31 October 2009

Samuel Sewall: Salem witch judge

Samuel Sewall by Smybert
Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) was a devout Puritan, a Boston merchant, and a magistrate who was actively engaged in his community. The reason we know so much about him was that for most of his life he kept a diary. He detailed the sermons of the day, his travels, his mercantile interests, politics, deaths, and private musingsthe minutiae of life in colonial America. But oddly enough, he wrote very little about being one of the nine judges that made up the Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts.

Sewall received a Master’s degree in Divinity from Harvard College in 1674, but never became a minister like many of his classmates. Perhaps it’s because in order to become a member of the Puritan church, he had to tell the congregation of a personal conversion, an experience that proved God’s saving grace. Apparently, Sewall believed the more dramatic, the better. He had religious doubts and overcame them, rather than experiencing a change, a leap of faith. Although he became a “visible saint,” with church membership and full communion, he didn’t always feel worthy of the status.

He also believed, like other Puritans did, that bad things happen to show God’s displeasure. It was personal, between man and God. The death of his young son Henry, Sewall believed, was God’s punishment to him as a parent. Since Sewall had 14 children, and only six survived childhood, he had a lot of guilt for earning God’s wrath.

Sewall believed in the existence of witches and probably heard from some Puritan ministers that witches were being used by the Devil to destroy the Puritan church. Even though the witch trials ended in 1693, calamities continued to strike at Sewall and the colony. And for that, the Massachusetts government decided to hold a public day of fasting and prayer in 1697. On that day, Sewall publicly repented for his role as a Salem witch judge and asked God to stop punishing him for it.

The minister of the Third Church in Boston read Sewall’s confession to the congregation. “Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family and being sensible that as to the guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem (to which the order for this day relates), he is, upon many accounts more concerned than any he knows of, and desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all other of his sins, personal and relative, and according to His infinite benignity and sovereignty, not visit the sin of him, or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land. But that He would powerfully defend him against all temptations to sin, for the future; and to vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving conduct of His word and spirit.”

Today, we remember Sewall as the Salem Witch Judge, not because he was an active and vocal member of the court
like William Stoughton and John Hathornebut because of his confession. Twelve jury members also confessed their guilt on this day, but none of the other judges did. Sewall would have hated the moniker Salem Witch Judge, but it was just one more thing he would have to bear, much like the hair shirt Sewall's descendants claimed he wore for the rest of his life to remind him of his guilt in sending innocent people to their deaths.

For further reading:

Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall by Eve LaPlante

Judge Sewall's Apology: The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of an American Conscience by Richard Francis

20 October 2009

Massachusetts 1865 state census index and images online

Federal censuses are great tools for finding families at a given time and place, especially when vital records are not available. Some states, such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island, also created their own state censuses for representation purposes midway between federal census dates.

On May 1, 1865, Massachusetts conducted its state census, encompassing 95% of all people living in the Commonwealth. Thanks to the volunteers at FamilySearch, the census index and images are now online. And access is free.

According to the index, there are 5,600 people surnamed Smith in the 1865 Massachusetts census. To make the results more manageable, you can filter your search by first name, gender, event type, and place. For easy access to information, roll your mouse over a name to get a pop-up window detailing name, age, estimated birth year, gender, race, birthplace, marital status, and residence. Click on the name so a split-screen appears. From there, you can copy, print, or share the personal indexing information or view the census image. The images can be resized, rotated, inverted, saved, and printed. You also can browse census pages.

1865 Massachusetts state census search

1855 Massachusetts state census search

19 October 2009

Recording the Salem witch trials

Although parts of the Salem witch trial papers appeared in various printed forms (such as Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World), it wasn’t until the 1930s that the government-run Works Progress Administration (WPA) program transcribed the entire collection. To make the work more accessible, in 1977 Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum published the WPA transcriptions as a three-volume The Salem Witchcraft Papers (often referred to as SWP).

In 2009, Cambridge University Press published the Records of the Salem Witch-Hunt based on the original 17th-century documents. Bernard Rosenthal and his team of 11 editors—historians, linguists, handwriting specialists, a religious scholar, and an archivist—not only corrected serious transcription errors and added newly found documents, they finally put the papers in chronological order. And, as part of the process, the editors discovered more than 250 different people wrote sections of the witchcraft papers—everything from arrest warrants to trial verdicts—based on handwriting analysis, word usage, and phraseology.

So, we have 150 accused witches jailed, 250 court recorders, nine judges, members of the various juries, witnesses, and countless spectators. The numbers give us an overwhelming sense of how many people were intimately involved with some part of the witch-hunt and trials.

With all these active participants, it makes you wonder who was taking care of hearth and home, as well as the farm animals, crops, and businesses. How did the witch trials affect the everyday life of your 17th century ancestors?

03 October 2009

Spelling variations in records

In many languages, dictionaries have existed for centuries but it wasn’t until 1604 that the first English dictionary, A Table Alphabeticall, was written by schoolteacher Robert Cawdrey. Only one copy exists, at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, England, so it probably wasn’t in widespread use. Other dictionaries followed, but it wasn’t until Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language (1755), that spelling became more standardized.

It’s no surprise that surnames also lacked standardization. I’ve seen documents where a surname was written one way in the beginning and changed somewhere in succeeding paragraphs, or the signature didn’t match the previous paragraphs. Sometimes clerks phonetically interpreted the sounds of a name. Sometimes handwriting or signatures were illegible or hard to read.

Sometimes surnames changed over time. For example, the How family who in 1707 built the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts, eventually added an E to their name, making it Howe. (Perhaps they didn’t want their surname confused with the word “how”?) Purportedly, author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) added the W to his name to disassociate himself with his hanging judge ancestor, John Hathorne (1641-1717).

Sometimes names show up in various ways in early records. John Jepson (1610-1688) and his family are known in early Boston records as Jepson, Jephson, Jebson, Jipson, Gipson, and Gypson. However, in one published record he’s listed as John “Gibson” when he and his wife Emm were admitted as members to the First Church of Boston in 1670. It’s only one record, but that misspelling caused me to do many hours of research on what was really the Jepson line!

Always record the variable spelling in your notes. Keep a list of the different spellings you find to make it easier to check variations in indexes, databases, and documents.