Judge Sewall’s Day of Penance

The man upon whose word witches were hanged
is sorry now and trades the bench for a pulpit,

confesses to a grave error made in Salem.

Almighty wrath becomes wrapped in the whispered
insistence of life and all its attendant bad luck;

two dead daughters feed the fever of his shame. ...

About the poem

This poem was published in the Hallow’s Eve 2018 special issue of Pussy Magic.

The poem was inspired by my research into the witch trials at Salem. Judge Sewall was responsible for the trial and execution of suspected witches in Salem. Later in his life, he had regrets about what he had done, and saw subsequent misfortune including the loss of his daughters, as divine retribution for his error. In response he held a day of penance once a year in an attempt to atone for what he had done.

What struck me about this was how much this gesture was too little, too late. The judges did have doubts throughout the trials but, believing in the divine and absolute authority of the court, couldn’t reverse the course of the trials without putting that authority into question. if the judges were wrong to pursue their hunt for witches after some had already died, it suggested that the court’s earlier decisions, which resulted in executions, were incorrect and that was unthinkable.

We may read about the Salem witch trials in history books, but the same dynamics at work across the world today. Powerful men cling to power, even if it means abandoning their humanity. These men, if they do ever concede a fault, often undertake a public show of ‘mea culpa’ which does more to elevate them than to offer any real sense of atonement or initiate any change. In the current climate, both Judge Sewall and his victims have much to tell us about how the world works - and how it doesn’t work for so many vulnerable to the implacable face of institutional authority.

The Witches: Salem, 1692
By Stacy Schiff