William Stoughton (1631 - 1701)

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Birthplace: England
Death: Died in Massachusetts
Occupation: Lt. Governor, Chief Magistrate, Administrator
Managed by: John Michael Lee
Last Updated:

About William Stoughton

William Stoughton (1631 - 1701), son of Colonel Israel Stoughton and Elizabeth Knight, served as Chief Magistrate of the court that oversaw the infamous Salem witch trials of 1692. He later became Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts. He never married and left no known offspring.

Born 30 September 1631 in England, he graduated from Harvard College in 1650, where he studied divinity. In 1651 he enrolled in New College Oxford, England, where he earned a masters degree and was accorded a fellowship. For the next ten years he pursued his theology training and also studied law and filled a pastorate at Rumboldsyke in Sussex. Refusing to conform to standards required by the Church of England, he was ejected from his fellowship, and returned to New England in 1662. He wrote a famous jeremiad entitled "New England's True Interest: Not to Lie", which talks about Americans as a chosen people. It included the famous quote, "God sifted a whole Nation that he might send choice Grain over into this Wilderness."

Following the revocation of the Massachusetts Charter and the reassertion of English control over the colony, Stoughton entered political life. He served as Deputy President of the colony's temporary government from 1674 to 1676 and from 1680 to 1686. This position put him in charge of the colonial courts of justice. From 1676 to 1679 he also acted as an agent for Massachusetts at the Court of Charles II in England. Although he lacked any legal education, Stoughton was appointed Chief Justice of Massachusetts, a position he continued to hold until shortly before his death.King James II appointed him deputy president of the Council for New England in 1686.

Cotton Mather arranged for his appointment as lieutenant governor in 1692, when he was also named chief justice of the tribunal convened to deal with the witchcraft situation. As Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Stoughton admitted spectral evidence (dreams and visions) in the Salem trials. Possibly because of his theological training combined with a lack of legal training, Stoughton allowed many deviations from normal courtroom procedure during the witchcraft trials. In addition to admitting spectral evidence, the court allowed private conversations between accusers and judges, permitted spectators to interrupt the procedures with personal remarks, refused to allow defense counsel for the accused, and placed judges in the role of prosecutors and interrogators of witnesses.

Governor Phips became alarmed at Stoughton's excessive zeal and reprieved eight people whom Stoughton had condemned to death, which prompted Stoughton to resign. Twenty people were executed as a result of the Salem trials, nineteen by hanging and one by pressing with stones. Six people confessed to the charges. Four of those accused died in jail.

Despite his role in the Salem witch trials, Stoughton suffered little political damage. He served as acting governor of Massachusetts from 1694 to 1699 and from 1700 to 1701. He died unmarried at the age of 69 on 7 July 1701, and was buried in the Old North Burial Ground on Stoughton Street in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He went to his grave never having publicly repented for his central role in the Salem witch trials.

Legacy

Stoughton, who never married, was the largest 17th-century benefactor to Harvard College. A building was constructed in his name. It was destroyed but replaced by another building at a different location, where it remains today.

In 1726 the town of Stoughton, Massachusetts was named in his honor.

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William Stoughton's Timeline

1631
September 30, 1631
England
1701
July 7, 1701
Age 69
Massachusetts
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Boston, Suffolk County, Massachusetts, United States