He pointed his finger once more, and a tall man, soberly clad in Puritan garb, with the burning gaze of the fanatic, stalked into the room and took his judge’s place.
“Justice Hathorne is a jurist of experience,” said the stranger. “He presided at certain witch trials once held in Salem. There were others who repented of the business later, but not he.”
“Repent of such notable wonders and undertakings?” said the stern old justice. “Nay, hang them–hang them all!” And he muttered to himself in a way that struck ice into the soul of Jabez Stone.
Stephen Vincent Benet, The Devil and Daniel Webster
In his short story The Devil and Daniel Webster, Benet has Satan conjure up the damned souls of 12 villains from American history to serve as a jury in the case of Satan v. Jabez Stone. Only seven of these entities are named, and we have examined the lives of each of them including the “life” I made up for the fictional the Reverend John Smeet.
The judge who presided over the case was Justice John Hathorne. Born in August of 1641, Hathorne was a merchant of Salem, Massachusetts. Hathorne prospered as a merchant with trading ventures to England and the West Indies. He owned land around Salem and in Maine. With economic power he combined political power, being Justice of the Peace in Essex County, and a member of the legislative upper chamber which combined the roles of legislature and high court. In 1692 Hathorne was one of the men who questioned the accusers and accused and was in favor of bringing the accused to trial. He was appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts as one of the judges of the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer that heard the trials. Hathorne always voted to convict.
Subsequent to the trials he saw service in the militia in King William’s War, taking part in 1696 in the siege of Fort Nashawaak in what became New Brunswick in Canada and rising to the rank of Colonel. He was eventually appointed to the Superior Court. He died on May 10, 1717.
Following the Salem witch trials, there was a wave of revulsion at the verdicts. Few doubted at that time that witches did exist, but many attacked the fairness of the trials, especially the concept of “spectral evidence” which allowed the accusers to testify as to what demons purportedly told them about the accused. Many people found this admission of supernatural hearsay to be not only fundamentally unfair but preposterous and feared that the accusers had been simply settling old family feuds with the accused.
Samuel Sewall, who would rise to be Chief Justice of Massachusetts, published a public apology for his role in the trials in 1697:
Samuel Sewall, sensible of the reiterated strokes of God upon himself and family, and being sensible that as to the guilt contracted upon the opening of the late Commission of Oyer and Terminer at Salem, he is, upon many accounts, more concerned than any that he knows of, desires to take the blame and shame of it, asking pardon of men, and especially desiring prayers that God, who has unlimited authority, would pardon that sin and all his other sins, personal and relative. And according to His infinite benignity and sovereignty, not visit the sin of him or of any other, upon himself or any of his, nor upon the land. But that he would prowerfully defend him against all the temptations to sin for the future, and vouchsafe him the efficacious, saving conduct of His Word and Spirit.
Hathorne never gave any indication that he repented for a moment of the part he played in the witch trials. His descendant, the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, is thought to have added the “W” to his name to distinguish himself from his ancestor.