Samuel Sewall

Diary Entries of Samuel Sewall Apology of Samuel Sewall

Both reprinted in Early American Writing in 1994

Edited by Giles Gunn

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730; see biography entry) was a prominent Boston businessman who served on the panel of judges for the Salemwitch trials. He is best known today for his diary, which provides an eyewitness account of the internal workings of the procedings. The trials were conducted by a group of elite Puritan leaders who were convinced that they were following the will of God. Sewall was a member of that group. Selected diary entries from April, August, and September 1692—at the height of the trials—show that judges and other Puritan officials regularly consulted about strategy, and they were determined to obtain confessions from suspected witches. Yet they were also anxious to justify their decisions. For instance, interrogators piled stones on Giles Corey for nine days until he died because he would not admit to the charges against him. Sewall apparently needed to defend this act because he noted that Corey himself had crushed someone to death eighteen years earlier. As proof against Corey he cited spectral evidence: Corey's "specter" (spirit) appeared to Ann Putnam, Jr. the night before the execution and told her he had killed the man. Sewall took comfort in Cotton Mather's view

Samuel Sewall, like many Puritans, envisioned entire groups of villagers being lured off into danger by the witches' evil specters. Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.

that the several convicted witches "all died by a righteous sentence." (See biography and primary source entries for both Putnam and Mather.) Sewall noted that some people thought George Burroughs (one of the executed men) was innocent, but he dismissed them as merely "unthinking persons." In the brief but dramatic description of the reprieve (the release from her death sentence) of Dorcas Hoar, Sewall indicated that the Puritans would call off an execution if a person confessed. Sewall later repented for his role in the trials.

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