Our ancestors, noted below by Bold CAPITALS, played every role in the 17th Century Witch Trials: Accused, Accuser, Witness, Neighbor, Jury and the Law. Seeing all their stories together, shows that the witch trials weren’t an isolated incident. Since all the players were family, the message I get is that everyone in their society was responsible for what happened.
It is generally accepted that the Salem trials were one of the defining moments that changed American jurisprudence from the English system of “guilty, ’til proven innocent” to the current American system of “innocent until proven guilty”. In addition, the jury pool in trials was changed from “church-members only” to “all those who have property” in an act which was passed by the General Court on 25 Nov 1692. Finally, these cases caused Americans to take their first steps away from what we now know as “cruel & unusual punishment” when trying to get someone to confess. It had been a staple of the English legal system, but after 1692 even Cotton Mather urged judges to use “Crosse and Swift Questions” rather than physical torture to gain the truth. These were three significant changes to the nascent American legal system. In May of 1693, Governor Phips pardoned the remaining accused of witchcraft.
Stoughton was in charge of what have come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials, first as the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692, and then as the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693. In these trials he controversially accepted spectral evidence (based on supposed demonic visions). Unlike other magistrates, he never admitted to the possibility that his acceptance of such evidence was in error.
In 1692, when Increase Mather and Sir William Phips arrived from England carrying the charter for the new Province of Massachusetts Bay and a royal commission for Phips as governor, they also brought one for Stoughton as lieutenant governor.
When Phips arrived, rumors of witchcraft were running rampant, especially in Salem. Phips immediately appointed Stoughton to head a special tribunal to deal with accusations of witchcraft, and in June appointed him chief justice of the colonial courts, a post he would hold for the rest of his life. In the now-notorious Salem Witch Trials, Stoughton acted as both chief judge and prosecutor. He was particularly harsh on some of the defendants, sending the jury deliberating in the case of Rebecca Nurse [daughter of our ancestor William TOWNE and sister of Mary Towne ESTEY] back to reconsider its not guilty verdict; after doing so, she was convicted. Many convictions were made because Stoughton permitted the use of spectral evidence, the idea that a demonic vision could only take on the shape or appearance of someone who had made some sort of devilish pact or engaged in witchcraft. Although Cotton Mather argued that this type of evidence was acceptable when making accusations, some judges expressed reservations about its use in judicial proceedings. Stoughton, however, was convinced of its acceptability, and may have influenced other judges to this view. The special court stopped sitting in September 1692.
In November and December 1692 Governor Phips oversaw a reorganization of the colony’s courts to bring them into conformance with English practice. The new courts, with Stoughton still sitting as chief justice, began to handle the witchcraft cases in 1693, but were under specific instructions from Phips to disregard spectral evidence. Because of this, a significant number of cases were dismissed due to a lack of evidence, and Phips vacated the few convictions that were made. This turn of events angered Stoughton, and he briefly left the bench in protest. Historian Cedric Cowing suggests that Stoughton’s acceptance of spectral evidence was based partly in a need he saw to reassert Puritan authority in the province.
Deacon William FISKE (1643 – 1728), Joseph BATCHELLER’s son John (1638 – 1698) and Daniel WARNER’s son-in-law John Dane (1645 – 1707) were on the Jury during the witchcraft cases in Salem. They signed a Declaration of Regret asking forgiveness for the error of their judgement.
“We whose names are under-written, being in the year 1692 called to serve as jurors in court at Salem, on trial of many who were by some suspected guilty of doing acts of witchcraft upon the bodies of sundry persons, we confess that we ourselves were not capable to understand, nor able to withstand, the mysterious delusions of the powers of darkness and Prince of the air, but were, for want of knowledge in ourselves and better information from others, prevailed with to take with such evidence against the accused, as, on further consideration and better information, we justly fear was insufficient for the touching the lives of any (Deut. xvii) whereby we fear we have been instrumental, with others, though ignorantly and unwittingly, to bring upon ourselves and this people of the Lord the guilt of innocent blood; which sin the Lord saith in Scripture he would not pardon (2 Kings xxiv. 4)–that is, we suppose, in regard to his temporal judgments. We do therefore hereby signify to all in general, and to the surviving sufferers in special, our deep sense of, and sorrow for, our errors in acting on such evidence to the condemning of any person; and do hereby declare, that we justly fear that we were sadly deluded and mistaken–for which we are much disquieted and distressed in our minds, and do therefore humbly beg forgiveness, first of God, for Christ’s sake, for this our error, and pray that God would impute the guilt of it to ourselves nor others, and we also pray that we may be considered candidly and aright by the living sufferers, as being then under a strong and general delusion, utterly unacquainted with, and not experienced in, matters of that nature.
“We do hereby ask forgiveness of you all, whom we have justly offended, and do declare, according to our present minds, we would none of us do such things again, on such grounds, for the whole world–praying you to accept of this in way of satisfacton for our offense, and that you would bless the inheritance of the Lord, that he may be entreated for the land.”
Thomas Fisk, Foreman
John Bacheler (son of Joseph BACHELER)
John Dane (Son-in-law of Daniel WARNER)
Thomas Pearly, Sr.
Henry Herrick, Sr.
Jury foreman Capt. Thomas Fiske and Deacon William Fiske were third cousins once removed; Capt. Thomas Fiske, jr., and Deacon William Fiske were fourth cousins;
Many genealogies state that Robert Paine Jr. (1627 in Newton, Suffolk, England – d. Dec 1693 in Ipswich, Essex, Mass ) , the grandson of William PAYNE, was the foreman of the Grand Jury that found all the indictments for witchcraft at Salem. However, as far as I can tell, he became foreman in Jan 1693 and only returned findings of “Ignoramus [The legal definition of this word is uninformed. It is written on a bill by a grand jury, when they find that there is not sufficient evidence to authorize their finding it a true bill. Sometimes, instead of using this word, the grand jury endorse on the bill, “Not found.”]
