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Monday, January 23, 2012

Diary of Chief Justice, Massachussetts Bay Colony, Samuel Sewall (1674-1729)

Judge Sewall begins his "Diary" with a very detailed and intrigueing account of the Sewall family history, complete with pedigree, for his son.  He was the great-grandson of a wealthy, successful Linen Draper, who had also served as Mayor of Coventry for more than one term.  He was closely related (cousin or nephew, apparently) to Jeremiah Dummer, the first American-born silversmith.

His grandfather disliked the "English Hierarchy", so sent Samuel's father, Henry Sewall, to Salem Colony in 1634, with cattle and provisions to homestead a "plantation" in Newbury.  However, his father (after marrying in America) took his young bride and her parents back to England, due to their elders' inability to adapt to the New England climate.

It was in Bishop Stoke, where Judge Sewall was born on a Sunday morning, March 28, 1652.  Shortly after the coronation of King Charles I, on April 23, 1661, which Sewall clearly recalled, "...the Thunder and Lightening of it..." -- his father sent for his mother, their five small children, and two of their servants, to leave England again, to rejoin him in Newbury, Massachussetts.

They sailed from England on the "Prudent Mary", Capt. Isaac Woodgreen, out of the same port from which the widow Judith Stoughton had embarked in 1635, with her three children (Graves-End, or Gravesend, London).  The family spent eight weeks at sea, on the ship loaded with Human passengers, sheep, and cargo:  "...where we had nothing to see but Water and the Sky; so that I began to fear I should never get to Shoar again; only I thought the Capt. and Mariners would not have ventured themselves if they had not hopes of getting to Land again... [they made landfall on a] Satterday.  I was overjoyed to see Land again... Twas so late by that time we got to the Castle [fort], that our men held a discourse with them whether they should fire or no, and reckoned was agreed not to doe it.  But presently after the Castle fired; which much displeased the Ship's Company; and then they fired.  On the Lord's day my mother kept aboard; but I went ashoar, the Boat grounded, and I was carried out in arms July 6, 1661... [While awaiting pick up by their father, they] lodg'd at Mr Richard Collicott's.  This week there was a publick Thanksgiving."

Samuel Sewall graduated from Harvard with his class of eleven in 1671, at age 19.  I gather that for several years immediately following graduation, he worked at Harvard as a Resident Fellow of the College.  One of his duties was to maintain the college library.  Then on February 28, 1675 or 6, he married the daughter of Capt. John Hull, Mint-master and Treasurer of Boston and the Colony, Hannah.

In December of 1673, he records in his "Diary", having begun a reading of the 14th Chapter of Heerboords Physick, the part which begins, "Sensus Communes &tc.", to the Junior Sophisters.

His April 2, 1673, entry states, "Benjamin Gourd of Roxbury (being about 17 years of age) was executed for committing Bestiality *** N. B. [this is an abreviated term which Sewall uses repeatedly throughout this volume of his writings, along with a lot of Latin terms; I don't know what this particular one is supposed to mean].  He committed the filthines at noon day in an open yard.  He after confessed that he had lived in that sin a year.  The causes he alledged were, idlenes, not obeying parents, &tc."

(Apparently bestiality was a fairly commonplace problem; in a later journal entry dated May 27, 1685, he notes:  "Thorsday about noon, one Jonathan Gardner of Roxbury commits Bestiality with a mare; he is sent to Prison, but one Witness."  Had there been more than one witness, Gardner would surely have received the same sentence that Benjamin Gourd was judged:  execution.)

Monday, June 15, 1674 ..."Thomas Sargeant was examined by the Corporation: finally, the advice of Mr. Danforth, Mr. Stoughton [probably William, who also was a Harvard Alumni], Mr. Thatcher, Mr. Mather (then present) was taken.  This was his sentence.

"That being convicted of speaking blasphemous words concerning the H. G. he should be therefore publickly whipped before all the Scholars.  2. That he should be suspended as to taking his degree of Bachelour (this sentence read before him twice at the Prts. before the committee, and in the library 1 up before execution.)  3. Sit alone by himself in the Hall uncovered at meals, during the pleasure of the President and Fellows, and be in all things obedient, doing what exercise was appointed him by the President, or else be finally expelled the Colledge.  The first was presently put in execution in the Library (Mr. Danforth, Jr. being present) before the Scholars.  He kneeled down and the instrument Goodman Hely attended the President's word as to the performance of his part in the work.  Prayer was had before and after by the President."

