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The Salem Witch Trial judges: “persons of the best prudence”?

On 27 May 1692, Sir William Phips, the newly appointed royal governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, appointed nine of the colony’s leading magistrates to serve as judges for the newly created Court of Oyer and Terminer. When Phips sailed into Boston from London on 14 May, there were already 38 people in jail for witchcraft, and the accusations and arrests were growing daily. One of the governor’s first official acts was to create this special court to deal with the growing crisis.

I have long wondered about the witchcraft judges and pondered their role in the proceedings. They were central characters in the unfolding drama, but they have received relatively little scholarly attention. Who were they and why did they behave as they did? Why were they hanging judges, who would execute nineteen people, cruelly press to death another, rather than fair and impartial arbiters of justice?

Given these results, it may seem hard to believe but Governor Phips carefully chose men he described as “persons of the best prudence.” They were wealthy merchants and high ranking militia officers. The chief justice was William Stoughton, the newly appointed deputy governor of the colony. He was from Dorchester, and was joined by four judges from neighboring Boston: Captain Samuel Sewall, Major John Richards, Major-General Wait Winthrop and Peter Sergeant. Three justices, Jonathan Corwin, John Hathorne and Colonel Bartholomew Gedney, came from Salem and as Essex County judges had already been involved in the crisis. The ninth member of the court, Colonel Nathaniel Saltonstall, lived in Haverhill, on the northern edge of Essex County.

Winthrop was the grandson of Governor John Winthrop, and the commander-in-chief of the Massachusetts militia that was losing a war on the northern frontier against the French and their Wabanaki allies. It was a conflict that had personally cost the judges dearly, for they were the leading speculators and investors in frontier lands. Collectively they owned thousands of acres that were now worthless. Sawmills owned by Sewall, Hathorne, Corwin, and Gedney had been destroyed, causing what today would be valued in millions of dollars of losses.

Site of Salem Witch Trials. In 1692 the Court of Oyer and Terminer met in the Salem Courthouse, which stood in the middle of what is now Washington Street.  Photo by Emerson W. Baker
Site of Salem Witch Trials. In 1692 the Court of Oyer and Terminer met in the Salem Courthouse, which stood in the middle of what is now Washington Street. Photo by Emerson W. Baker.

All nine were members of the Governor’s Council, and most of them had served as judges for many years. Many had even been on panels that had heard previous witchcraft cases. There were no lawyers in Massachusetts in 1692, but the judges were well educated. Five of the nine had attended Harvard, though only William Stoughton, Samuel Sewall and Nathaniel Saltonstall had graduated. At the time, Harvard existed primarily to train Puritan ministers, yet only one of these five — William Stoughton — had ever been a clergyman, and he had given that up to become a merchant more than thirty years earlier.

As the colony’s leading politicians, militia leaders, judges and merchants, these men had much in common. Yet, as I researched the judges, I discovered that their ties went beyond class interests, for six of the nine were actually related by marriage. In an economy that relied on personal connections for credit, merchant families regularly intermarried to extend their business networks.

Indeed, the judges took a break from the witch trials in September 1692 for a family wedding. John Richards married Ann Winthrop, the sister of Wait Winthrop. Wait and Ann’s sister Margaret had married into the Corwin family, whose members also had wedded into the Gedney, Sergeant and Hathorne clans. Hence, six of the nine judges were related by marriage. Samuel Sewall recorded the wedding in his diary and noted that none other than William Stoughton officiated. So, it is quite possible that all eight remaining judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer had been present at this wedding. Nathaniel Saltonstall had left the court in protest back in June, after the conviction and execution of Bridget Bishop, the first accused witch to face the court. Perhaps he felt the freedom to dissent in part because he was not related to any of his fellow members of the bench.

Though Samuel Sewall was not related to the other judges, his wife, Hannah Hull Sewall, was the first cousin of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village. Not only was the minister a central figure in the troubled and heavily factionalized village, his young daughter and niece were the first to be afflicted with witchcraft. Sewall’s relation to the afflicted helps to explain his willingness to rush to judgment and convict so many witches.

The other judges saw evidence of Satan’s work too, and were looking to convict and execute his minions. Was not the disastrous war against the “Papist” French and the “Heathen” Native Americans a clear sign that God was angry with the Puritans and had sent Satan into their midst to test their faith? There were other ominous signs as well: a perceived decline in spirituality, extreme weather resulting in crop failure, increased taxes combined with inflation and an economic downturn, and the uncertainty of a new charter and new governor.

The leading questions they asked, such as “what evil spirit have you familiarity with,” and “why do you hurt these children,” show the members of the Court of Oyer and Terminer abandoned the traditional impartiality of justices because it was clear Satan was loose, and their task was to round up his allies and save the Puritan “City upon a Hill.”

It is human nature for people to look for someone else to blame for their own problems. In 1692 the judges could have held the government, the military, or even the merchants responsible for the problems the colony faced. But, to do so implicated themselves and their class. Instead, it was far easier to blame Satan. And, now those Harvard men knew why God had changed their path from being pious clergymen to wealthy merchants. In 1692 when Massachusetts faced its greatest test, it was the judges, not the ministers who could save the colony. Sadly, the judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer undertook this task with a zeal that would result in the needless suffering and death of many innocent people.

Featured image: Photo courtesy of Emerson W. Baker.

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