1692: The Salem witch trials’ last hangings

Add comment September 22nd, 2014 Headsman

This date in 1692 saw the last executions of the Salem witch trials.

Eight souls hanged from sturdy trees at Gallows Hill on the occasion:

  • Mary Easty (or Eastey)
  • Alice Parker
  • Mary Parker
  • Ann Pudeator
  • Wilmot Redd
  • Margaret Scott
  • Samuel Wardwell

As well as:

  • Martha Corey, days after her husband Giles was horribly pressed to death for refusing to recognize the court’s legitimacy by lodging any plea

This group of mostly older women (and one man who married an older widow) had, like their predecessors over the course of 1692, been the victims of wailing children charging them (with afflicted histrionics to match) as supernatural malevolents — and of the credulity of their neighbors and judges.

The latter was, at least, eroding by this point in time.

Shortly before her execution this day, Mary Easty addressed to the court a dignified petition less for her own life than for the safety of everyone else who might come under her honorable judges’ scrutiny — indicted as it stood by Easty’s own certitude of her innocence.

To the honorable judge and bench now sitting in judicature in Salem and the reverend ministers, humbly sheweth that whereas your humble poor petitioner being condemned to die doth humbly beg of you to take it into your judicious and pious consideration that your poor and humble petitioner, knowing my own innocency (blessed by the Lord for it) and seeing plainly the wiles and subtlety of my accusers by myself, cannot but judge charitably of others that are going the same way with myself if the Lord step not mightily in.

I was confined a whole month on the same account that I am now condemned for, and then cleared by the afflicted persons, as some of your honors know. And in two days time I was cried out upon by them, and have been confined and am now condemned to die.

The Lord above knows my innocency then and likewise doth now, as at the Great Day will be known to men and angels.

I petition to your honors not for my own life, for I know I must die, and my appointed time is set.

But the Lord He knows it is, if it be possible, that no more innocent blood be shed, which undoubtedly cannot be avoided in the way and course you go in.

I question not but your honors do to the utmost of your powers in the discovery and detecting of witchcraft, and witches, and would not be guilty of innocent blood for the world. But by my own innocency I know you are in the wrong way.

The Lord in his infinite mercy direct you in this great work, if it be His blessed will, that innocent blood be not shed.

I would humbly beg of you that your honors would be pleased to examine some of those confessing witches, I being confident that there are several of them have belied themselves and others, as will appear, if not in this world, I am sure in the world to come, whither I am going.

And I question not but yourselves will see an alteration in these things. They say myself and others have made a league with the Devil; we cannot confess. I know and the Lord He knows (as will shortly appear) they belie me, and so I question not but they do others. The Lord alone, who is the searcher of all hearts, knows that I shall answer it at the Tribunal Seat that I know not the least thing of witchcraft, therefore I cannot, I durst not belie my own soul.

I beg your honors not to deny this my humble petition for a poor dying innocent person, and I question not but the Lord will give a blessing to your endeavors.

Mary Easty

As she herself foresaw, Easty’s petition availed her own self nothing — but her judges would soon feel the rebuke Easty voiced.

Exactly why the Salem witch trials started when they did, and ended when they did, has always been a speculative matter. This occasion was a mere 15 weeks after the first Salem witch hanging. It was the largest single mass-hanging of the affair, and it brought the body count to 19 or 20, depending on whether you count Giles Corey. (His death by pressing wasn’t technically an “execution,” merely the violent termination of his life by a legally constituted judicial process.)

The snowballing investigation, sweeping up dozens more accused besides just those executed, was making people uneasy. It surely hastened the end of the hysteria that the little accusers started pointing their witch-detectors at people with actual power — notably at the wife of Massachusetts Gov. William Phip(p)s.

