J is for Judges of the Salem Witchcraft Trials

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It is in our human nature to blame others for our own troubles, and the Puritans in New England were no different.  Numerous problems beset the Massachusetts Colony, and the community sought to uncover the cause of their plight. The contemporary thinking was that  God was angry with the Puritans and had sent Satan to test their faith.

God did indeed test the Puritans’ beliefs and convictions. The disastrous wars with the Native populations and the “Papist” French had taken their toll, not only with mounting causalities but also economic decline. Extreme weather, crop failure, increased taxes and inflation combined with an unstable government and uncertainty with a new governor.

The government, the military or merchants could have been held responsible for all of these problems. Doing so would have presented a “conflict of interest” because most of the judges were also wealthy merchants and governmental officials.  Several of the judges were leading investors and speculators in frontier lands made worthless because of wars with the French and their Wabanaki allies.  Sawmills owned by some of the judges were destroyed, resulting in huge financial losses. Surely, Satan was on the prowl, ready to consume the Puritans.

Their lives were intimately intertwined with one another’s prosperity through marriage and business.  The colonial economy relied on personal connections for credit, and it was prudent to extend one’s business network through family ties.

Nathaniel Saltonstall, one of the nine judges, left his position in the court in June 1692 after the conviction and execution of Bridget Bishop, the first of the accused to be heard in court. It may be that his dissent was not complicated by being related to his fellow justices.

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The new governor, William Phips, appointed who he considered to be esteemed and learned men to be judges on the Court of Oyer and Terminer. This group of Harvard-educated men were the colony’s leading magistrates. Thirty-eight people were in jail when the court was created and the number accused of witchcraft was growing daily. These zealous judges proceeded in their task with a zeal that resulted in twenty-four deaths and hundreds of shattered lives. 

Considering these tragic events, it is hard for historians to believe, but Governor Phips had carefully chosen these men and described them as “persons of the best prudence.” The tragic year described as a time when “we walked in the clouds and couldn’t see our way” and ended as abruptly as it began. Governor Phips decided that the court of Oyer and Terminer “must fail” when his own wife and other high-profile individuals were accused of witchcraft in the fall of 1692. A new court was formed with instructions to disregard spectral evidence.

John Hathorne, one of the Salem witchcraft judges, was a prominent merchant and politician who believed that Satan could use witches to work in opposition to the Christian church. He took the complaints and accusations of witchcraft very seriously and acted more as a prosecutor than an impartial judge. Hathorne appeared to presume the accused to be guilty from the start.

This testimony took place during the Bridget Bishop examination:

Hathorne: How do you know that you are not a witch?

Bishop: I do not know what you say. I know nothing of it.

Hathorne: Why look you, you are taken now in a flat lye.

His unethical moves accelerated the number of accusations by encouraging those under examination to not only confess to the crime of witchcraft but also name others who might also be witches.

His legacy was not a proud one. John Hathorne never admitted any wrongdoing or remorse over his part as a justice of this court. Nathaniel Hawthorne, his great-grandson and famous American author, was very critical of the role his grandfather played in the Salem Witchcraft Trials. He added a “w” in his last name to distance himself from his ancestor.

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Another chief justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer was William Stroughton, the newly appointed deputy governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A Harvard graduate, he first pursued the ministry but gave that career up for the life of a wealthy merchant in the 1660’s.

His goal was to eradicate witches from the colony.  Like Hathorne, Stroughton never apologized for his part in the trials after he returned to his life of political and financial prosperity.

Samuel Sewall was born in England in 1652 and moved to America at the age of nine. He obtained two degrees from Harvard College and married into one of the wealthiest families in the colonies. Sewall was appointed by the General Council to run the printing press, and he used this position to publish articles of his own to achieve greater notoriety.

Sewell’s diary provides valuable information about the Salem witch trials but reveals few reflections concerning his role. His wife, Hannah Hull Sewall, was the first cousin of the Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village. Parris was a controversial minister who was not accepted by many in his congregation. These dissenters were amongst the accused during the trials demonstrating a serious conflict of interest on Sewall’s part.

Four years after the trials, Sewall wrote a proclamation for a day of fast, penance, and reparation by the government for the sins of the Salem witchcraft trials. He publicly apologized for his role in the trials and stood while his expression of blame and shame was read aloud. From that day forward, Sewall set aside a day of fasting and prayer for forgiveness for his sins in the Salem trials. Sewall was the only judge to admit any wrongdoing during the Salem Witchcraft Trials.

Although Sewall achieved infamy in the Salem trials, he later received notoriety for his publication of The Selling of Joseph considered to be the first anti-slavery article published in the colonies. Sewall presented religious arguments which countered the prevailing views by many of his contemporaries.

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