While I know some of the history of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible still pops up in my mind whenever I see the Trials referenced. For those not familiar with the play, The Crucible focuses on the accused and their accusers to show how revenge-based hysteria can destroy a community. Many other accounts of the Trials also tend to focus on the accusers and the accused to try and understand what really happened. Crane Pond by Richard Francis, however, centers on one of the judges who condemned accused witches to hang. This novel is based on the writings of Samuel Sewall, the only justice (as far as I know) to express regret for his actions during the panic of the Trials.
Because of Sewall’s writings, I think Crane Pond comes the closest to explaining how the mass hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials became a great injustice that politicians have later apologized for. The novel opens some months before the first trials occurred, allowing us to get a sense of Sewall as a person and a judge. Sewall was a leader in his Puritan community in Boston, well respected as a fair judge. In those opening chapters, we are also introduced to the Puritan mindset of a world in constant struggle between god and his elect against the devil and his forces. Sewall constantly tries to turn every day events into divine lessons (which sometimes involve impressive mental calisthenics). Sewall sees the world the way his fellow congregants do. This worldview, however, makes it possible for him to allow the shenanigans of the accusers (fainting, hallucinations, dreams, etc.) to be admitted as legal evidence.
Crane Pond has a long arc. At first, Sewall joins the group of five judges assigned to Salem Village to determine if there is witchcraft involved. To our modern eyes, it seems like the judges are far to willing to believe the accusers. They put the burden of evidence on the accused (mostly older, unconnected, and often cantankerous people) to prove that they are not witches. The insanity spreads until upwards of 300 people were accused of witchcraft and dozens were executed. Sewall is troubled, then disturbed at the way his fellow judges drive the accusations and panic until he feels that continuing to serve is a great sin. By the end of the book, as public opinion shifts away from the court and the accusers, Sewall is tormented by his guilt for voting in favor of execution for so many of the accused.
What fascinated me most about Crane Pond is the way that an intelligent man can bend his reason to believing that witchcraft exists (and that the devil can work retroactively in one astonishing episode). Further, that intelligent people can rack themselves into constant states of anxiety as they worry about the state of their souls and their destination after death. Sewall and his fellow Puritans never rest easy. Because Crane Pond illustrates this struggle so well, it is one of the best books I’ve ever read about the Salem Witch Trials. It captures something that gets lost in modern history books because, I think, one really has to spend time in a Puritan brain to truly understand their actions.