The Court of Oyer and Terminer

After a month of arrests William Phipps, the new Massachusetts governor, and Boston minister Increase Mather arrived from England with a new provincial charter for the colony (see Chapter 3). On June 2, 1692, Phipps created the Court of Oyer and Terminer (an Old French language term for "To hear and determine"). This court was composed of Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, Nathaniel Saltonstall, Bartholomew Gedney, Peter Sergeant, Samuel Sewall, Wait Still Winthrop, John Richards, John Hathorne, and, later, Johnathan Corwin. Only Hathorne and Gedney were local people, while the rest of the men came from Boston and Dorchester. All were widely experienced magistrates, and Phipps hoped they would be far enough removed from local tensions to preside over the trials in an objective manner. To the contrary, however, these judges brought their own prejudices and fears about witches, which would surface throughout the hearings.

By this time seventy people were scattered in various jail cells waiting to go to trial. Bridget Bishop (see biography entry) was the first to be tried at the new court of Oyer and Terminer. The seventy-year-old wife of local sawmill owner Edward Bishop, she had faced accusations of witchcraft several decades earlier. The trial itself was mainly a rehashing of earlier evidence and accusations, which would be typical in the trials to follow. Several neighbors claimed that Bishop had murdered local children, while others testified that her specter had been taunting them for quite some time. The most damaging evidence came from two men who had helped her rebuild a portion of her cellar wall, where they claimed to have found witch's puppets made of rags and boar's bristles. As reprinted in Early American Writing, by Giles Gunn, Boston minister Cotton Mather (see biography and primary source entries) noted in his diary that "There was little occasion to prove the witchcraft, this being evident and notorious [obvious] to all beholders." In other words, Bishop was considered guilty long before she could plead her innocence. She was sentenced to death by hanging, but a legal hitch stood in the way of the Salem courts: at this time Massachusetts no longer had a death penalty for the crime of witchcraft. On June 8 the Massachusetts General Court reinstated the old colonial law that had named witchcraft a capital offense to be punishable by death. Thus the way was cleared for the execution of witches.

Bridget Bishop was the first accused witch to be hanged, on June 10, 1692.

Reproduced by permission of Brown Brothers, Ltd.

On June 10 Bishop became the first accused witch to be hanged in Salem Town. Her execution led to the resignation of magistrate Nathaniel Saltonstall. Frightened by the prospect of attracting negative attention to himself, he quietly left the bench and simply said that the girls' fits and spectral evidence were not good sources for primary evidence. Saltonstall reportedly became a raging drunkard from then on, living the rest of his life in guilt and shame over his involvements in Bishop's sentence. He was replaced by Johnathan Corwin.

As a result of Bishop's hanging and the resignation of a magistrate, Phipps sent a plea for guidance on the issue of spectral evidence to a council of twelve Puritan ministers that included both Increase Mather and his son Cotton. The council urged the courts to act swiftly to remove the threat of witches from the area, but also cautioned them to consider the possibility that Satan may be trying to trick them. Writing for the council, as quoted in The Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather observed:

We judge that in the prosecution of these, and all such witchcrafts, there is a need of a very critical and exquisite caution, lest by too much credulity for [belief in] things received upon the Devil's authority there be a door opened for a long train of miserable consequences, and Satan get an advantage over us . . . nevertheless, we cannot but humbly recommend unto the government the speedy and vigorous prosecution [of all witches].

The council of ministers further recommended that the courts disallow the testimony of those who had confessed to witchcraft, limit the use of spectral evidence, and discourage outbreaks of fits among the girls during a trial. This last recommendation resulted in a split between the ministers and the magistrates. The magistrates felt too limited by these new guidelines. The ministers were reluctant to oppose the courts, so their decisions remained weak at best. The ministers could have put a stop to the trials by barring the girls from the courtroom altogether, but their reluctance to anger the judges kept the same basic rules in place. The girls' visible tortures therefore remained the primary source of evidence.

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Responses

  • Rev. Alicia L Folberth
    The Witch Trials in the New World began in Connecticut, not Danvers/Salem so a big portion of this story has not been included <a href="http://www.cga.ct.gov/2006/rpt/2006-R-0718.htm" >http://www.cga.ct.gov/2006/rpt/2006-R-0718.htm</a>
    7 years ago
  • otho
    When did nathaniel saltonstall resign from the court of oyer and terminer?
    5 years ago
  • James
    Why did nathenial saltonstall resign from the court of oyer and terminer?
    3 years ago

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