Eve LaPlante ’80 pens study of a Salem witch judge

On childhood visits to her great-aunt Charlotte’s Cape Cod house, Eve LaPlante ’80 was regaled by her aunt, the family historian, with stories about their illustrious ancestors. With roots stretching deep into American history, their lineage boasted such figures as Louisa May Alcott and Col. Joseph May, the 19th-century founder of Massachusetts General Hospital. Also among the branches of the family tree were Anne Hutchinson, banished from Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1683 for her progressive theological interpretations, and Samuel Sewall, LaPlante’s direct ancestor and the only one of the Salem witch-trial judges to publicly recant his involvement.

While proud of the first two, LaPlante recalls that when she was a child the idea of being related to people like Anne Hutchinson and Samuel Sewall seemed shameful and embarrassing. “I particularly didn’t understand why Aunt Charlotte was so excited about a witch judge,” she says.

It wasn’t until years later when, as a freelance writer seeking potential subjects, she looked more closely at her family’s history that she began to understand just why it had fascinated her aunt. The result: American Jezebel: The Uncommon Life of Anne Hutchinson, the Woman Who Defied the Puritans, published in 2004 to critical acclaim.

LaPlante, an English major at Princeton, then turned to her other notorious relative, about whom she has written her latest book, Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall, published by HarperOne in October.

For LaPlante, it’s not what Sewall did during the Salem witch trials, but what he did after they concluded, that makes him remarkable. In 1692, Sewall was part of the court that convicted more than 100 people of witchcraft and sent 20 of them to the gallows. Then, in 1697, Sewall stood up in a packed New England meetinghouse and publicly repented.

“He realized he was wrong, and he just couldn’t live with that. He had to fix it,” LaPlante says. Bad weather, a food shortage, and the deaths of several of his children convinced Sewall, as LaPlante writes, “of God’s anger,” and after years of prayer and Scripture study, he saw his participation in the witch trials as a violation of “the laws of humanity and the laws of God.”

Not content with repentance, in the latter portion of his life, Sewall actively atoned for his sins. He penned America’s first abolitionist argument and became a proponent of the rights of Native Americans and of the equality of women — all deeds most likely related to his desire to make amends. “I think that, if the witch trials had not occurred, [his thoughts] wouldn’t have crystallized into these important works,” LaPlante says.

Using Sewall’s diary and primary sources, LaPlante, who lives in Massachusetts on land originally owned by Sewall, reconstructs an era as well as the workings of one man’s mind.

Though initially embarrassed by her infamous relative, LaPlante now sees how remarkable his strength of character really was, writing, “How American it is to claim, ‘I can judge right from wrong,’ and then to admit, ‘I was wrong.’”