June 19, 2011

Nathaniel Saltonstall, Salem Witch Trials Judge

I went to my ancestral Haverhill home today, and stopped by the Pentucket Cemetery on Water Street. Lots of interesting people are buried there, including some victims of the raid that made Hannah Duston a national heroine.

The most impressive monument belongs to the family of Nathaniel Saltonstall, who was one of the judges at the Salem witchcraft trials in the 1690s.

Saltonstall was born in Ipswich in 1639, attended Harvard, and eventually became Haverhill's town clerk. He married Elizabeth Ward, who was the daughter of John Ward, the minister who founded Haverhill. In short, he was kind of a bigwig.

When the 1692 witch craze broke out in Salem Village, Saltonstall was appointed to the Court Oyer and Terminer, a group of seven judges who would oversee the witchcraft trials.

Saltonstall only heard one witchcraft case, that of Bridget Bishop, who was found guilty and hanged on Gallows Hill. After this, he removed himself from the Court Oyer and Terminer. Salem was far from his home in Haverhill, but more importantly he didn't believe the afflicted girls were really possessed, and found the spectral evidence admitted in court unconvincing.

It wasn't so easy for him to escape the Salem madness unscathed, though. When he returned to Haverhill he started to drink heavily, and was reprimanded for it by Samuel Sewall, one of the judges who remained on the court. Even worse, the afflicted Salem Village girls claimed they saw Nathaniel Saltonstall's spectre with the other witches, and that he was a witch himself.

Because he was well-connected Saltonstall was never brought to trial. He weathered the witch craze, and eventually died in 1707. I don't know if he stopped drinking.

I got most of this information from Marion Starkey's The Devil in Massachusetts, plus several genealogical sources on Google books.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the interesting information on Nathaniel. Nathaniel must have been a man of strong character and conscience to act as he did. Proud to have him as my 9th great grandfather.

We watch Mysteries at the Museum and love all the history it teaches.

Sarah Lincoln said...

My father, Richard Saltonstall Pattee, told me the story of Nathaniel Saltonstall recusing himself. Made me feel good to know he's in my lineage; it must have taken a lot of courage to speak out against the madness.

The old graveyard in Haverhill also has the crumbling gravestone of another of my ancestors, Peter Pattee, who was a ferryman and well-known Haverill citizen. (And I think a bit of a scoundrel, as he was reprimanded for abandoning a wife and son in Virginia.)

It's a great -- but untended -- cemetery.

Sarah Lincoln Pattee

Rich Clabaugh said...

Great story Peter! It's reassuring to know that there were some people who saw through this travesty!