The Salem Witch Trials & the Forming of an American Conscience

By Richard Francis

Fourth Estate. 412 pp. $25.95

The Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts were nothing if not self-absorbed. John Winthrop famously promised the first settlers that their colony would be "as a Citty upon a Hill," an experiment minutely observed from afar and above, and by century's end, the navel-gazing was turning downright apocalyptic. Stalked by smallpox, raided by natives and threatened with unpredictabilities ranging from caterpillar infestations to lightning bolts, the end seemed perpetually nigh -- and Satan was always on the march.

The evil one's most notorious intrusion was, of course, the possession of two girls from Salem in January 1692. Their convulsions set off a seven-month chain of accusation and admission that would see 19 defendants hanged and one crushed to death by stones. Their courtroom hearings were enactments of guilt rather than inquiries into it, potent shaming rituals that in some ways paralleled the Soviet show trials of the 1930s -- though Stalin's victims insisted on their culpability, at Salem only those who refused to confess were convicted. Witchcraft was certainly a serious sin, but the truly unforgivable crime was obstinacy.

Richard Francis, a British novelist and historian of American culture, lucidly retells the entire sorry saga but pivots his book on a later moment of penitence. On Jan. 14, 1697, by which time the persecution had fallen into general disrepute, Massachusetts observed a day of atonement, and one congregant at Boston's South Church went further. Samuel Sewall, one of the nine judges at Salem and a future chief justice of Massachusetts, handed the minister a note in which he begged pardon of man and God for his role in the trials. He stood for its recitation and bowed as the words died away.

Although other Salemites would also express remorse, Sewall alone did not point the finger at Satan, and he was the only judge to apologize. This, argues Francis, was symptomatic of an introspection that was both unique and historically significant. He acknowledges that self-doubt was ubiquitous among the Puritans but asserts that, while the judges had been "still living in a universe of binary alternatives" in 1692, Sewall was learning to accommodate ambiguity and human complexity. His evolution mirrored broader changes. The apology "crystallizes and defines the cultural shift that was taking place in New England during the 1690s" -- a change that, Francis writes, would transform the region's fundamentalism into a humanitarian, utopian and distinctly American worldview.

The traditions of Sewall's world would flow into the intellectual mainstream of his country, and Francis draws thought-provoking connections between his subject's interests and those of later eras. He explores, for example, links between the judge's own writings and the lyricism of early American literature and shows how Sewall's faith in the Puritan mission prefigured the exceptionalism that would help define the national body politic. He cites the relative respect Sewall exhibited toward slaves and Native Americans as evidence of incipient egalitarianism. Even Sewall's lifelong detestation of wigs is marshaled in support of a modern outlook: It supposedly marked him as someone concerned "to keep his attention and his grip on his world as it was, without vanity or evasiveness."

But although the man described by Francis is finely portrayed, he never sheds the intellectual apparel of his age. His abolitionist views were so aberrant that they lacked any echo for another century. His stance toward America's Indians -- whom he suspected to be one of Israel's lost tribes -- looked to the future only in the sense that he believed their conversion would herald Christ's rule on Earth. As for the dislike of hairpieces, could anything be more Puritanical -- and less evocative of the American dream -- than a mistrust of makeovers?

Francis's interpretation of Sewall's theology, though suggestive, ultimately leaves unanswered the riddle at the heart of his book: why the judge publicly regretted his role in the witch trials. Sewall himself never explained his actions, but if the apology truly reflected a novel kind of insight -- rather than the predilection to self-doubt and willingness to undergo public purgation that Francis recognizes were traditional to Puritanism -- one might have expected at least some further indication of remorse to have emerged over the next 33 years. In fact, as Francis acknowledges, none did. Sewall's only statement to bear even obliquely on the subject came at the 1717 funeral of Nicholas Noyes, a priest who would enter witch-hunt lore for having once characterized the swinging corpses of eight defendants as "Firebrands of Hell." Sewall's fond tribute to Noyes, a lifelong friend, was to recall him as a "hammer of heretics."

But even if the significance of the apology might be overstated, Sewall himself remains a worthy subject for a biography, and Francis's book transcends any limitations in its thesis. The journey that he tracks, from Sewall's English birth to his death in Boston 78 years later, draws extensively from the judge's wonderful diaries. Francis is a sensitive interpreter whose reading lends texture, color and chronology to a culture that is often reduced to monochrome caricature. Glum vigils and grim rituals certainly figure in the story, but so do maypoles and raucous drinking dens; Boston itself grows from small town to sophisticated seaport, a metropolis in which men sprout ruffles and wigs, and women shimmer in silver, scarlet and silks.

Sewall himself, thrice-wed and 14 times a father, is no less vivid. As attuned to portents as any reflective Puritan, the life he records is a riot of detail and deliberation. Dreams and climatic change inspire as much wonder in him as reports of a baby born with a pea in its forehead, while a leaking chamber pot sets off lugubrious lamentations on the frailty of the human condition. Mortality and adultery, meanwhile, wreak a havoc that no amount of piety can undo, and the years are punctuated by his children's funerals and failing marriages, the tragicomedy of widowerhood and the ever-hopeful courtships of old age.

Francis's book succeeds because it does not attempt to compass the conscience of the changing New World; instead, it allows Sewall to give voice to the world in which he lived. The author decrypts his microcosm with skill, conjuring a recognizably moral man and the increasingly complex community in which he came of age.