New England's Famous Witch-Hanging Judge

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On Tuesday night at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston chef Jeremy Sewall, of the restaurants LineageEastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar, and author Eve LaPlante spoke about their common ancestor: Judge Samuel Sewall, the man who presided over the Salem witch trials and who has come to be known as New England's hanging judge.

Not All Evil

Original account book kept by Samuel Sewall, 1652-1730. (Courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.)
Original account book kept by Samuel Sewall, 1652-1730. (Courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society)

Judge Sewall was LaPlante's sixth great grandfather. He oversaw a dark moment in New England history — hundreds were accused of witchcraft, 19 of whom were hanged. Despite the deaths, LaPlante said there is a lot to admire about Judge Samuel Sewall.

"He did this terrible thing, hanging innocent people and voting to hang them. But then he repented in public, which was a Puritan thing to do. Nobody else did it at the time; none of the other judges did it," she explained.

It didn't stop there. Judge Samuel Sewall took up a number of causes.

"He became an abolitionist in 1700 when it was routine to own slaves in Boston," LaPlante continued. "At the end of his life, he wrote what I consider the first feminist track in American history: a document stating that men and women are inherently equal, which was completely contrary to the view of the society at the time and even well into the 20th century."

Childhood Stories 

LaPlant is the author of "Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall." She grew up with her great aunt telling her laudatory stories about the judge.

"I thought it was the creepiest thing I ever heard because I didn't know why anyone would be interested in a Salem witch judge," LaPlante admitted.

It was only in adulthood, when LaPlante revisited the stories of her ancestors that she was told as a child, that she realized their value. She has since written three ancestor biographies, the second of which was "Salem Witch Judge."

Contrary to LaPlante, Jeremy Sewall didn't grow up knowing much about his multiply-great uncle Judge Samuel Sewall. But he did grow up surrounded by the surname.

"Around us was Sewall's Bridge, which was a historical bridge in York, Maine. My grandparents lived on Sewall's Hill. So we always had a sense of the name, but I didn't really have a connection to it," said Jeremy Sewall.

It was only as a teenager that Jeremy Sewall became invested in his ancestry. "I remember being in high school and being forced to read 'The Crucible' -- and Judge Samuel Sewall's name was in there, and that's when I really took an interest in it."

His grandmother, who was a librarian and a teacher, kept a detailed genealogy and had a strong fascination with the Sewall history, and it was she who passed down many of the family stories.

Distant Relatives Meet

Generations later, LaPlante and Jeremy Sewall managed to meet and a collaboration was born.

"I knew his name was Sewall, and I knew his restaurant Lineage is next to Sewall Avenue," LaPlante recalled. "I said to my husband, 'We have to meet this guy' because I was in the midst of writing 'Salem Witch Judge.'"

"[Jeremy] started cooking some of the foods that Samuel Sewall wrote about and loved. There are a lot of funny foods that Sewall raves about in his diary — he wrote a lot about what he ate," LaPlante said.

Favorite Foods Of A Forefather

Original account book kept by Samuel Sewall, 1652-1730. (Courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society)
Original account book kept by Samuel Sewall, 1652-1730. (Courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society)

"He talked about chocolate and different things that he would drink," Jeremy Sewall said of Judge Samuel Sewall's writings. "He'd hold court as judge in pubs. He loved a pint of beer and things like that — so I knew we were related."

Jeremy Sewall eventually put modern versions of food and drink inspired by the judge on the menu at Lineage. One of the cocktails was named Sewall's Punch; it was a variation of the classic syllabub, a mixture of cream and sherry, which the judge wrote about often. (You can find the recipe below.)

"We called it something else because syllabub doesn't sound very good on a menu," Jeremy Sewall joked.

Judge Samuel Sewall was a wealthy man, and his table was evidence of it.

"The typical nice meal, a feast, for him would probably include fish (fresh or salted), roasted meats, a stew of cauliflower, carrots and peas, wine or ale," LaPlante explained. "At the end, there would be syllabub, a custard, expensive sugared almonds and probably (if they could get it) some chocolate from Mexico."

The Legacy Of Property

LaPlante pointed out that many modern streets in Boston are named for Judge Samuel Sewall, who owned much of what is now Brookline. In fact, all of Jeremy Sewall's restaurants are in areas of the city once owned by his ancestor.

"I saw Sewall Street and Samuel Sewall Inn [in Brookline]. My wife and I did some research and found out that he owned probably where Lineage is now. Years ago we said, 'How are we going to work the family lineage into the restaurant?' And my wife's like, 'We're going to name it Lineage,' and it just kind of fell into place."

An Ill Fitting Reputation?

LaPlante felt that  Judge Samuel Sewall shouldn't have a wholly negative reputation in New England. She reiterated two of the his major accomplishments.

"I think he's recognized for having written the abolitionist document — really, the first public statement against slavery. That was in 1700. It was called 'The Selling of Joseph.' I think he has not been fully acknowledged for his early stance on equal rights between men and women. That document just fell between the cracks and there was no copy in the world. "

Jeremy Sewall agreed, "Maybe on the surface he takes a lot of heat for being a judge on the Salem witch trials. If you look at the man's life and what he did and repented — overall, I think he's a pretty interesting, historical figure that we just happen to be related to."



  • Book excerpt from "Salem Witch Judge": Samuel Sewall loved the Hebrew psalms and described singing Psalm 21. (PDF)
  • Inspired menu: Salem Witch Judge menu at Lineage Restaurant (PDF)

Syllabub Recipe

Makes one drink.

  • 2 cups white wine
  • 5 tablespoons grated lemon peel (rind)
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 3 cups milk
  • 2 cups light cream
  • 4 egg whites
  • 1 1/2 cup sugar, divided
  • nutmeg
  • splash of sherry

Combine wine, lemon rind and juice.

Stir in 1 cup of the sugar and let stand until sugar dissolves.

Combine milk and cream. Add wine mixture and beat with a rotary beater until frothy.

Beat egg whites until stiff. Add remaining 1/2 cup sugar — a little at a time — beating constantly until whites stand in peaks.

Pour wine mixture into punch bowl, top with puffs of egg white and sprinkle whites with nutmeg.

This segment aired on October 17, 2012.


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