A court of oyer and terminer is a court established to hear and determine the truth, generally in serious rather than petty crimes, and on May 27, 1692, Massachusetts’ newly minted governor William Phips established the most famous court of oyer and terminer ever. It was headed by his lieutenant governor William Stoughton and tasked with dealing with the growing scandal in Salem Village. What followed was the most unusual episode of legal history New England ever saw.
In 1692, much of England and her colonies were unsettled in the aftermath of the revolution that overthrew King James II in 1688, beginning the reign of William and Mary. The new monarchs were busily inserting their own partisans into positions of power, and the influential Massachusetts minister Increase Mather persuaded the monarchs to install Phips, a poorly educated shipbuilder and treasure hunter, as governor.
Salem, meanwhile, was wrestling with a division of its own that had existed for years. The community was torn between multiple factions, and they could not agree on a pastor. No sooner would one be chosen, than he would be undermined. As the hostilities simmered, townspeople had stumbled upon accusations of witchcraft as a useful tool to besmirch the reputations of their enemies. Accusations were running into the hundreds as Phips took charge of the colony, and no trials had been carried out because of the changeover in governance.
Fighting with the Native American tribes was Phips’ top priority, and he gave Stoughton responsibility for clearing the backlog of witchcraft cases. Stoughton took the job seriously.
One of Stoughton’s earliest, and most significant, decisions was to allow the admission of “spectral” evidence (i.e. acts carried out by demons that only an accuser can see). With this established, Stoughton’s court set about trying and executing witches with astonishing speed.
Another rule Stoughton implemented that moved things along was encouraging (or torturing) the accused into confessing that they were witches. Those who confessed were not killed. Those who would not confess risked death at trial. And in the case of Rebecca Nourse, even when the jury found an accused witch innocent, Stoughton sent them back to reconsider. After reconsideration, the jury convicted Nourse and she was hanged.
Within two weeks of the court’s establishment, the first witch was killed, and Stoughton’s efficiency dovetailed perfectly with the religious leaders’ fervent belief that the colony was under attack by the devil. These forces combined to create a powerful killing machine, executing 20 people in just four months with more than 100 prisoners still to be tried.
The slaughter might have continued had Phips not returned to his senses and put a stop to the lunacy. The bloodshed had grown too much for the ministers of the day. They conceded that perhaps innocents were being killed, and urged Phips to act as the allegations continued to fly, including charges against Phips' own wife. In September 1692, Phips stopped the trials and eventually freed all the prisoners.
In the aftermath, Phips, as did many of those involved, apologized for their actions. Stoughton, however, never publicly admitted any wrongdoing. A life-long political operator, he continued accumulating wealth and political power until his death in 1701. His estate was willed to Harvard College.
This story was updated from the 2014 version.