Thurs. Feb. 13 ..."There was a Fast held at Sam. Moody's, principally upon the occasion of his sicknes:  whereat were present, Mr. Woodbridge, Mr. Philips, Mr. Moody, Mr. Reinor, Mr. Richardson.  The 3 first mentioned seemed to be very sensible of the state of things and of the plots of papists, Atheists:  and Mr. Phillips spake how the Ministers in England, when they had their liberty, look after their own houses [iow, were selfish, greedy], quarrelled, &tc.  I carried my Mother to the Fast, and there we with many more, had (I hope) a feast day.

"A Scotchman and Frenchman kill their Master, knocking him in the head as he was taking Tobacko.  They are taken by Hew and Cry, and condemned:  Hanged."

Monday, March 15, 1674/5 ..."I visited Mr. Parker.  He told me what one Mr. Stockman related to Mr. Parker his father, at the table of the Earl of Pembrook.  Thes Stockman went into Spain with the Embassadour, and there hearing of one that could foretell things went to him to enquire concerning England.  He showed in a glass for King Henry 3 time, the Cross leaning, and stooping:  for King Edward the Wizard showed a Child, a cloud drawn over his head.  Queen Mary, Ferro et Flamis:  Queen Elizabeth, Excellentissima:  King James, one coming over a river with the crown on his head, Infelix pacis amator."

April 4, Sab. day ..."I holp preach for my Master, [Mr. Parker] in the afternoon.  Being afraid to look on the glass [hour glass, timepiece, iow], ignorantly and unwillingly I stood two hours and a half."

On July 31, the young future Chief Justice tells of the death of a child in a house fire, then goes on to describe a dream that he had, of a visit to heaven, where he found a lovely room nicely furnished.  He wondered how the furniture got up to heaven from earth, lol.  This touches me, because I am also a dreamer, having had precognitive ones and other (very lucid), 'visits to heaven', etc.  I believe it is an indication of emotional sensitivity, intellectual inquisitiveness and perceptual acuity on the part of the Judge Sewall.  In other words, it speaks to his Humanity.

Afterwards he talks a lot about the battles of 'Philip's War'.  July 9, 10, &c... "This week Indians come in at Plymouth to prove themselves faithful, fetch in others by force:  among those discovered are some that murdered Mr. Clark's family: viz, two Indians:  they accuse one of them that surrendered to the English.  All three put to death."

Saturday, July 15... "Quaker marcht through the town, crying, "Repent, &tc."  After, heard of an hundred twenty one Indians killed and taken.  Note.  One Englishman lost in the woods taken and tortured to death."

Saturday Even. Aug. 12, 1676, just as prayer ended Tim. Dwight sank down in a Swoun, and for a good space was as if he perceived not what was done to him:  after, kicked and sprawled, knocking his hands and feet upon the floor like a distracted man.  Was carried pickpack to bed by John Alcock, there his cloaths pulled off.  In the night it seems he talked of ships, his master, father, and unckle Eliot.  The Sabbath following Father went to him, spake to him to know what ailed him, asked if he would be prayed for, and for what he would desire his friends to pray.  He answered, for more sight of sin, and God's healing grace.  I asked him, being alone with him, whether his troubles were from some outward cause or spiritual.  He answered, spiritual.  I asked him why then he could not tell it his master, as well as any other, since it is the honour of any man to see sin and be sorry for it.  He gave no answer, as I remember.  Asked him if he would goe to meeting.  He said, 'twas in vain for him; his day was out.  I asked, what day:  he answered , of Grace.  I told him 'twas sin for anyone to conclude themselves Reprobate, that this was all one.  He said he would speak more, but could not, &c.  Notwithstanding, all this semblance (and much more than is written) of compunction for Sin, 'tis to be feared that his trouble arose from a maid whom he passionately loved:  for that when Mr. Dwight and his master had agreed to let him goe to her, he eftsoons grew well.

Friday, Aug. 25... "I spake to Tim [Dwight] of this, asked him whether his convictions were off.  He answered, no.  I told him how dangerous it was to make the convictions wrought by God's spirit a stalking horse to any other thing.  Broke off, he being called away by Sam."

