Who Were the Salem Witch Trials Judges?

Magistrates Presiding Over Cases Accusing Witchcraft

Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials in sepia tones.

MPI / Stringer / Getty Images

Before the Court of Oyer and Terminer was appointed, local magistrates presided at the examinations, which functioned as preliminary hearings and decided whether there was enough evidence to hold an accused witch for trial.

Local Magistrates Presiding

  • Jonathan Corwin, Salem: a wealthy merchant and twice a member of the colony's assembly. He had been a local magistrate, hearing petty crimes. His son was later to become a minister at the First Church in Salem.
  • John Hathorne, Salem: a wealthy landowner and merchant who owned property as far as Maine, he had served as a Justice of the Peace and had mediated disputes in Salem. He was the great-great-grandfather of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who changed the spelling of the family name to get distance from the Salem witch trial history.
  • Bartholomew Gedney, Salem: a selectman and a colonel in the local militia. The family home, the Gedney House, is still standing in Salem.
  • Thomas Danforth, Boston: a landowner and politician, he was known as a conservative. He served as the first Treasurer of Harvard College, and later as a steward there. He had been President of the Maine District, part of the Massachusetts colony. He was acting governor when the Salem witch craze began.

Court of Oyer and Terminer (May 1692-October 1692)

When the new Massachusetts Governor William Phips arrived from England in mid-May of 1692, he found that he needed to deal with a backlog of cases of accused witches who were filling up jails. He appointed a Court of Oyer and Terminer, with Lieutenant Governor William Stoughton as its chief magistrate. Five were required to be present for the court to be in an official session.

  • Chief Magistrate Lt. Gov. William Stoughton, Dorchester: he headed the trials in Salem, and was known for his acceptance of spectral evidence. In addition to his work as an administrator and magistrate, he had been trained as a minister at Harvard College and in England. He was one of the major landowners in Massachusetts. He had been acting governor after Governor Phips was recalled to England.
  • Jonathan Corwin, Salem (above)
  • Bartholomew Gedney, Salem (above)
  • John Hathorne, Salem (above)
  • John Richards, Boston: a military man and a mill owner who had served as a judge before. He went to England in 1681 as a representative of the colony to influence and oppose King Charles II in increasing religious freedom. He was removed from his office representing the colony for proposing compromise with the crown. He was a judge under one royal governor, but not under the unpopular Andros. He was restored as a judge when Andros was removed from office by the colonists.
  • Nathaniel Saltonstall, Haverhill: a colonel in the colony's militia, he is most famous for being the only judge to resign — though he did not declare his reasons for doing so. He had been a town clerk and a judge before the Salem witch trials.
  • Peter Sergeant, Boston: a prosperous merchant and member of the Committee of Safety that removed Governor Andros from office. He also served as a Boston constable and Councillor.
  • Samuel Sewell, Boston: known for his later apology for his part in the trials and for his criticism of enslavement, he was chief justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court. Like many of the other judges, he was also a successful and wealthy businessman.
  • Wait Still Winthrop, Boston: he worked for popular control of the colony and against royal governors. He also led the Massachusetts militia in King Philip's War and King William's War.

Stephen Sewall was appointed a clerk of the court and Thomas Newton was appointed Crown's Attorney. Newton resigned on May 26 and was replaced on May 27 by Anthony Checkley.

In June, the court sentenced Bridget Bishop to be hanged, and Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the court — perhaps without attending any of the sessions to that point.

Assigned to handle the property of those convicted:

  • Bartholomew Gedney
  • John Hathorne
  • Jonathan Corwin

Superior Court of Judicature (Est. November 25, 1692)

The role of the Superior Court of Judicature, replacing the Court of Oyer and Terminer, was to dispose of the remaining witchcraft cases. The court first met in January 1693. Members of the Superior Court of Judicature, all of whom had been judges in previous stages, were:

  • Chief Justice: William Stoughton, Dorchester
  • Thomas Danforth
  • John Richards, Boston
  • Samuel Sewall, Boston
  • Wait Still Winthrop, Boston

The Superior Court of Judicature, established in the wake of the Salem witch trials, remains the highest court in Massachusetts today.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Were the Salem Witch Trials Judges?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/salem-witch-trials-judges-3530321. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 26). Who Were the Salem Witch Trials Judges? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/salem-witch-trials-judges-3530321 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Were the Salem Witch Trials Judges?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/salem-witch-trials-judges-3530321 (accessed March 26, 2023).