Who hasn’t heard about the Salem witch trials? It’s one of the darkest moments in early American history, a grim event where more than 200 people were accused of practicing the “devil’s magic,” out of which 19 were hanged on Gallows Hill and an elderly man was stoned to death.
Today, it is well known that this witch hunt was born out of pure paranoia. The belief that the devil's magic had spread across Salem began after the daughter and niece of a local minister, Samuel Parris, were taken ill by an unknown disease. Since doctors were unable to pinpoint the causes for this illness, the only explanation they could come up with stemmed from their puritanical mindset and this turned out to be witchcraft. Rumors spread like wildfire and people grew suspicious of all those who were different. Fingers started to be pointed at unsuspecting people and a craze of blaming everyone deemed suspicious gained traction in the community.
But who was in charge of these trials? Who would allow such madness to spread?
His name was William Stoughton, and he was the vindictive mastermind beneath the severe punishments of the witchcraft trials that would one day become one of the darkest stains in American history.
It is unknown when this man, son of two wealthy English settlers in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, was born. Raised befitting his position in society, he managed to get one of the best educations available. He studied theology at Harvard College and then continued his studies at the University of Oxford in England. Upon his return to New England, Stoughton pursued a career in politics, a career he would excel at until his death. When he was appointed the position of Chief for Special Courts of Oyer there was no turning back, he would take control of the witchcraft cases that fell on his lap. Stoughton exerted his power ruthlessly, as if he were trying to violently purge the town from this malevolent influence. Perhaps, he thought that his position had to be held with an iron fist to strengthen the Puritan law in the area, or maybe his theological education didn’t allow him to see beyond the mass hysteria that had taken over Salem. There's also the possibility that he wanted to consolidate his political career by doing an effective and ruthless job at eradicating witchcraft. Whatever the case, he was brutal. He shined suspicion upon anyone who crossed the threshold of the courthouse and he allowed mass hysteria to run its course through this sleepy town.
Out of all the trials that he presided, Stoughton issued the death penalty based on what was known as “spectral evidence,” and he even influenced other judges to do the same. But what's spectral evidence, anyway?
It was the practice of using visions and dreams as evidence in a trial. This type of evidence was provided by a witness and while discouraged, it was still seen as trustworthy enough to be considered in deciding a conviction. It is based on the idea that if the devil appeared as a person in a vision, then the person whose shape the devil had taken had to be in cahoots with the demon. Absolutely subjective and silly, isn’t it? But still, it was widely believed and accepted.
This was the perfect tool to use of you disliked someone and wanted them to disappear. By simply saying you had seen the person take the shape of the devil you were painting a big red target on their backs. Scapegoats became the norm and the weakest people in the community became easy prey.
Stoughton fully believed in all of these testimonies and he saw them as crucial in his quest to eradicate the evil that had taken over Salem. He was merciless and overzealous and the perfect example of this was during the trials of Rebecca Nurse. Rebecca was a 70 year old woman who had been acquitted of witchcraft and yet Stoughton believed she was guilty and he ordered another trial to take place. In this second deliberation Rebecca, who was nearly deaf, was asked about her relationship with one of the accused witches. Given that she couldn't hear, she remained silent and this sparked suspicion in the court. She was tried and convicted of witchcraft and shortly after her trial she was hanged, a tragic situation as she had been known as one of the most pious women in the community.
By the end of the year, the governor of Massachussets, Sir William Phips, decided to reorganize the courts and forbid the use of spectral evidence. After this measure, only three more defendants out of 56 were condemned for witchcraft. This decision didn't put a stop to Stoughton's quest for justice, a few months later, he ordered the women who had been spared during the trials due to pregnancy to be hanged. Phips deferred the order, and while Stoughton disliked the idea, he eventually had to come to terms with it. After the Salem trials, other judges such as Samuel Sewall apologized for using spectral evidence, as it instigated hysteria and many unncessary deaths.
Stoughton, however, never regretted his verdicts.
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