Sarah Bassett, like so many of her neighbors, was accused of being a witch in 1692. She was tried at Salem on 21 May 1692 and imprisoned in Boston until 3 Dec 1692. Sshe gave birth to her son, Joseph, on 15 Dec. In addition, she took her 22-month old child (probably Ruth) with her to prison. She named her next daughter “Deliverance” in honor of her freedom. In 1693, she was recompensed a whopping £9 for her experience.
Indictment v. Sarah Bassett
Province of the Massachusetts Bay in New England Essex \ Ano RR & Reginae Gulielmi & Mariare Angliae &c Quarto Anoq’e\Dom. 1692.
The Jurors for o’r Sov’r lord & Lady the King & Queen pr’sent The Sarah Bassett wife of William Bassett of Lyn in the County of Essex aforesaid Upon or about the 23’rd day of May last Anno:
And Divers other Days & Times as well before as after Certaine Detestable Arts Called Witchcraft & Sorceries Wickedly Mallitiously & felloniously hath used practised & Exercised at & in the Towne of Salem, in the County of Essex aforesaid Upon & Against One Mary Walcott of Salem Single Woman By Which Wicked Arts The Said Mary Walcott is Tortured aflicted Tormented Consumed Wasted & Pined the Day & yeare aforesaid & Divers other Days & times as well before as Contrary to the peace of o’r Sov’r lord & lady the King & Queen their Crowne & Dignity & the Laws in that Case made & provided.
Robert Payne foreman
Salem Court 3 Jan 1693
Sarah Cloyes,, daughter of William TOWNE, her two sisters, Rebecca Nurse and Mary ESTEY already having been hung, was examined in the early part of the trials in January of 1693. The three indictments against Sarah Cloyes are all legal forms written in the same clerkly hand. They are for having performed witchcraft on the body of Abigail Walcott in April and for having performed witchcraft on the body of Abigail Williams during that month. The third indictment is for a much later date. It is for having performed witchcraft on the body of her niece, Rebecca Towne of Topsfield on, before and after September 1st. The words of Sarah Cloyes, wife of Peter Cloyes of Salem Village are evidently written in the same hand.” Many indictments were written out in advance with the name of the accused written in later. “All three indictments against Sarah Cloyes have the word ‘ignoramus’ written in still another hand on the reverse. After the word ignoramus, in yet another hand occurs Robert Payne’s distincitve signature on all three indictments.” Robert Payne was the new jury foreman in January of 1693.
The Jurors for our Soveraigne Lord & Lady the King and Queen
doe present That Sarah Cloyce Wife of Peter Cloyce of Salem —
in the County of Essex Husbandman upon or about the n’th Day of April — In the yeare aforesaid and divers other Days and times as
well before as after Certaine Detestable Arts called Witchcraft and
Sorceries Wickedly Mallitiously and felloniously hath used practised
and Exercised At and in the Towne of Salem in the Country of
Essex — aforesaid in upon and against one Abigail Williams of Salem —
aforesaid Single Woman — by which said Wicked Acts the said Abi-
gaill Williams the Day & Yeare — aforesaid and Divers other Days
and times both before and after was and is Tortured Aflicted Con-
sumed Wasted Pined and Tormented against the Peace of our Sov’r
Lord and Lady the King & Queen theire Crowne and Dignity and
The Law In that case made and Provided
Robert Jr., graduated at Harvard University in the class of 1656, and studied for the ministry. Whether or not he actually practiced his profession does not certainly appear, but Felt speaks of him as “a preacher.” There is reason to believe that he was not an active prosecutor of the accused, or if at any time he was so, he changed his mind before his death and took measures to allay the delusion.
An Aug 9 1692 letter to Jonathan Corwin, one of the trial judges, signaled the end of the Salem hysteria. Most historians think the letter was written by Robert Pike, , son-in-law of our ancestor Joseph MOYCE (See my post Witch Trial Supporters)
Robert Pike had a long history of opposing religious tyranny, for example, denouncing in 1655 the law forbidding to preach if not Ordained, but the actual letter just contains the initials “RP” and the name Robert Payne was added later in a different hand, so an early record keeper thought Robert Payne was the author. Here is a detailed discussion of who wrote the letter and here is another.
The letter is a tightly reasoned attack upon the use of spectral evidence and the testimony of the ‘afflicted girls’ in general. While the author, like all Puritans, believed witches and witchcraft existed and were the work of Satan, he was questioning the current methods of the court in determining credibility and guilt. The letter makes several points:
- Citing 1st Samuel xxviii 13, 14: Any person, virtuous or not, may be in truth a witch.
- A poor reputation does not suggest or substantiate guilt (as with Sarah Good).
- Satan is capable of presenting anyone’s specter to a tormented person (not only a witch’s specter).
- How can it be known if Satan acts with or without the permission of any specific (accused) person.
- It is completely contrary to a witch’s well-being for them to practice witchcraft within a courtroom.
- It is likewise contrary for witches to accuse others of witchcraft (as was the case), as “they are all part of Satan’s kingdom, which would fall, if divided against itself”.
It is not known just how the letter was received, since there is no written response, but with it he became one of the first of several prominent men to question the handling of the witchcraft crisis. Within a few weeks Thomas Brattle and Samuel Willard of Boston wrote their own manuscripts, using some of the same arguments Pike had documented. By October of 1692 the activity of the courts was greatly diminished, the executions had ended, and the witchcraft crisis was effectively over.
The Salem witchcraft papers, original volumes edited by Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum (1977) / revised, corrected, and augmented by Benjamin C. Ray and Tara S. Wood (2010) University of Virginia Archives