History

Did homophobia cause the Salem witch trials?

Ugh, women. They can be real witches sometimes, am I right? 

I can just picture William Stoughton, the Chief Justice of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer [aka where they prosecuted “witches” during the Salem Witch Trials], expressing this sentiment to his all male colleagues in the late 1600s.

Between February, 1692 and May, 1693, around 200 women and men were accused of practicing witchcraft. Instigated predominately by the strange behavior of Elizabeth “Betty” Parris, 9, Abigail Williams, 11, and Ann Putnam Jr., 11, intense paranoia seized the Massachusetts Bay Colony for 15 months. While only 20 people were actually put to death, 19 by hanging and 1 by crushing, the ramifications of the Salem witch trials completely transformed the village.

And internalized homophobia may have been a cause.  

As mentioned earlier, William Stoughton presided over all cases involving witches in Salem. Unfortunately, his rulings were marred with “a bigoted zeal akin to animosity” and inspired an unprecedented number of “judicial murders.” According to one biographical account, “there can be no doubt, that, if Stoughton had been as [eager] to procure the acquittal as he was to bring about the conviction of the accused, this black page in the history of New England and of humanity could have never been written.”

Essentially, William Stoughton had the power to prevent the witch trials. So, why didn’t he? What drove him to harshly punished these accused witches?

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The Court of Oyer and Terminer 

Some argue that his desire to purge the world of Satan’s minions was a result of misogyny mixed with deeply held puritanical beliefs. As explained in A Feminist Perspective on the History of Women as Witches, “puritan women existed as a means to an end. A woman’s transgressive behaviors could only be explained by possession of the devil. The “good” women who remained subservient and holy were seen as “handmaids of the lord.”

There’s simply no denying that William Stoughton was massively influenced by his devout faith. Researchers have even theorized that his mission to cleanse the Massachusetts Bay Colony of witches could have been motivated by opposition to his sexual orientation.

Was William Stoughton gay? 

Born to parents who valued faith and education, Stoughton studied divinity at Harvard College. Upon graduating, he earned a master’s at Oxford and began fulfilling his desire to become a minister.

However, after moving back to Massachusetts in 1660, Stoughton abandoned his chosen career and repeatedly refused offers to become a minister for his hometown in Dorchester.  For nearly ten years, Stoughton rejected these proposals by claiming that he “had some objections within himself against the motion.” He was just “not persuadable to take any office charge in any church

Despite living to the age of 70, Stoughton never married. This was highly unusual in  a Puritan society, which emphasized family above all else. Since unmarried men and women were expected to be celibate, just about every single person sought nuptials. Stoughton’s “bachelor status…suggests some ambiguities in his relationships with women and even his sexuality.”

Stoughton’s concern for internal objections to becoming minister certainly seem to echo sentiments about homosexual people in modern society. For instance, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered”  and queer people are viewed as inherently deviant. This line of thought is eerily similar to Stoughton’s own admission of unworthiness for a religious life.

Could the turmoil over being homosexual exacerbated Stoughton’s fear of the devil? Maybe he believed that if he could purify the world of witches, then he would heal himself of his innate dysfunction.

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It would certainly explain the cruelty of his court proceedings. Stoughton allowed the use of spectral evidence, or dreams and visions that were impossible to refute, to convict witches. Arguably, all he cared about was executing those who appeared to fraternize with the devil.

For instance, Rebecca Nurse, a 70 year old woman who could barely hear, was initially found “not guilty” by a jury of her peers. Unsatisfied with this verdict, Stoughton urged the jury to reconsider their decision. He argued that maybe they hadn’t heard some of Rebecca’s more incriminating statements.

Tragically, when Rebecca Nurse was asked about the meaning of those statements, she did not reply (because she was partially deaf and literally couldn’t hear the question). Instead of waiting for clarification, the jury reconvened and found Rebecca Nurse guilty.

Additionally, Bridget Bishop, the first person to be executed for witchcraft in Salem, was targeted because of her independent and “promiscuous” nature. Apparently, Bishop was known for drinking, entertaining guests at her home until late in the night, playing shovel board (which everyone knows is the devil’s favorite game), and fighting with men.

(I guess Stoughton felt that if he couldn’t sleep with men, then no woman should be able to either.) 

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Execution of Bridget Bishop

Stoughton’s harsh treatment of the accused during the witch trials has earned him the nomenclature Purtian Ebenezer Scrooge, without the transform. (I guess he was just too mistrustful of the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future.) 

In another time, maybe Stoughton’s vindictiveness would have been abated by marrying the local farm boy. But, unfortunately, homosexuality was harshly condemned in the 1690s and Stoughton’s crusade to rid the world of satanic influences thrived.

As is the case with most historical figures, *cough Abraham Lincoln cough*, we may never know Stoughton’s true sexual orientation. However, his decision to deny the ministry due to internal conflicts, his choice to remain a bachelor for his entire life, and his manic quest to eradicate all traces of witches, imply he was motivated by internalized homophobia.

Could you imagine if the terrors of the Salem witch trials could have been avoided if William Stoughton had just practiced a little self-love and took a quick trip to the local gay bar? 

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