Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

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Portrait of Sir William Phipps
Portrait of Sir William

Massachusetts Bay Colony was in the midst of another crisis that was playing out across the Atlantic Ocean far from where the people of Salem were battling the Devil. In a bloodless rebellion of 1689, the royal governor, a doddering and senile old man, was overthrown by the people and sent packing. The leading theologian in the colony, Increase Mather, journeyed to the court of St. James in London to press King James II for a new charter and governor. After years of intensive lobbying, he received both from his king and was headed back to Boston with the new governor, Sir William Phipps. The charter was not as pro-Puritan as Increase and the rest of the colonists had hoped, but it was better than nothing.

Most importantly, until the colony had a charter and a governor, it was powerless to do anything about the witches of Salem. It could not establish a court to try them, and thus the witches had been sent to Ipswich jail to await trial. If the colonists had proceeded with a trial, any results would have been null and void once the new charter arrived from England.

When Phipps and Mather stepped off the frigate HMS Nonesuch in late spring 1692, the jails of Salem were overflowing with witches. From the time the girls accused Martha Corey, on March 21, through the end of April, 23 people including many of the village's leading citizens were sent to Ipswich in chains. A posse was sent to Maine to arrest former Salem minister George Burroughs, who was described by one of the girls as "a small black minister" who tortured them and worshiped Satan. He was brought back to Massachusetts in irons.

Even the arrival of the governor did not slow things down. Phipps arrived on May 14, 1692, and by the end of May an additional 39 people had been arrested and accused.

The governor went to work quickly to defuse the situation. He had not expected witches to be his first crisis in the New World, but he handled the situation admirably. Some of the accused had been imprisoned for several months and clearly a court need be established to get justice moving again. Phipps created the Court of Oyer and Terminer to try the accused witches and appointed Deputy Governor William Stoughton as chief judge.


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