Phips had initially established the special Court of Oyer and Terminer that was finding his little colony honeycombed with necromancy. Now considering his creature to be run amok and targeting “several persons who were doubtless innocent,” Phips stopped proceedings in October — first, by barring so-called “spectral evidence” (which was tantamount to barring the trials altogether since kids claiming to be tormented by underworld spirits was the only evidence on hand); and on October 29, dissolving the court altogether and prohibiting further arrests.

A special court established to try the remaining 52 cases in January of 1693 acquitted 49 of the prisoners; the rest, and all those still in jail for witchcraft, were pardoned by May of 1693. Within just a few years, jurors and judges and even accusers issued public mea culpas for hanging the Salem “witches”.

The original witch-court’s Judge William Stoughton joined Cotton Mather in pridefully refusing to acknowledge the injustice they had helped to author.* Among most others, it would very quickly become shamefully understood that Salem had done the accused witches a very great wrong.

John Hale, the Puritan minister of nearby Beverly, Mass. — and like Gov. Phips a man who had had his own wife chillingly accused by one of the “possessed” brats — would later write a book ruminating on “the nature of witchcraft” (like Mary Easty, he wasn’t quite ready to give up the concept categorically). In it, he notes the forehead-slapping indicia of the witches’ innocence — and if we dock him points for obtaining his wisdom retrospectively, we might also consider as motes in our jaundiced eyes the ridiculous non-evidence and overlooked exculpations that have served to seat men and women on the mercy chair in our own time.

It may be queried then, How doth it appear that there was a going too far in this affair?

Answer I. — By the number of persons accused. It cannot be imagined, that, in a place of so much knowledge, so many, in so small a compass of land, should so abominably leap into the Devil’s lap, — at once.

Ans. II. — The quality of several of the accused was such as did bespeak better things, and things that accompany salvation. Persons whose blameless and holy lives before did testify for them; persons that had taken great pains to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, such as we had charity for as for our own souls, — and charity is a Christian duty, commended to us in 1 Cor. xiii, Col. iii.14, and many other places.

Ans. III. — The number of the afflicted by Satan daily increased, till about fifty persons were thus vexed by the Devil. This gave just ground to suspect some mistake.

Ans. IV. — It was considerable, that nineteen were executed, and all denied the crime to the death; and some of them were knowing persons, and had before this been accounted blameless livers. And it is not to be imagined but that, if all had been guilty, some would have had so much tenderness as to seek mercy for their souls in the way of confession, and sorrow for such a sin.

Ans. V. — When this prosecution ceased, the Lord so chained up Satan, that the afflicted grew presently well: the accused are generally quiet, and for five years since we have no such molestation by them.

In 300-odd years since September 22, 1692 on Gallows Hill, nobody else has been executed for witchcraft in the United States.

* Stoughton clashed with Phips to the extent of actually ordering in January 1693 the executions of old sentences that had been stayed for pregnancies or other reasons. Phips immediately blocked them, causing Stoughton to resign the bench.

Stoughton was no ordinary magistrate: he was also the sitting Lieutenant Governor, and would succeed Phips as the head man in Massachusetts. Had he been the man with executive power at the time all this toil and trouble bubbled over, considerably more than 20 souls might have been lost to the madness.

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1692: A batch at Tyburn, escorted by the Ordinary of Newgate

2 comments December 21st, 2012 Headsman

December 21 was an execution date at Tyburn in 1692, with eleven men and women put to death.

They were, as usual, physically escorted on the 21st — and spiritually escorted in the days leading up to that black date — by the Ordinary of Newgate.

We have often referred to this character and, in the present series, cited him repeatedly.

But who was the Ordinary of Newgate? Why is he so omnipresent in our English hanging narratives?

This clergyman was appointed to London’s stinking prison to tend to the souls of its inmates, particularly those condemned to die.

Under the tenure of Samuel Smith, the Ordinary of Newgate began in about 1684* to put out a regular broadsheet published the day after London’s eight or so annual hanging-days. Laboriously titled The Ordinary of Newgate, His Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of the Malefactors who were Executed at Tyburn, it was sold by street-peddlers for (at first) a penny.

