William Stoughton Leads the Trials

Salem Witch Trials, 1692

Who is William Stoughton?

William Stoughton was born on September 30th, 1631, in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Stoughton earned a degree of theology from Harvard College and a M.A. from Oxford. Two years afterwards he became a preacher in a Dorchester church. Later on, Stoughton became a politician from 1674 to 1676 and 1680 to 1686. Although he had no legal education, he was the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s Chief of Justice from 1674 to 1683.

The Beginning of a Disaster

When the Witch Trials began, William Phips, the Governor of Massachusetts, appointed him Chief of Justice to the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which means “to hear and determine.” Stoughton allowed many devastations during the Witch Trials. He allowed spectators to interrupt procedures, judges and accusers to have private conversations, and he did not give the accused defense counselors. Stoughton also used spectral evidence, which is the claim that demonic visions could take the appearance of someone had either cast witchcraft, or someone who had signed the devil's book.

Courtroom Cruelty

Stoughton was also very harsh in the court. He was particularly cruel in the case of Rebecca Nurse, a 71-year-old grandmother who was sick in bed. Stoughton deliberately sent the jury back because they gave Rebecca the verdict of not guilty. Afterwards they changed the verdict to guilty. Stoughton had also prosecuted Sarah Good, a homeless beggar with two children, a baby, and her a four-year-old daughter, Dorcas, who was the youngest accused witch. He also convicted 19 people to death by hanging, 1 man to be pressed to death, and many more to die in prison.

The End of the Disaster

When William Phips began to end the Salem Witch Trials on October 8th, 1692, Stoughton was furious. On January 3rd, 1693, Stoughton ordered the execution of all the witches who were exempted due to their pregnancies, but Phips denied it because his wife was one of the exempted. When this happened, Stoughton decided to leave Salem. Even though he was included in this horrible event, Stoughton suffered little political damage, and became acting governor in 1694. William Stoughton died on July 7th, 1701, at age 61, and although many of the people included in this disaster had apologized for what they had done, Stoughton had died believing he had done the right thing by “riding the world of witches.”