He discusses the many casualties in the battles between Native Indians and Colonists; his horses and riding; the Boston fire of November 27, 1676; and an incident wherein a foster child at their home was accidently struck on the head with a stick by his friend John Alcock, who'd somehow mistaken the boy for a stray dog that had been hanging around the kitchen door.  Sewall remarks that he was at first grieved that Alcock had hit the dog so hard, then realizing it was the child who'd gotten in the way, concluded that the Devil must have been angry that they'd taken the child into the shelter of their home.

He also talks about the constant religious conflicts, specifically about the "disorderly" nature of local Quaker and Anabaptist meetings.  Also about his resolve to marry, including his efforts to find and court a good, suitable woman.  He expresses remorse at becoming distracted from praying for the ailing Dr. Alcock, after having resolved to do so... "The Lord forgive me and help me not to be so slack for time to come, and so easy to disregard and let dye so good a Resolution [the resolve to pray for the man].  Dr. Alcock was 39 yeers old."  Shortly afterwards he made confessions to one of the Church elders.

March 22. 23... "Plenty of Rain after a great deal of dry and pleasant wether.  In the afternoon of the 23d, Seth and I gather what herbs we could get, as Yarrow, Garglio, &c."

He worries about his pregnant wife, who fell ill and gave birth to a sickly, weak baby (his son Hull, whom he describes many times having intermittent "convulsive fits" throughout his childhood); of other illnesses and deaths all around him (including his own bout with an ear infection); more battles with Indians, and encounters with "soldiers" and night watchmen (as he went to get the midwife for Hannah). speaks at length about religion and his love for God; his desire to join Mr. Thacher's church and to honorably receive the holy sacrament of communion.  I am often impressed by his genuinely forthright tone.

Thorsday, June 4th, Mr. Mather preaches from Isa. 14. 32. Doct. The Church of God shall stand and abide for ever.  Probably that N. E. Church shall doe so.  The 87th Psalm sung.  Mr. Stoughton and [Mr.] Dudley dine with us.  Mr. Stoughton inclines to take his Oath; Mr. Mather, Capt. Scottow and Capt. Gidney dine with us likewise.  This day the Chancery Bill is passed."

Monday, June 8... "This day Mr. Stoughton and [Mr.] Dudley come in, and in their places at Court in the afternoon, take their Oaths.

Friday, July 10 [He describes a violent storm that broke some panes out of his mother's window]... "Mr. Stoughton visits me and tells of the Court's Adjournment till next Tuesday Senight and then the Elders to meet them and advise.  Mr. Dudley and Mr. Bullivant visit me at the same time.  Mr. Stoughton also told me of George Car's Wife being with child by another Man, tells the Father, Major Pike sends her down to Prison.  Is the Governour's Grandchild by his daughter Cotton.

"Dr. Oates has been whipt and set in the Pillory... 'Tis for Perjury."

Friday, Augt. 28, 1685... "Mr. Foy arrives from London, about 8 weeks Passage, brings News of Argyle's being taken:  and of Monmouth's being in Arms in England, with Rumors of a great Engagement and 30 or 40,000 slain, which Solomon Raynsford told us at Dinner.  'Tis said there are Black Boxed sent to Mr. Stoughton, Dudley, Bulkly, and Wharton.  Many are clapt up in London, so that the Halls [of the Companies, e.g., Fishmongers, Plumbers, &c.] full."

Wednesday, 7: 9th... "Dined at Mr. Dudley's in Company of Counsellor Bond, Mr. Stoughton [etc.]... Mr. Hutchinson shewed me his Letter concerning his Mill at Piscataqua, wherein is sollicited to build a Fort, lest the Indians burn it.  When came home heard of a Body of Indians near Chelmsford, 3 or 400.  The Rumors and Fears concerning them do much increase.

"The Indians are near Albany:  Wonolanset brings the news to Chelmsford; and mistrusts of their mischievous Designs."

Tuesday, Septr. 15, 1685... "Mr. Barns tells me the Governour of Carolina is come to Town this day for his health:  is so weak that stumbled at a pebble and fell down.  Name, West.  Mr. Willard speaks to the 7th Comandment, condemns naked Brests:  and seems to be against the Marriage of First-Cousins."

Tuesday 7r 22. 1685... "Jno. Gardener came in late last night; this morning the News he brings runs throw the Town, viz. that James late D. [Duke?] of Monmouth was beheaded on Tower-Hill on the 15th. July last.  Argyle drawn, hanged and quartered.  Neighbor Fifield brought me the News, who had it from the Cryer of Fish...

