Governor, Sir William Phips
Written By Brendan Dignan

Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001

William Phips was born on February 2, 1651 in the then remote trading village of Woolwich, Maine. Though most historical accounts, including Cotton Mather's biography, traditionally viewed Phips' upbringing as socially disadvantaged, there is now evidence that his family was moderately prosperous. Phips' father co-owned and operated a trading post plantation involved in the trade of fur and weapons between local Wabanaki Indians and English settlers. Phips was one of the youngest of fourteen children born to two different fathers. Formal education was rare in rural Maine, and Phips was illiterate until he began to study in Boston.

In young adulthood, William Phips moved to Boston as a ships carpenter after a four-year apprenticeship near his home. He then married Mary Spencer Hull in 1673, the widow of the prosperous Boston merchant, John Hull. It is probable that William and Mary knew each other as children since both their fathers interacted through business in the same region of Maine. With significantly more social status in Boston, Phips became a sea captain. Knowing that it would take a long time to gain capital as a simple ship captain, he needed to broaden his trading territory. In Daniel Defoe's 1697 Essay upon Projects, DeFoe describes Phips as a "projector," one who "sought wealth and advancement through money-making schemes financed by others." Phips traveled to London in 1683 to seek patronage and funding for treasure hunting among sunken Spanish ships in the Caribbean, and he acquired the financial backing that he needed. With his crew and ship, Phips sailed to the Caribbean, finding substantial treasure in the sea in 1687 when he and his ship, the James and Mary, came across the wreck of the Spanish ship, Concepcion. The crew took between 205,000 to 210,000 English pounds of treasure, an incredible amount of money for the day. One tenth was given to the royal crown and Phips profited by 11,000 pounds, and thus gained a good amount of fortune and fame in London.

In recognition to his loyalty to the Crown for returning to England with his booty, Phips was called to Windsor Castle and was knighted by King James II on June 28, 1687 at the age of 36. This was truly a remarkable achievement for a young man of no nobility, born in the backwoods of New England. Phips returned to Boston as New England's new provost marshal general, a legal position for which he had no experience. He did not remain in Boston long and returned to London giving up his post. Before this trip, he befriended the President of Harvard College, Rev. Increase Mather, and his son the Rev. Cotton Mather, a relationship that would prove to be politically helpful.

In 1689, he made a profession of faith at Cotton Mather's Church and was baptized. While Phips may have found a new sense of spirituality, it is possible that this religious conversion was a means to bring himself closer to the two influential Mathers. The Mathers ensured that Phips was chosen to command military expeditions against the French colonies of Acadia and Canada. These expeditions, especially in Canada were disastrous. For the next two years, Phips resided in London, petitioning for the Massachusetts Charter along with Increase Mather. When the new charter was granted in 1691, Mather used his influence to nominate Phips to be the first Royal Governor of the Colony under the new charter.

When Phips and Mather returned to Massachusetts on May 14, they arrived over two months after the witchcraft accusations began in Salem Village. Already, magistrates were clamoring for the trial of the accused, many of which were already in prison. Phips ordered that "Irons should be put upon those in prison" and subsequently created the Court of Oyer and Terminer, to "hear and determine" the large backlog of cases. Phips placed prominent and experienced men of Boston and Salem on the new court, under the new lieutenant-governor, William Stoughton whom he placed in charge. This would be a decision that would scar Phip's character in history, as Stoughton was an unrelenting zealot, who looked to find guilt by means of spectral evidence, in nearly every one accused of witchcraft. The court's aggressive use of spectral evidence and the seeking of confessions, backed up by naming new suspects, led to the unrelenting spread of witchcraft accusations across the eastern Colony and brought discredit upon the trials.

Years later, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts determined the Court of Oyer and Terminer to be illegal in order to avoid lawsuits, but the court was indeed a legal entity in 1692, created by the legitimate royal governor. Phips remained in Boston throughout the summer until mid-August when departing for Pemaquid in Maine to fortify defenses. Before leaving, he granted a reprieve to Rebecca Nurse, one of the condemned, but this was subsequently withdrawn. Whether Stoughton, or perhaps the Mathers, had some influence on this decision is unknown. Nevertheless, Phips failed to recognize from the beginning the problems associated with the trials, most notably that innocent people were being convicted and executed on the basis of spectral evidence.

Upon returning to the colony, Phips "found many persons in a strange ferment of dissatisfaction . . . [and] found that the Devill had taken upon him the name and shape of several persons who were doubtless innocent." Phips had been known to play with astrology, and was a believer in the existence of witchcraft. Nevertheless, he knew the court was making grave mistakes, no doubt coming to this conclusion after speaking with Increase Mather who "unequivocally condemned spectral evidence" in Cases of Conscience.

Phips took a stronger role against his lieutenant governor, pardoning eight people whom Stoughton condemned to die, months after the executions had stopped. Phips chastised Stoughton for his ruthless abandonment of order in a letter to the King on February 21, 1693. Though Phips used this letter to defend himself, the fact remains that Phips created the Court due to the insistence of the clerical and political authorities in Boston, for what he thought was a legitimate legal need. Though Phips did eventually put an end to the Court, his failure to control the court's aggressive actions during the summer allowed the persecutions to continue. If Phips is to be judged innocent by history, it is only due to ignorance about the misuse of spectral evidence and his trust in the judgment of his clerical friends, Increase and Cotton Mather, and his lieutenant governor William Stoughton.

Sir William gained enemies over the next couple years by his failure to gain English control over French and Native American forces in New England and Canada. The King recalled him to England where he died of fever on February 13, 1693.


Baker, Emerson W. and John G. Reid. The New England Knight, Sir William Phips 1651-1695,1998.

Miller, Perry. "The Judgment of the Witches," in The New England Mind: From Colony to Province, 1953.

Phips, Governor, Sir William. Letters of Governor Phips to the Home Government, 1692-1693, 1693. In George L. Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648 - 1706, 1914.

Rosenthal, Bernard. Salem Story, Reading the Witch Trials of 1692,1993.