions in Sewall’s 1692 diary allow plenty of latitude, they fail to support a few other notions. He was unlikely to have resented clerical meddling in legal issues at a time when the first three capital crimes in Massachusetts were idolatry, witchcraft, and blasphemy. This was no “mystical business,” as Francis’s Sewall imputes. Witchcraft was part and parcel of his religion. As much as we would like to think otherwise, no one who spoke up afterward on behalf of the accused seems to have registered his qualms that summer.

Nor did anyone equate witchcraft with magic, conflate a bewitched child with a witch, or write off witchcraft as “hobgoblins or bugbears,” as Sewall’s brother, the court reporter, does in Crane Pond. Nor would Sewall have confused witchcraft with possession, understood at the time to be a different matter altogether. Whatever his doubts about the prosecution, he did not distance himself from its prime movers. We have no indication that he fell out with Nicolas Noyes, his closest friend in Salem, who gloried in the trials. Sewall would dedicate a 1697 publication to gray-faced Stoughton who had presided over the witchcraft trials.

Sewall of course famously redeemed himself, in an act he did preserve in his diary. Five years after the trials—following a failed harvest, in the midst of a brutal winter, with trade at a standstill—Massachusetts at last attempted to expiate its collective guilt for the Salem proceedings. Sewall had felt the divine disfavor acutely. He met with pointed comments in the street. He buried two children in quick succession. On the colony-wide fast day called to address the errors of 1692, he rose amid his congregation, head bowed, as his minister read aloud his apology.

It must have been an excruciating moment, and so it is for Francis, who supplies the howling wilderness within. Sewall is surprised to discover remorse wilt unexpectedly into resentment. “Certainly,” he realizes, on his feet, all eyes upon him, “there were others who were equally implicated.” Abruptly another thought arrives: Is it possible, he wonders, that he has stepped forward in “an act of sinful vainglory,” as if wanting to appear more wicked than anyone else? The room is tense; Sewall buffeted by doubts. Even as he inclines his head toward his fellow parishioners he feels a hypocrite, as a bow, by definition, “pretends humility while claiming credit.” He hears the first murmurs of indignation. The cold seeps into his bones. He will nurse his wounds for years (or weeks, in Crane Pond).

Sewall would outlive a second wife, every member of his Harvard class, and all but three of his fourteen children. He lived long enough to read an early history of New England, in which he was appalled to discover both the Salem convictions and his Boston confession. It seemed he was to stand alone for all posterity, at odds with his colleagues, preserved in the very posture he found most wrenching. He was never to suspect that would prove his shining moment. Years earlier he had observed that many believed it dishonorable to change their minds. But surely the failure to yield to reason, Sewall told himself on that occasion, constituted the worst kind of foolishness. There was nary a hobgoblin in sight.