A typical Ordinary’s account by Smith had a three-act arc:

  1. An account of the honored clergyman’s own sermonizing, even the literal day-by-day exhortations and their progress (or not) in bringing the condemned round to a satisfactory spiritual state. The Account for December 21, 1692, for instance, begins:

    THE Ordinary preacht several Sermons to the Condemed Criminals being Twenty One. The first was on the Lord’s-Day immediately before their Condemnation on the Monday following, from this Text, viz. The 19th. Psalm, the 12th. Verse. Who can understand the Errors of his Life? Cleanse thon me from my secret Faults. The Observation from the Words was this, That the smallest Sins even Errors in Opinion and Infirmities in our Obedience to God’s Laws, ought to be repented of, as needing pardoning Mercy.

  2. Biographical thumbnails of the condemned, of no regular format but often remarking the person’s age, profession, birthplace, and life circumstances … and always attentive to whether s/he had come by repentance. This is Samuel Smith’s take on one of the 11 hanged today:

    Robert Marshal: Condemned for Murthering William Curtys, in White-Chappel. He pretended now, as formerly, that he is blind, and Begged under that Disguise. But being denied Relief by Curtys, Marshal, with his Begging-staff, in both his Hands, struck him on the Head, and made a Fracture in his Skull, of which he died; and he immediately attempted to run away. He confessed on Tuesday, that though his Sight was not strong enough for Labour, yet he could see his Way, in Walking, so as to go safely. He was born in Jamaica, bred up a Sea-man . He was unwilling to give any Account of his Life, being very obstinate.

  3. The scene at Tyburn itself, with the Ordinary’s prayers and the public behavior and confessions of the doomed.

    They were fervently exhorted to Confess their Faults, the Effects of which had brought them to such disgrace: After which the Ordinary took great pains with them in Prayer, and other suitable Applications, to bring them to a sense of the near approaches of Death; to which they adher’d, and joined in the Prayers; and singing of a penitential Psalm in as fervent a manner as could be reasonably expected from Persons of so mean Education, as were the most of them. They lamented their dismal Fall, desiring all Spectators of such a Tragedy to be warn’d by them, &c.

    As to the Particulars of their Confessions. they did not much enlarge themselves; only the Blind Man was penitent, and desired all Persons to take warning by him; owning that he could see; hoping God would forgive him all his Offences, &c.

In the 18th century these hang-day reports would expand even further.

For historians these records, formulaic as they are, remain “a unique and inestimable source of knowledge of the poor people who were hanged.” (Linebaugh).

For the Ordinary’s contemporaries, they were something else besides: the voice of authority on “the Malefactors,” their usual submission, the facts of their lives and the expected public lessons of the crimes and punishments.** Certainly the Ordinary was at pains to assert his “official” status; in the Account at issue for this date’s hanging, he appends the notice,

Whereas there formerly have been, and still are, several False Accounts in Print, in relation to the Condemned Prisoners; and particularly, this very Session, that Robert Marshal, the Blind Beggar, was Executed two Days since; which is utterly false: The Ordinary thinks it necessary to acquaint the World, (to prevent the like for the future,) that no true Account can be given of the Condemned Prisoners Behaviour, Confessions, and Last Dying Speeches, which is not Attested under his own Hand.

Accept no substitutes!

The Ordinary had good reason to defend his position, for the Ordinary’s own livelihood depended upon his marketing his black-bordered pamphlets. This was naked entrepreneurship, direct to Smith’s pocket, and his product stood in competition with every other scandal-sheet hawker crowding the gallows.

Nor was the printed word the only way to monetize the office of Ordinary. In an environment when many people were condemned to death and many were pardoned, Smith was accused of shaking down prisoners to intervene for more lenient treatment.

