The Trial of Thomas Maule: Free Press after Salem

In 1695, Thomas Maule, a Quaker, published Truth Held Forth and Maintained which defended Quaker religious practices, attacked Puritan practices, and criticized the Massachusetts Bay Colony for the legal methods taken during the Salem Witch Trials. Maule wrote, “their requital was by destroying the Lives of the Lord’s People, with whose innocent Blood, New-England remains defiled.” The publication of this book violated a ban set after the trials on any unsanctioned publications discussing the trials. The governor during the trials Sir William Phips wrote to England to explain the events during the end of the trials saying, “I have also put a stop to the printing of any discourse one way or the other that may increase the needless disputes of people upon this occasion.”

Yes, there were works written under the ban, but never published or authors used a false name or no name at all. Maule had his book published in New York under his own name. Acting Governor William Stoughton, Chief Justice of the Court of Oyer and Terminer during the witch trials, issued a warrant for the arrest of Maule. Sherriff George Corwin, the Salem sheriff who profited from looting property of confessed suspects, carried out the arrest and confiscated several copies of the book, all burned after the arrest.

The trial of Thomas Maule occurred in Salem in November 1696 with two of the judges having served over proceedings in Salem, Thomas Danforth from the examination of John Procter and Samuel Sewall from the Court of Oyer and Terminer. He faced charges since his book was “published without License or Authority, in which contained many notorious and wicked Lyes and Slanders, not only upon private Persons but also upon Government.” Maule needed to prove his innocence and did this by denying he wrote the book. While his name appeared on the title page, “the outside of the Book did not fully manifest to him what the inside thereof did contain.” The judges were frustrated with his denial and Danforth demanded Maule answer to the charge, but Maule said “the King did allow him the same liberty to have his Book…The Government is the King’s, or ought to be, and the Book are my own Goods, who as an English Merchant have good right by the King’s Laws to dispose of my Goods in any of the King’s Plantation.” Another aspect of the trial focused on flaws in theology published in the book, but Maule defended this, if he had written the book, many editions of scripture include printing errors, and therefore the interpretations presented in Truth Held Forth and Maintained are correct according to the scripture used to write the book.

After defending himself, he gave his final plea to the jury, “no Law of our Nation have I broken, as you will appear the Book has no evidence in Law against me, further to you it doth appear, I have writ…anything contrary to sound Doctrine…which if you take with any part of these Judge’s unjust Charge against me, and say, there is such like matter in my Book as they charge me with, you may seek to the Printer for satisfaction…and my Name to my Book made by the Printer does not in Law evidence to prove the same to be Thomas Maule, no more than the Spector Evidence in law is of force or validity to prove the person accused by said evidence to be the Witch.”

The jury found Maule “not guilty” which disappointed the judges. It was explained that the court could not prove Maule wrote the book, nor should the theological issues in the publication be debated in a civil court rather it should have been under the jurisdiction of experts in scripture.

The trial was significant in the development of free press and free speech. Emerson W. Baker discussed the trial in his book A Storm of Witchcraft:
“Regardless of the reasons for their verdict, the jury’s acquittal of Thomas Maule was a turning point in the history of not only the Salem Witch Trials, but also American jurisprudence. Before 1692, a Massachusetts jury would have undoubtedly convicted a troublemaking Quaker, a habitual offender who impudently challenged authority…Maule’s not guilty verdict, announced in the same courtroom and before some of the same magistrates who had sat in judgement of the victims of witchcrafts, signals a dramatic change. The case was a landmark for freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of religion.”

Maule, Thomas. Truth Held Forth and Maintained According to the Testimony of the Holy Prophets, Christ, and His Apostles recorded in the Holy Scriptures. William Bradford, 1695.

Maule, Thomas. New England Pesecutors [sic] Mauled with their Own Weapons, 1697.

Baker, Emerson. A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Witch Trials and the American Experience. Oxford University Press, 2015.

Phips, William. Letter of Sir William Phips. October 1692.

Roach, Marilynne. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002.

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