On May 27, 1692, Massachusetts’ newly minted governor William Phips established the most famous court of oyer and terminer ever.
A court of oyer and terminer is a court established to hear and determine the truth, generally in serious rather than petty crimes.
Phips' lieutenant governor William Stoughton headed the court of oyer and terminer and took on the task of dealing with the growing scandal in Salem Village. What followed was the most unusual episode of legal history New England ever saw.
Court of Oyer and Terminer
In 1692, much of England and her colonies were unsettled after the revolution that overthrew King James II in 1688 and began the reign of William and Mary. The new monarchs were busily inserting their own partisans into positions of power. And so the influential Massachusetts minister Increase Mather persuaded the monarchs to install as governor Phips, a poorly educated shipbuilder and treasure hunter.
Salem, meanwhile, was wrestling with a division of its own that had existed for years. The community was torn between multiple factions and could not agree on a pastor. No sooner would one be chosen then the rival faction would undermine him.
As the hostilities simmered, townspeople had stumbled upon accusations of witchcraft as a useful tool to besmirch the reputations of their enemies. Accusations ran into the hundreds as Phips took charge of the colony. However, no 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 finally, Stoughton sent the jury back to reconsider even when it found an accused witch innocent. The jury, for example, exonerated Rebecca Nourse, Stoughton sent them back to reconsider, the jury convicted Nourse and she was hanged.
Within two weeks of the court’s establishment, the first alleged witch was killed. 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.
The ministers 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. He willed his estate to Harvard College.
This story about the court of oyer and terminer was updated in 2017.