The Evil "Justice" William Stoughton Was the Ultimate Hanging Judge at the Salem Witch Trials and Here's Why

Depiction of a woman hanged for being a witch – Time Magazine

Phips Tries to Reign in the Madness

On August 6, 1692, Stoughton was amongst the judge that met and found six defendants guilty of witchcraft. Five of them were hanged within a fortnight, but Elizabeth Proctor escaped the noose because she was pregnant and it was deemed wrong to murder an innocent child for the crimes of its mother. Several more people were hanged in the next few months, but in October, a number of prominent ministers rallied against the use of spectral evidence. Phips disbanded the court on October 29, and a large percentage of those who were jailed received their freedom.

While this should have been the end of the matter, the bloodthirsty Stoughton had other ideas. On January 3, 1693, he ordered the execution of all suspected witches who had escaped the gallows by virtue of their pregnancy. Fortunately, Phips overturned this order, and the women were spared. An irate Stoughton briefly protested and left the bench. If there were any real justice, Stoughton would have paid for his crimes when the Salem Witch Trials ended but instead; he continued to play a prominent role in politics.

Stoughton Hall Harvard – Wikimedia Commons

Acting Governor, Chief Justice, and Death

King William’s War, which was part of the Nine Year’s War, broke out in 1689 and Stoughton ultimately played a role in responding to the threat to the colony. French and Indian raids damaged Massachusetts Bay which caused Phips to leave his post and oversee the defenses. Stoughton was in charge when Phips was absent, and when Phips had to travel to London to answer misconduct charges in 1694, Stoughton became acting governor in November. Phips died a few months later which meant Stoughton remained in power.

It appears as if he only ever saw himself as a caretaker because Stoughton never allowed himself to get heavily involved in the position, even though he held the role until his death in 1701 barring a short period between 1699 and 1700 when the Earl of Bellomont held the position. Stoughton died at his home in Dorchester having been in poor health for the last year of his life.

He was completely unrepentant to the very end and always claimed that he was acting on the orders of God. While other judges in the Salem Witch Trials at least acknowledged the possibility of arriving at the wrong verdict, Stoughton steadfastly stuck to his guns in the belief that not only were all the accused guilty but also deserving of death.

Even in death, his name remained untarnished, and in 1726, a town was formed in Massachusetts and named ‘Stoughton’ in his honor. Stoughton Hall is also the name of one of the dormitories in Harvard Yard which was constructed in 1698 with the help of a £1,000 gift from the infamous judge. From everything, we know about his conduct during the Salem Witch Trials, Stoughton who only interested in issuing the death penalty because his mind had already been made up about the guilt of the defendant. His attitude represented the very worst of the hysteria that gripped Massachusetts in the 1690s.

Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692 – Bernard Rosenthal

Crimson Blood – Fnu Lnu

America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped a Nation’s Character – Tony J. Williams

The Vintage News: The Chief Justice at Salem Witch Trials Accepted “Spectral Evidence”. Nine Hangings Later, He Didn’t Regret It – Tijana Radeska