Corruption in the Colony

The Story of Governor William Phips

by Grace A.

William Phips became governor of Salem during its darkest period; he would have to be a strong leader if his colony was going to survive. Governor Phips played an important role in both the start and beginning of these dark days in Salem, and faced many difficulties as leader of Salem.  A commoner from Maine, he had hoped to achieve greatness in Salem. This mindset however played a crucial part in his demise as governor. 

    William Phips was born a commoner in the colony of Maine.  Once he was older he was apprenticed to a carpenter in Boston and studied for many years. While he was apprenticed Phips met his future wife, Mary, and they soon married. William Phips had high standards and big ambitions. He wanted to be famous, to achieve greatness, and he felt that life as a carpenter could not fulfill his ambition. 

    To achieve his standards Phips decided to become a sea captain, which he believed to be a worthy occupation.  He sailed to the Caribbean to find wrecks of Spanish ships and in one particular wreck he found 210,000 English pounds.  Phips donated one-tenth of this money to the Royal Crown of England and was recognized greatly for his generosity.  King James ІІ himself knighted William Phips and appointed him provost marshal general in the New World because of his contributions.

    Sir William Phips returned home to New England to begin his job in his new legal position.  While he was there he befriended Increase and Cotton Mather who were both preachers at North Church. Phips was baptized there by Cotton in 1689.  Both Cotton and Increase saw Phips as an ally simply because he was willing to toe the Puritan line even if it was not his religion by birth.  The Mather family, Increase in particular, had a lot of influence and power in England although they were members of a Puritan style. Therefore, Phips’ friendly relationship with the Mather family would serve him well in years to come.  Phips did not stay long in the New World because he had almost no experience for the legal position of provost marshal general, so he soon returned to England to step down from his position.

    In 1691 William Phips’ relationship with the Mather family proved him well when he was appointed as the First Royal Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of the influence of Increase Mather. Phips’ main assignment when he was appointed as governor was to keep the French and Indians away from the colony, but when he arrived to Salem in May of 1691 he was faced by an entirely different problem. When Phips arrived, the witchcraft accusations were already two months underway and tensions were swiftly rising amongst the villagers.

    Governor Phips attempted to solve the problem quickly in a way that the general populace favored.  He created the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which means to hear and to decide, to hear the trials of those accused and decide their fates. This court was said to be created because the people of Salem were “clamoring for trials to be held,” but in truth Phips’ decision only pleased the most influential and wealthy families from whom he sought approval and recognition. Phips appointed well known and respected magistrates to the court and appointed William Stoughton head of the court.  This decision was also a bad one because William Stoughton was a biased judge who believed strongly in witchcraft and the accusations of the girls. Another early mistake Phips made was his allowance of spectral evidence in the Court of Oyer and Terminer.  This decision alone condemned many innocent lives to death.

    While Phips was away fighting the French and the Indians that were threatening the borders of the colony he received a petition for a reprieve of Rebecca Nurse’s death sentence.  He granted this reprieve until he received complaints about it from the villagers.  His decision to revoke the reprieve was yet another decisions blinded by his want to please the most influential people in Salem.

    When Governor Phips returned from the colony’s border he was shocked by the state of the trials.  Already nineteen had been hanged and more and more influential and important people were being accused.  One of these people was his wife, Lady Phips.  The governor put an end to the trials immediately and dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer.  He also released all those who had been accused but not yet stood trial.  Finally, he established a new court known as the Superior Court of Judicature to hear once more the cases of those who had stood trial and been sentenced to death. In an attempt to fix previous mistakes Phips did not allow the Court of Judicature to allow spectral evidence. Thirty of the people who had been sentenced to death were released immediately because the only basis for their prosecution was spectral evidence.  Out of the twenty-six other people twenty-three were released after their trial, but three were found guilty because they immediately admitted to witchcraft.  Thankfully, they were also reprieved.

    Governor William Phips played an important and sometimes unjust role in the Salem Witch Trials.  Many people happen to think of Phips as our savior from so many more innocent lives to be sentenced to death, but we must remember that he played a crucial part in the beginning of the trials.  It was because of him that so many were killed due to spectral evidence alone and that for so many others their cases were heard in a biased way. Although he may have tried to undo his mistakes, his decisions have left stains in history that cannot be removed.

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