Shortly after his wife died in 1717, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston, Massachusetts, confided to his diary that he was “Wandering in my mind whether to live a Single or a Married Life.” And well he might: since Puritan America frowned on the unmarried, a widow or widower usually hastened to recommit to a suitable companion. A proposal, in fact, might be offered within weeks, or even days, of a spouse’s death.
In Sewall’s case, thanks to his voluminous, minutely detailed diaries, we have an unusually complete record of one widower’s return to wedlock. Following a brief but unsuccessful overture to Widow Winthrop, Sewall entered serious negotiations with Widow Denison. On the day of Mr. Denison’s funeral Sewall had impulsively confided to his diary that he hoped “to keep house” with the widow. Their courtship was affectionate, but the pension of 250 pounds a year that offered her, should he die, was no match for the estate left by the late Mr. Denison – a portion of which she would forfeit if she remarried. With regret on both sides, the dalliance ended in the winter of 1718.
Success came at last to Sewall on Thanksgiving Day in 1719, when he married Widow Tilley. His bride, however, fell ill and died the following May. Single once again, the judge’s attention returned to Widow Winthrop. But she, having once “done very generously … in giving up her Dower” and stung, perhaps, by the judge’s earlier abandonment, was anything but encouraging. After months of persistent pursuit on his part and an unrelenting cold shoulder on hers, Sewall gave up the chase.
Following a flurry of interest in three more prospective mates, Sewall eventually proposed to Widow Gibbs. “Aged, feeble, and exhausted as I am,” he wrote to his intended, “your favourable Answer … much obliged.” Her reply, though favorable, was followed by some sharp prenuptial bargaining; but on April 1, 1722, the indefatigable suitor Sewall at last “sat with my wife in her pew.”
Taken from Reader’s Digest Rediscovering America’s Past – Customs, Legends, History & Lore of Our Great Nation 1993