Imagine, if you will, a hot New England summer in the year 1702. It’s August in Massachusetts, and the humidity is oppressive. You’re a subsistence farmer in the small agricultural town of Wenham, on the post road between Newbury and Boston. It’s time to harvest the flax, and the sun is blazing down on your field, blazing down on you. It’s far too hot today to take on work this hard, but it must be done. From flax comes linen, a valuable textile.
As you begin to pull the flax under the unyielding heat of the sun you think, “No one’s around. What if I just shimmy out of these clothes? Who is to see? Who is to care?”
And so you do. You are alone.
Time grinds by, the sun grows higher, you bend low, you pull flax. You sweat, your naked limbs ache, you bend low, you pull flax. Your muscles burn, your hands bleed, you bend low, you pull flax.
After a good while you pause in your labors, stretch up to your full height to relieve the unbearable strain on your back and directly in front of you, you see:
You start, and he stares at you, agog, from atop his horse.
It all takes a moment to register, and perhaps you’re a bit dazzled by the sun, but then the sickening drop in your stomach confirms that you know this man. It is Judge Samuel Sewall of Salem, of witchcraft trials fame. He is a frequent guest of your pastor in Wenham, Reverend Gerrish. And his face is quickly turning a garish, arterial shade of crimson.
You look down. You are utterly naked, covered in flax stalks and dirt. You feel an errant bead of sweat travel slowly down your shirtless chest and lodge in the muddy cup of your uncovered navel.
“Goddamn it,” you mutter, and the flushing judge, apoplectic, opens his mouth to speak.
(At least, that’s how I imagine this entry in Judge Sewall’s diary from August 11th, 1702 came about:)