William Stoughton started out as a theologian and a preacher, but after finding an interest in politics, he became an administrator in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He is best known as the official in charge of the Salem Witch Trials, being appointed Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692. At the trials, he accepted so-called “spectral evidence” based on the dreams and visions of the accusers. Unlike other magistrates, who later admitted that the consideration of such evidence might have been unfair, Stoughton defended his judgments as just.
In 1692, “the first hanging took place in June, the last in September; a stark, stunned silence followed,” wrote Stacy Schiff in her book The Witches. “What discomfited those who survived the ordeal was not the cunning practice of witchcraft but the clumsy administration of justice.”
Although the plays and films and TV series focus on hysteria of the community as witches were accused, Stoughton bears a great responsibility for the tragedy.
In 1650, after his graduation from Harvard College, Stoughton traveled to England and pursued his religious studies at New College, Oxford, intending to become a Puritan minister. He earned his Masters of Arts in theology in 1653. He was extremely religious and believed in the “Lord’s promise and expectations of great things.” He started preaching in the county of Sussex and did so until 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne and Stoughton lost his job during the repression of religious dissenters.
In 1662, the theologian returned to Massachusetts, where he preached on several occasions but didn’t want to take up a permanent post as a minister. His interest instead turned to land development and politics. Over the next three decades, he held many prestigious positions, befriending a number of influential figures who helped keep his career moving forward. Stoughton’s commissions for land acquisition were aided by his friend Joseph Dudley: When one of the friends was commissioned to a certain post, the other would work to judicially clear claims to the lands they were interested in.
In 1692, Massachusetts was awash with rumors that fed a collective hysteria that there were witches in the region, especially in and around the town of Salem. Stoughton was appointed as the leading figure to deal with the accusations. As the trials were about to start, he was promoted to the post of chief justice of the colonial courts. After the trials, he remained in the position for the rest of his life.
During the infamous Salem Witch Trials, the former preacher, as well as being chief judge, acted as a prosecutor. As pious as he was, one can only imagine how harsh he treated the defendants. For example, there was the case of Rebecca Nurse, a well-respected member of the community, married, with several children and grandchildren. Not only was Stoughton particularly hostile toward her, but he also sent the jury out to reconsider its not guilty verdict. Although his convictions were made on the basis of spectral evidence (not only against Nurse but all the accused), Rebecca Nurse was hanged.
At the end of 1692, Governor William Phips decided to reorganize the colony’s courts to conform with English practice. Therefore, the use of spectral evidence was to be disregarded. So, in 1693, Stoughton was still the chief justice in the new courts and started handling what was left of the witchcraft cases. This meant that even though he was unhappy with dismissing cases due to the lack of evidence, he still tried to convict at least all the suspected witches who in 1692 were exempted because they were pregnant. When Governor Phips overruled Stoughton’s sentence of execution for the women, the chief justice left the bench in protest.
During 1689, when King William’s War broke out, Governor Phips traveled regularly to Maine to oversee the colonial response to it. While he was absent, Stoughton was taking the responsibility for doing the same in Boston. In 1694, the governor was charged with misconduct and recalled to London. At first, he delayed his departure, but having finally landed in England in January 1695, Phips died shortly after from a fever, in February, before his hearing took place. During all this time, Stoughton tried to enjoy as much as possible the post of governor, and when Phips left, the chief justice became the acting governor.
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Stoughton acted as governor until his death in 1701, but by all accounts involved himself as little as possible in the affairs of the position. He never married, and he willed his acquired properties to his nephew, William Tailer, the son of Stoughton’s sister. He had a town named in his honor–the town of Stoughton, in Massachusetts.