Governor Phips was foremost a military man, and the Indian War in the north often necessitated his absence from Massachusetts. When he was back in Boston he found himself deluged with petitions from the accused and their families, and he was increasingly under pressure to act by the swell of opposition. That people in high places were now among those calling for action no doubt influenced him; also, the accusation directed at his wife, though brushed off as a mistake, brought things close to home. Since the witchcraft trials were considered a matter for the clergy to deal with, Phips asked prominent ministers for their opinions on how they were being handled. Some had already denounced the trials. But, as has been seen, the two leading religious figures, Increase and Cotton Mather, had been sending mixed messages. A probable reason for the circumspect stance they took had to do with the high standing of the justices. To openly criticize the trials would be to criticize Chief Justice Sir William Stoughton, deputy governor of Massachusetts Colony; this was not something done lightly. A further consideration was that the justices were personal friends of the Mathers. On the other hand, the refusal of the justices to heed private requests to use caution in accepting spectral evidence must have seemed like a rebuke to someone with the eminence of Increase Mather. The case of Cotton was more convoluted. He had long positioned himself as a bulwark against witchcraft. He saw it as a threat of the greatest urgency, one that had to be addressed with severity. And it was being treated with urgency and severity in Salem. The part he played in the hanging of George Burroughs was a validation of the trials and executions. Cotton had been present at the trial of Burroughs, and he hadn’t spoken out in objection to the use of spectral evidence. Yet he turned back a crowd, uneasy after Burroughs’ flawless recital the Lord’s Prayer, by telling them, in effect, that the devil had given Burroughs the power to do what was considered impossible. He was using the argument against spectral evidence — i.e., that the devil had unfathomable powers and could thus appear in the shape of an innocent — to sanction an execution based on spectral evidence.
Those who had been victims of the witchcraft craze (or their surviving relatives) asked the General Court of Massachusetts to officially expunge the guilty verdicts from the records. Cotton Mather urged legislators to comply with their request. Finally, in 1711, a legislative bill decreed that the convictions made during the trials were null and void. It also invalidated all forfeitures of goods or chattels, though it gave immunity to those who had made such forfeitures with an addenda stating that “no sheriff, constable, jailer or other officer shall be liable to any prosecution in the law for anything they then legally did in execution of their respective offices.” It’s a bitter irony that the English law authorizing these acts had prevailed for only six months; it was put into effect when the Court of Oyer and Terminer — which handed down the guilty verdicts that led to the confiscations — heard its first case, and it was suspended shortly after the court was dissolved.
Since the confiscations and forfeitures had been declared invalid, those who lost property began to petition the government for financial compensation. This issue proved to be an intractable one.
Though Governor Phips had directed the court to act in accordance with English law, he distanced himself from how the confiscations had been handled; in a February, 1693 report on the events in Salem to the Privy Council in England, he wrote that Chief Justice Stoughton “by his warrant has caused the estates, goods and chattels of the executed to be seized and disposed of without my knowledge or consent.” In a counteraction, the Superior Court of Massachusetts — on which Stoughton was a member — passed a ruling that specifically discharged George Corwin of any financial responsibility for anything he had done as sheriff (actions which had been directed by Stoughton). The rift between Phips and Stoughton was permanent, though short-lived. Phips was recalled to England in November, 1694; on the return voyage he fell ill and died. Stoughton became governor of Massachusetts Colony, a position he held for five years.
The 1711 legislature bill put aside the meager sum of 598 pounds to pay for losses suffered in the confiscations; this amount was distributed, in haphazard fashion, to the survivors or the relatives of those put to death. The heirs of John Proctor received the most, 150 pounds (an amount much less than they had requested). Some received a pittance, others received nothing.
George Corwin died in 1697 from a heart attack; he was thirty years old. Though he had been accused of pocketing money from the confiscations, there was no indication that he reaped any notable profits; at his death his estate was modest. There had been no official accounting of the distribution of monies collected; possibly the King did not receive what was due him, but would his majesty know or care about such a trifling matter? The justices, if they were the beneficiaries, held such high positions that they were untouchable. Despite the Superior Court’s ruling that protected him, Corwin was sued by a number of people; this same Superior Court consistently found him innocent of wrongdoing.
One of the petitions for compensation was filed by John English. He was the prosperous merchant of Salem Town who, with his wife, had made the “escape de luxe” from prison in Boston. After this escape Corwin made his biggest haul. He seized the goods in four warehouses, plus all the possessions in English’s luxurious home. English calculated the value of what he lost at 1,183 pounds. In the 1711 distribution of monies, the legislature granted him nothing; perhaps this was due to the enormity of the sum he was asking for, perhaps to his aggressive pursuit of revenge. English had issued a civil suit against Corwin, demanding the return of monies owed him. Though the courts sided with Corwin, English pursued the sheriff even after his death. He placed a lien for nonpayment of debt on the corpse; in order to proceed with the burial the Corwin family had to pay him 60 pounds. English would soon reestablish his wealth, but he remained bitter. He continued petitioning the legislature for compensation (after his death his heirs were granted 200 pounds). He called Reverend Noyes a murderer (and was sued for it) and was vocal about his hatred for John Hathorne. He never again set foot in a Puritan church. In 1733, three years before his death, he founded St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Salem Town, and he was buried in its churchyard. Would his body have rested in peace if he had known that his daughter would marry the son of John Hathorne? This union began the line that would produce, in 1804, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne (at some point in the intervening years the family had added a “w” to their name). The boy grew up walking the streets of Salem, hearing tales of what had occurred a hundred years ago, events in which his great-grandfather played such a central role. The novels he wrote brood on matters of sin, guilt, punishment and atonement.
The tragedy and catharsis of Salem marked the end of executions for witchcraft in this country. It can also be seen as contributing to long-range beneficial effects — profound ones for the fledgling United States. The government that emerged less than a hundred years after the events in Salem established a separation of church and state; religion would no longer have the power in civil matters that it had in Puritan New England. In 1791 the Bill of Rights set up a sweeping system of safeguards that address the wrongs committed at the trials. An accused is now shrouded in a cloak of innocence — it is his guilt, beyond a reasonable doubt, that must be proven. He can be found guilty only on the basis of tangible evidence or the sworn testimony of actual witnesses. Fact and logic take preeminence. The accused sits before an impartial judge and jury with counsel at his side. Our present system of jurisprudence gives the protection for the accused asked for in Increase Mather’s belated words: “It is better that ten suspected witches escape than that one innocent person should be condemned.”