Samuel Sewall (1652–1730) is the man with the bowed head in this picture. He has much to feel remorseful about. Amongst eight other judges, he’s sentenced nineteen innocent people to death for being witches in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692. When January 14, was established as a day of fasting and prayer for the sins of the witchcraft trials in 1697 Sewall took the chance to issue a formal apology. As Rev. Samuel Willard passed by his pew, he handed him a letter, rising as Willard read:
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 of this Day relates) he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, Desires to take the Blame and shame of it, Asking pardon of men, And especially desiring prayers that God, who has an Unlimited Authority, would pardon that sin and all other 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 vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving conduct of his Word and Spirit.
He was the only judge to make such an apology. Anne Putnam, one of the girls whose accusations set the whole madness off issued an apology some time later. The first paragraph of her apology tells us that it really wasn’t her fault – the devil made her do it – or tricked her into it. The second paragraph seems a little more contrite:
I desire to be humbled before God for that sad and humbling providence that befell my father’s family in the year about ninety-two; that I, then being in my childhood, should, by such a providence of God, be made an instrument for the accusing of serveral people for grievous crimes, whereby their lives was taken away from them, whom, now I have just grounds and good reason to believe they were innocent persons; and that it was a great delusion of Satan that deceived me in that sad time, whereby I justly fear I have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon myself and this land the guilt of innocent blood; though, what was said or done by me against any person, I can truly and uprightly say, before God and man, I did it not out of any anger, malice, or ill will to any person, for I had no such thing against one of them; but what I did was ignorantly, being deluded by Satan.
And particularly, as I was a chief instrument of accusing Goodwife Nurse and her two sisters, I desire to lie in the dust, and to be humble for it, in that I was a cause, with others, of so sad a calamity to them and their families; for which cause I desire to lie in the dust, and earnestly beg forgiveness of God, and from all those unto whom I have given just cause of sorrow and offense, whose relations were taken away or accused.