..."This day Mr. Morgan, his Lady and Family arrive from Barbados intending to dwell here for some time.

"By the same Ship word is brought of the death of Mr. Henry Higginson of the Small Pocks."

Satterday, Oct: 17... "Yesterday Mr. Stoughton and Dudley were grossly abused on the Road by James Begelo [Bigelow] of Watertown, and others.  Begelo lay in Gaol all night, and to day bound over to the County Court first Tuesday in November..."

Novr. 3d... "James Begelo fined 10 pounds and Stebbin 5 pounds for their Abuses to Mr. Stoughton and Dudley.  To find Bond for good Behaviour till next Court, then Apear; Fees of Court, standing Comitted till performed.

Wednesday, Novr. 18... "Uncomfortable Court day by reason of the extream sharp words between the Deputy Governour and Mr. Stoughton, Dudley and Others..."

Thorsday, Nov; 19... "Mr. Mather Preached from Numb. 25. 11.  Shewed that Love was an ingredient to make one zealous:  those that received good People, received Christ, Mat. 25.  Said that if the Government of N. E. were zealous might yet save this People...

... "Mr. Stoughton and Dudley called here.  'Tis reported that a Frigot is to come yet before Spring with a Comission for a Governour here, upon the place:  Mr. Dudley is talked of and 'tis said Healths are drunk to the new Governour already, and were so Novr. 17. the day the Ship came in."

Tuesday Morn... "Mr. Mather's Maid, a Member of [blank] Church is brought to Bed of a Child.  Nothing suspected before that I hear of.  'Tis said He has turn'd her out of 's House."

Samuel Sewell's "Diary" clear depicts the dramas and joys of life in Massachussetts Bay Colony.  Life was pretty hard then, even for the aristocracy.  Deaths, accidents, illnesses, problems in childbearing and births, political and social intrigues, the weather, the daily business of Court, the struggles with the British Crown, Cotton Mather's sermons, family relations and ceremonies, gatherings, meetings, meals, even Sewall's many unusual dreams, are all brilliantly elucidated in his writing.

He mentions my cousin, William Stoughton, on a near daily basis; and Stoughton is almost always in the company of his closest friend, Joseph Dudley.  Stoughton's circle, including Sewall and Dudley, seemed very supportive and sympathetic to the Puritans and French Huguenots, too.  I believe they were all reasonably honorable, yet very ambitious men.

However, after the Salem Witch Trials (which naturally unknown to all parties involved, were probably triggered by some tainted, moldy rye -- containing the halucinogen ergo), Judge Sewall, whom I find a very admirably earnest soul, felt and expressed remorse for allowing certain types of unscientific, subjective evidence into the arguments... Something which sadly William Stoughton could not muster himself to admit.

I do think that it is remarkable though, that the American Witch Trials among the Protestants only lasted a few years, and not for several centuries as in Europe, with such unspeakably sadistic horrors of torture, persecution, and other abuses, that were committed by the Pope and the Catholic church.

But although Stoughton didn't humble himself enough to admit his errors during the initial trials of which he partook, he may have had some reticent feelings of guilt over it, which he may have tried to atone for in other ways.   He may have subsequently worked toward more religious tolerance and moderation.  According to Wikipedia:

"Religious and political differences between factions of directors at Harvard boiled into the open during the late 1690s. Increase Mather, then the president of Harvard, was theologically conservative, while a number of the directors had adopted moderate views, and in these years they began a struggle for control of the college.  This split eventually led to the founding in 1698 of Boston's Brattle Street Church, which issued a manifesto explicitly distancing itself from some of the more extreme Puritan practices advocated by Mather and his son Cotton.   Stoughton and a number of high profile religious and political figures in the colony stepped into the dispute to bring tempers down and reinforce the colony's position on religious tolerance.  The peace was so successfully brokered that the elder Mather took part in the new church's dedicatory services."


  1. "N.B." was an abbreviation for "note bene," Latin for "note well." Basically, a reminder that what followed was an important observation or fact.

    Good notes on Sewell. I came here after searching for remarks about an incident I remembered imperfectly, and you had good notes on it.

  2. Note bene (Latin) = note well; I must remember that, thank you very much. So much to learn, so little time; but our history is endlessly fascinating, imho. It's often challenging to understand the archaic language of the time, but very much worth the trouble anyway.