William Stoughton (Massachusetts) bigraphy, stories - Salem witch trial magistrate, Massachusetts colonial official

William Stoughton (Massachusetts) : biography

September 30, 1631 - July 7, 1701

William Stoughton (1631 – July 7, 1701) was a colonial magistrate and administrator in the Province of Massachusetts Bay. He was in charge of what have come to be known as the Salem Witch Trials, first as the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer in 1692, and then as the Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1693. In these trials he controversially accepted spectral evidence (based on supposed demonic visions). Unlike other magistrates, he never admitted to the possibility that his acceptance of such evidence was in error.

After graduating from Harvard College in 1650, he continued religious studies in England, where he also preached. Returning to Massachusetts in 1662, he chose to enter politics instead of the ministry. An adept politician, he served in virtually every government through the period of turmoil in Massachusetts that encompassed the revocation of its first charter in 1684 and the introduction of its second charter in 1692, including the unpopular rule of Sir Edmund Andros in the late 1680s. He served as lieutenant governor of the province from 1692 until his death in 1701, acting as governor (in the absence of an appointed governor) for about six years. He was one of the province's major landowners, partnering with Joseph Dudley and other prominent figures in land purchases, and it was for him that the town of Stoughton, Massachusetts was named.


Early life

William Stoughton was born in 1631 to Israel Stoughton and Elizabeth Knight Stoughton. The exact location of his birth is uncertain, because there is no known birth or baptismal record for him, and the date when his parents migrated from England to the Massachusetts Bay Colony is not known with precision. What is known is that by 1632 the Stoughtons were in the colony, where they were early settlers of Dorchester, Massachusetts.Anderson, pp 1773-5

Stoughton graduated from Harvard College in 1650 with a degree in theology. He intended to become a Puritan minister and traveled to England, where he continued his studies in New College, Oxford. He graduated with an M.A. in theology in 1653. Stoughton was a pious preacher who believed in the "Lord's promise and expectations of great things."Felt, p. 424 England was at the time under Puritan Commonwealth Rule, although 1653 was the year Oliver Cromwell dissolved Parliament, beginning The Protectorate.Manganiello, p. 43 Stoughton preached in Sussex, and after Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, Stoughton lost his position in the crackdown on religious dissenters that followed.

Politics and land development

With little prospect for another position in England, Stoughton returned to Massachusetts in 1662.Sibley, p. 195 He preached on several occasions at Dorchester and Cambridge, but refused offers of permanent ministerial posts. He instead became involved in politics and land development. He served on the colony's council of assistants (a precursor to the idea of a governor's council) almost every year from 1671 to 1686, and represented the colony in the New England Confederation from 1673 to 1677 and 1680 to 1686. In the 1684 election, Joseph Dudley, who had been labelled as an enemy of the colony (along with Stoughton, Bulkley, and others) for his moderate position on colonial charter issues, failed to win reelection to the council. Stoughton, who was reelected by a small majority and was a friend and business partner of Dudley's, refused to serve in protest.Lovejoy, p. 155

In 1676 he was chosen, along with Peter Bulkley, to be an agent representing colonial interests in England. Their instructions were narrowly tailored. They were authorized to acquire land claims from the heirs of Sir Ferdinando Gorges and John Mason that conflicted with some Massachusetts land claims in present-day Maine. These they acquired for £1,200, incurring the anger of Charles II, who had intended to acquire those claims for the Duke of York. They were unsuccessful in maintaining broader claims made by Massachusetts against other territories of Maine and the Province of New Hampshire. Their limited authority upset the Lords of Trade, who sought to have the colonial laws modified to conform to their policies.Staloff, p. 184 The mission of Stoughton and Bulkley did little more than antagonize colonial officials in London because of their hardline stance.Lovejoy, p. 140

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