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Caught in Satan’s Storm

On 22 September 1692 eight more victims of the Salem witch trials were executed on Gallows Hill. After watching the executions of Martha Cory, Margaret Scott, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Willmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, and Mary Parker, Salem’s junior minister Nicholas Noyes exclaimed “What a sad thing to see eight firebrands of hell hanging there.” These would be the last of the executions, for the trials were facing increasing opposition amid a growing dissatisfaction with the political and spiritual leadership of the colony. Symbolic of that displeasure, less than two months later Noyes’s cousin, Sarah Noyes Hale, the wife of Beverly’s Reverend John Hale, would stand accused of witchcraft.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer, created by Governor Sir William Phips to deal with the witchcraft crisis, increasingly mimicked the arbitrary rule of the former governor Sir Edmond Andros and his hated Dominion of New England. Andros restricted rights and controlled the legal system through his appointment of judges, officials and “packed and picked” juries that did his bidding. In 1687 when several Essex County towns rose up in a tax revolt, protesting what they saw as Andros’s arbitrary and illegal tax law, Sir Edmond acted quickly to try and convict the leaders before a specially established Court of Oyer and Terminer. One of the judges on that panel was William Stoughton, a former minister.

Now five years later, under a new government and royal charter that had supposedly restored English liberties to Massachusetts, William Stoughton headed another Court of Oyer and Terminer that was again making quick and arbitrary decisions. This time people were losing their lives. In a two week session in early September, the court heard 15 cases and convicted 15 people of witchcraft. It was a rush to judgment, especially when the evidence was not as strong as in earlier prosecutions. Judges increasingly relied on dubious spectral evidence, and many observers must have been taken aback by the treatment of Giles Cory. He had been pressed to death on 19 September for standing mute when asked if he would accept a trial by jury. Worse, no one who confessed to being a witch had been executed – with the exception of Samuel Wardwell, who recanted his confession. Only those who refused to confess met death.

The house built for Reverend John and Sarah Hale in 1694, in Beverly, Massachusetts. Today it is operated as a museum by the Beverly Historical Society. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.
The house built for Reverend John and Sarah Hale in 1694, in Beverly, Massachusetts. Today it is operated as a museum by the Beverly Historical Society. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.

The trials were but one failure of a weak government that continued to mismanage a war that had damaged the colony’s economy and threatened its very existence. The conflict against the French Catholics of Canada and their Native allies was also symbolic of the ongoing spiritual struggle in Massachusetts. Religious and political leaders had long called for a campaign for moral reformation to end the perceived decline of Puritan faith. The many accusations of witchcraft against the religious and political elite and their families show the extreme level of discontent at the failure of these policy makers.

A total of 20 people (11%) of the 172 formally accused or informally cried out on for witchcraft in 1692 were ministers or their close relatives. The number grows to 50 if one includes extended kin and in-laws of ministers – fully 30% of the people accused in 1692. In all, five ministers, four minister’s wives, three daughters, a son, two brothers and five grandchildren of ministers were cried out upon. Warrants were issued for only five of the twenty, and only two – George Burroughs and Abigail Dane Faulkner (daughter of Andover’s Reverend Francis Dane) would face the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

Burrough’s story is well known but historians have given little attention to Samuel Willard, Francis Dane, John Busse and Jeremiah Shepard, for none were ever formally charged. But they form an important part of an overlooked pattern of accusations against ministers and their families. Virtually all of the ministers who were accused or had family accused preached in New England churches that had accepted the Halfway Covenant – a controversial compromise that conservatives saw as a threat to Puritan orthodoxy.

These ministerial families were allied to each other by marriage, as can be seen in the example of Sarah Noyes Hale who was related to eight ministers. Her brother James would later be one of the seven ministers who founded Yale University. These families also married into the leading political families of the colony, so the accusations were a critique of the political and military leadership as well, including the witchcraft judges. And, the accusations went to the very top. Both Lady Mary Spencer Phips and Maria Cotton Mather were cried out upon. Clearly they served as stand-ins for their husbands – Governor Phips and his chief confidante, Reverend Increase Mather.

Maria Mather was the lynchpin connecting the two most important families of Puritan divines in Massachusetts. Her husband Increase was the President of Harvard College and the son of the prominent Reverend Richard Mather, while her father John Cotton was perhaps the leading Puritan theologian to join the Great Migration. Maria was also the sister of two ministers, sister-in-law of four more, and mother of Reverends Cotton and Samuel Mather. Increase and Cotton were both longstanding advocates of the Halfway Covenant but their conservative North Church had refused to accept it. During the trials, the Mathers were in the final stages of a campaign to get the North Church to adopt the Halfway Covenant. One of the few stalwart church members who stood in the way was Oyer and Terminer Judge John Richards.

The executions of 22 September were clearly the last straw for many observers of the witch trials. They generated opposition to the proceedings and the government, as well as accusations against the colony’s elite. It is notable that soon after his wife was cried out upon, Sir William Phips finally brought the Court of Oyer and Terminer to an end.

Headline image credit: Photo courtesy of Emerson “Tad” Baker.

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