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William Stoughton and Injustice Narrative

  • I can analyze William Stoughton’s story to identify examples of how injustice in leadership can hurt society or a community.

Essential Vocabulary 

injustice To harm others by applying unequal rules and damaging another’s inalienable rights and dignity.
covenant A usually formal, solemn, and binding agreement.
Spectral evidence Witness testimony that the accused person’s spirit or spectral shape appeared to him/her witness in a dream.
empirical Based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.
immoderation Acting in excess or to an extreme. Lacking restraint.


 Widespread outbreaks of fear over witchcraft were common in Europe before 1692, with government authorities executing as many as 40,000-70,000 suspected witches. Belief in witchcraft was widespread in Europe and the American colonies, including among the educated. Witches were suspected of acquiring special powers to harm others by making an illicit compact with the devil. Thus, they were considered a great threat to the welfare of the community. Witchcraft outbreaks usually represented a breakdown in civil society and conflict within a community. Members of the community used the opportunity to blame others for their misfortunes or to carry out a personal vendetta against someone.  

New England Puritans believed that they had established a religious covenant with God and each other to form a godly society. If they were virtuous and obedient, they would be blessed; and, if they were sinful and disobedient, they would be punished. The covenant was also political, social, economic, marital, and familial as people were bound together in mutual obligation. The Mayflower Compact (1620) expressed their covenantal character:  

[We] solemnly and mutually in the presence of God, and of one another, covenant and combine ourselves into a body politic, for our better ordering and preservation…to enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal laws, ordinances, and constitutions…  

In February 1692, nine-year-old Betty Paris and twelve-year-old Abigail Williams of Salem, Massachusetts experienced strange convulsions and fits. They claimed they were being stuck with invisible pins and blamed three women, Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and an enslaved West Indian, Tituba. Word spread around the community, and its members questioned the girls at the meetinghouse. The girls claimed to see specters (invisible spirits) flying around the room. The women were arrested and jailed, and the number of accused increased rapidly in the frightened community. The social covenant and the ties that bound the close-knit community began to fray quickly.   

On May 14, the new royal governor, Sir William Phips, arrived in Boston amid the witchcraft outbreak. With a number of people in jail and more accusations being made, he decided to call a Special Court of Oyer and Terminer (meaning to “hear and determine”) to try the accused of Salem as well as Boston, where accusations were made. Phips selected Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton, to preside over the court as chief justice. Stoughton was a Harvard graduate and had judicial experience in his position in colonial government.  

On June 2, the special court heard testimony against Bridget Bishop, who was found guilty and hanged. The case rested in part on spectral evidence — evidence that individuals could see invisible spirits — and evidence that she stuck dolls with pins to torture others. The colonies generally conformed to English law, which did not accept spectral evidence. The usual practice of following empirical fact was wholly ignored by accepting spectral evidence, which was highly questionable, suspect, and unprovable. Justice Nathaniel Saltonstall immediately resigned because he thought it was a gross injustice. Respected ministers from the area issued a statement, “The Return of Several Ministers,” criticizing the use of spectral evidence and asking for a greater burden of truth. Nevertheless, the trials and their suspect evidence continued.  

More than 100 people were in jail that month. On June 29, the court convened again and tried more accused including Sarah Good. She was hanged along with four others a few weeks later and defiantly exclaimed to Stoughton and the other judges, “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard.” More trials were held in August, and five more were hanged. Elizabeth Proctor received a reprieve because she was pregnant, as it was thought wrong to take an innocent child’s life because of the guilt of the mother. Two more sessions of court in September resulted in the final executions.  


In October, the community seemed to recover its sense of justice. The ministers again questioned the proceedings. Rev. Increase Mather told his congregation in a sermon that, “It were better that ten suspected witches should escape, than that one innocent person should be condemned.” The General Court called for a day of fasting and prayer for divine guidance and to consider what had been done. Finally, after meeting with Stoughton, Governor Phips ordered the court disbanded. The trials came to an end, and those in jail were released.  

Fourteen women and five men had been hanged, and one man was pressed to death, after being found guilty of practicing witchcraft. Immoderation and injustice had torn apart the community and the social covenant. The use of spectral and other forms of questionable evidence led to the breakdown of reason and moderation in the application of the rule of law. Chief Justice Stoughton and the other judges presided over a miscarriage of justice, as some had pointed out.  

One of the judges, merchant Samuel Sewall, soon regretted his role in the affair and struggled with his conscience. He publicly apologized five years later in his meetinghouse. He confessed that he was willing “to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has an unlimited authority, would pardon that sin.” William Stoughton never apologized for his role in the Salem Witch Trials.  

A healthy civil society is predicated upon the expectation that community leaders in politics, law, churches, and business, and ordinary people of good sense, will treat each other justly. In 1692, the fear that witchcraft was endangering the community led to a breakdown in the practice of civic virtues, common purpose, and reason that should have stopped the injustice and destruction of the covenant that cemented society together.  

Analysis Questions 

  • Why did people believe that witchcraft posed a threat to their community? 
  • How did responses to the perception of witchcraft outbreaks end up damaging communities? 
  • Explain why the New England Puritans believed that it was important to act virtuously in their communities. 
  • What was William Stoughton’s role in the Salem Witch Trials? 
  • What is spectral evidence? Why was it unjust to use it in trial as opposed to empirical evidence? 
  • Samuel Sewall later apologized for his role in the trials. Do you think that individuals who recognize that they committed an act of injustice should be forgiven? Why or why not? Should William Stoughton be forgiven, despite not regretting his role in the trials? Why or why not? 
  • Why is it important for justice to be carried out in order to have a healthy community?  
  • What does injustice look like in leadership? What does injustice look like among ordinary citizens?  
  • How can injustice break down the convents, or agreements, we create with the people in our communities?  
  • Why is it important for community leaders and ordinary people to treat each other justly in a civil society?