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Three Cheers For Juries

May 2024
1min read

In his article “My Ancestor, the Wizard” in the August/September 1984 issue, Joseph Thorndike, Jr., does not mention that his ancestor’s trial was, like all the others, conducted as “juries of tryals” and that the reason Governor Phips finally gave up and “reprieved” the remaining prisoners is that the juries refused to convict.

There were two series of trials: the first from June 2 until September 17, 1692, and the second from January 3 until midMay 1693. There were about half a dozen quick convictions by juries in June 1692, due to the fact that the entire populace was swept up into the passion. On June 30 was the trial of Rebecca Nurse, to which Mr. Thorndike refers. When she was acquitted, the “afflicted” girls began writhing and screaming, and the court, headed by Stoughton, terrorized the jurors until they begged to reconsider their decision. The jury was then permitted to impeach the verdict.

Thus the trials continued, with the final conviction coming September 17, bringing the total to nineteen. About one hundred and fifty “witches” were left in the Salem jails, and this may have been a blessing, because when the trials resumed in January, there was an acquittal, then another acquittal, then a third, fourth, fifth, and so on. Governor Phips pressed on relentlessly against those accused, but the juries continued to acquit until forty-nine suspects had been freed (but there were three “confessions”). When the forty-ninth acquittal was delivered, Phips gave up and reprieved the hundred or so awaiting trial. Thus it was trial by jury that closed out that horror in quite quick time—while the Spanish Inquisition, without jury, continued from 1492 until the early 180Os. What if Stoughton or the Mathers had been the judges trying those cases? The juries in Salem that handed down convictions in 1692 were selected only from members of the Puritan Church; spectral evidence was permitted, there was of course the initial panic, and the court itself adopted a threatening attitude. The later juries were selected from a wider community base, spectral evidence was excluded, and the court was less threatening. The people, as evidenced in the jurors, controlled their passions much earlier than the Mathers did. More glory to trial by jury! Just about all liberty has been recognized by juries long before official legal codification occurs.

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