Scituate witch trial

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The Scituate witch trial was a criminal trial in 1731 in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in which Scituate woman Emily Jacobs was acquitted of charges of witchcraft by a jury of twelve other "servants of Satan" (recorded in some sources as "the Devil's Jury").[1] Historians believe the unusual circumstances of this case to have been caused by townspeople's distrust and dislike of one of the town's selectmen, whose son filed the criminal complaint that started the trial.[2][3]


Jonathan Winters was a wealthy merchant and one of the town's three selectmen. Citizens of the town grew to dislike him over the course of his term for what they considered corrupt behavior, the most significant example of which was an incident in which he sold the town's common to his son, Edward Winters. This transaction was carried out without the knowledge of the other selectmen or the citizens of the town, and the deed was rescinded shortly afterwards. Jonathan Winters escaped prosecution or impeachment for this action due to an oversight in the laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that prevented the removal of selectmen. [3][4]

Edward Winters engaged in a series of business ventures that barely turned a profit and was considered the laughingstock of the community.[2] After one of the most successful of these ventures, he declared his love to Emily Jacobs, who publicly turned him down despite his father's wealth. None of Winters' subsequent business ventures proved profitable due to a variety of causes, including the crew of a ship he held an ownership stake in mutinying at sea. Where his contemporaries and later historians saw a combination of bad luck and lacking business acumen, he saw supernatural causes and became convinced that Jacobs was the source of all of his problems.[4]

The Trial

Edward Winters filed a complaint with the magistrate alleging that Emily Jacobs had used "witchcraft most foul" to interfere with his business ventures, and his father used his influence in town government to ensure that this complaint was taken seriously. Jacobs was arrested on June 10th, 1731 (N.S.), and was defended in court by Henry Hutchinson, a recent graduate of Harvard in his first criminal trial.[5] He questioned whether God-fearing and church-going men could "understand, let alone judge" the actions of a witch who allegedly serves the Devil and proposed to the judge that a jury of "servants of Satan" be convened to adjudicate the case. Jonathan Winters, who was pleading his son's case, stridently objected, but was overruled by the judge, who granted Hutchinson's unusual request and sent the courtroom into an uproar.[6] Historians believe that the request was granted out of spite against the Winters family, and have questioned whether this risky gambit was necessary, as prevailing sentiment was against the accusers and the evidence of witchcraft presented was circumstantial at best.[2]

The Jury

The jury was composed of ten local men and two unmarried women, none of whom attended church regularly. The inclusion of women in the jury was extremely unusual and no women would be selected for another jury in Massachusetts until 1951.[7] According to the journal of a member of the audience, one juror only agreed to participate in exchange for a promise that participation could not be used as evidence in the event that charges of witchcraft were brought against the jury, although it was not recorded which juror made this request. The jury was sworn in with an oath swearing that the jurors were of "bad moral character and unsound judgement," and ended with a cry of "may Satan save us!" by some jurors. At least three jurors were visibly drunk during the trial and had to be ordered into silence by the judge's gavel.[8]

Verdict & Aftermath

After a very short deliberation, the jury found Emily Jacobs innocent of three counts of witchcraft. Hutchinson wrote in his journal that the younger Winters stormed out of the courtroom with a "looke of most pure Rage upon his face."[6]

Although Jacobs was not wealthy, she paid Hutchinson for his legal services quickly with a bag of gold and silver coins. "I can only hope that my future clients follow her example and pay with such great Swiftness," he wrote in a letter a week after the trial, although he later complained that the coins were "marked in no tongue known to Man or Beaste." He was forced to have the coins melted down and cast into new coins to make use of them, with the exception of one gold coin he sold to a "learned man of Boston" as a curiosity.[6] The identity of this collector is lost to history, but the coin eventually passed into the collection of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (now known as Historic New England) in 1919, but was lost in a warehouse fire in 1953.[9]

None of Hutchinson's later cases were as successful as his defense of Jacobs, with him frequently serving as a lawyer for obviously guilty or unsympathetic clients. He moved west, first to West Hoosac (today Williamstown) and later into New York in hopes of shedding this reputation. He died in Albany, New York at the age of 53 in 1758.[5]

Emily Jacobs never married and when she died in Scituate at the age of 72 in 1782, she left all of her worldly possessions and her home to her close friend Anne Barker, who also never married. In her later years, she described herself as "New England's last witch," despite never being convicted of witchcraft.[1]

See also

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