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The Dissolving of the Court of Oyer and Terminer

By Allen J

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Sir William Phips in Salem, Massachusetts, founded the Court of Oyer and Terminer May 27, 1692. It was designed for one sole purpose: to try and convict accused witches. The Court of Oyer and Terminer was dissolved October 29, 1692.

William Phips was born February 2, 1651, in Maine. He arrived in Salem from England on May 14 as newly appointed governor. He was a professional sailor, merchant, courtier, and warrior, and was a plainspoken man, who had risen from a life in Maine to one at the side of kings. Before he arrived at Salem, Phips had a history of conquest. In May of 1690, he set out with a force of 736 men to conquer Port Royal and Nova Scotia from the French. Then, he led 2,300 men to capture Quebec. However, the overland counterpart of his naval attack had failed, forcing Phips to retreat, with only 1,300 men, the other 1,000 having died mostly of disease. Once Phips had reached friendly territory, he received news of the Salem Witch Trials, along with the fact that he had been appointed governor. When he arrived in Salem, he quickly took control of the situation (or so he thought) and created the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

When Phips founded the Court of Oyer and Terminer, he appointed nine judges under Chief Judge and Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton: Jonathan Corwin of Salem, Thomas Danforth of Boston, Bartholomew Gedney of Salem, John Hathorne of Salem, John Richards of Boston, Nathaniel Saltonstall of Haverhill, Peter Sargent of Boston, Samuel Sewall of Salem, and Wait Winthrop of Boston. The most influential judges, Richards, Winthrop, and Sewall as well as Stoughton, were all close to Phips, and members of his council. As well as being close to Phips, the judges were also close with Cotton Mather. Born February 12, 1663 to Reverend Increase Mather, Cotton seemed destined to achieve greatness, for he was born into a family of powerful clergymen. In his childhood, he seemed to live up to this destiny and gained admittance to Harvard College at age 12. He went on to earn his Harvard Masters degree at age 18. He then went on to become a clergyman, but only after he pursued medicine for two or three years, because he was unable to preach due to a terrible stutter.

When Phips created the Court of Oyer and Terminer, he designed it specifically to try accused witches. The name of the court, "Oyer and Terminer," was derived from French and Latin roots, meaning to "hear and determine." Under less urgent circumstances, Phips would have waited for the legislature to pass a law defining a high court, instead of creating his own charter under his authority. Due to the urgent circumstances, however, Phips was compelled to create the Court of Oyer and Terminer or risk Salem and the rest of the New England colonies destroyed by the hysteria.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer convicted its first victims on September 9 of 1692. The convicted witches were Martha Corey, Mary Esty, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Dorcas Hoar, and Mary Bradbury. They were all convicted by spectral evidence, which would soon be outlawed by the later formed Superior Court of Judicature. Shortly before she was to be executed, Hoar confessed, which was one of the ways to save oneself from death by hanging. Eight days later, Margaret Scot, Wilmott Redd, Samuel Wardwell, Mary Parker, Abigail Faulkner, Rebecca Eames, Mary Lacy, and Abigail Hobbs were also convicted. Hobbs, like Hoar, confessed and was returned to jail. Faulkner, Eames, and Lacy were temporarily spared because they were pregnant, yet another way to save oneself. Two days after that, Giles Corey was crushed under stones place on top of him by the Court trying to "press" a confession out of him.

The convicted witches were hanged on September 22, with the exception of those mentioned above. After the execution, the judges met with Stephen Sewall, court clerk, and Cotton Mather. As well as being close to Phips, the judges were also close with Cotton Mather. Born February 12, 1663 to Reverend Increase Mather, Cotton seemed destined to achieve greatness, for he was born into a family of powerful clergymen. In his childhood, he seemed to live up to this destiny and gained admittance to Harvard College at age 12. He went on to earn his Harvard Masters degree at age 18. He then went on to become a clergyman, but only after he pursued medicine for two or three years, because he was unable to preach due to a terrible stutter. After he overcame his stutter, he fulfilled his destiny, and became one of the most powerful and influential clergymen of his time.

Mather was lent the records of the trial, and wrote a defence of the judges, titled The Wonders of the Invisible World. Within the book was an explanation and justification of the execution of the condemned witches.

In the end of September, clergyman Samuel Willard defied Gov. Phips's gag order on the publication of trials, and published a condemnation of the Phips's court under a pseudonym. In early October, Cotton's father, Increase Mather wrote his own treatise against spectral evidence. When Phips read the treatise, he then dissolved the Court of Oyer and Terminer on October 12-29.

In January of 1693, the Superior Court of Judicature resumed trials of witchcraft, with the added ban of spectral evidence. Of the 56 accused, only three were convicted. When Stoughton attempted to execute the death warrants, Phips halted the procedures, thus saving the condemned witches" lives.

By spring of 1963, no more trials convicted any witches, and those accused who were in custody were released by Phips, including those convicted. In 1696, the General Court of Massachusetts voted for monetary reparations, and Cotton Mather publicly apologized.

The Court of Oyer and Terminer served to awaken the New England community to the ridiculous methods of convicting witches. They realized that spectral evidence was a practice founded in false proof, and had put hundreds of witches to wrongful deaths.

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