The Questionable Legacy of Judge John Hathorne
At a pretrial hearing in 1692, Judge John Hathorne scowled at Sarah Good and thundered, “What evil spirit have you familiarity with?” Today a half-decent defense attorney would object on grounds of leading the witness, but in those frenzied days of the Salem witch trials, lawyers were nonexistent and judges operated under the assumption that the accused was guilty.
Hathorne, the great-grandfather of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, was among the judges who presided over the witch trials. Though the men were well-educated elites versed in the nuances of English common law, fear of God trumped due process and resulted in death sentences for 20 people. At the time, the colony was already a roiling cauldron of political, economic, and social strife. “Things look so bad for Massachusetts in 1692 that this deeply religious colony and these deeply religious judges are convinced that God has set Satan loose,” says historian Emerson Baker, a professor at Salem State University who has authored several books on the witch trials.
Despite his role in the judicial fiasco, Hathorne’s star only kept rising until his death in 1717. After the witch trials, the king of England approved Hathorne’s membership in the Governor’s Council, and he was named a colonel in the militia. To this day, his questionable legacy is memorialized in Salem’s old burial grounds. “He didn’t take a hit at all,” Baker says. “It’s ironic, because clearly within a few years, people realized that the system of justice had erred terribly.”
Where to See It: The Burying Point, in Salem