For instance, in this wonderfully vicious send-off to the cleric after he died in 1698, satirist Thomas Brown accuses Smith (in the bolded passage) of taking payola to help illiterate prisoners claim benefit of clergy — an anachronistic legal mechanism wherein a condemned first-time offender could escape the noose by showing that he could read. (The loophole was reformed in 1706 to eliminate the reading test entirely, although this also came with making many offenses no longer “clergyable” at all.)

An Elegy on that most Orthodox and Pains-taking Divine, Mr. Samuel Smith, Ordinary of Newgate, who died of a Quinsey, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, the 24th of August, 1698.

Tyburn, lament, in pensive sable mourn,
For from the world thy ancient priest is torn.
Death, cruel death, thy learn’d divine has ended,
And by a quinsey from his place suspended.
Thus he expir’d in his old occupation,
And as he liv’d, he dy’d by suffocation.
Thou rev’rend pillar of the triple-tree,
I would say post, for it was prop’d by thee;
Thou penny-chronicler of hasty fate,
Death’s annalist, reformer of the state;
Cut-throat of texts, and chaplain of the halter,
In whose sage presence vice itself did faulter:
How many criminals, by thee assisted,
Old Smith, have been most orthodoxly twisted?
And when they labour’d with a dying qualm,
Were decently suspended to a psalm?
How oft hast thou set harden’d rogues a squeaking,
By urging the great sin of Sabbath-breaking;
And sav’d delinquents from Old Nick’s embraces,
By flashing fire and brimstone in their faces?
Thou wast a Gospel Smith, and after sentence
Brought’st sinners to the anvil of repentance;
And tho’ they prov’d obdurate at the sessions,
Couldst hammer out of them most strange confessions,
When plate was stray’d, and silver spoons were missing,
And chamber-maid betray’d by Judas kissing.
Thy christian bowels chearfully extended
Towards such, as by their Mammon were befriended.
Tho’ Culprit in enormous acts was taken,
Thou would’st devise a way to save his bacon;
And if his purse could bleed a half pistole,
Legit, my lord, he reads, upon my soul.

Spite of thy charity to dying wretches,
Some fools would live to bilk thy gallows speeches.
But who’d refuse, that has a taste of writing,
To hang, for one learn’d speech of thy inditing?
Thou always hadst a conscientious itching,
To rescue penitents from Pluto’s kitchen;
And hast committed upon many a soul
A pious theft, but so St. Austin stole:
And shoals of robbers, purg’d of sinful leaven,
By thee were set in the high road to heaven.
With sev’ral mayors hast thou eat beef and mustard,
And frail mince-pies, and transitory custard.
But now that learned head in dust is laid,
Which has so sweetly sung, and sweetly pray’d:
Yet, tho’ thy outward man is gone and rotten,
Thy better part shall never be forgotten.
While Newgate is a mansion for good fellows,
And Sternhold‘s rhimes are murder’d at the gallows;
While Holborn cits at execution gape,
And cut-purse follow’d is by man of crape;
While Grub-street Muse, in garrets so sublime,
Trafficks in doggrel, and aspires to rhime;
Thy deathless name and memory shall reign,
From fam’d St. Giles’s, to Smithfield, and Duck-lane.
But since thy death does general sorrow give,
We hope thou in thy successor will live.
Newgate and Tyburn jointly give their votes,
Thou may’st succeeded be by Dr. Oates.

* There are irregular Smith accounts from the late 1670s (he took over the position in 1675) as he felt out the genre, but he only institutionalized the periodical in the mid-1680s.

** Smith and all the Ordinaries harp endlessly on what amount to “gateway crimes”: idleness, drunkenness, bad company, and especially (as our satirist observes) breaking the Sabbath. They’re constantly inveigling prisoners to warn the execution crowd against these vices.

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1692: Martha Carrier, ferocious woman

8 comments August 19th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1692 was the third of four execution dates during the notorious Salem witch trials.

Five souls were dispatched at Gallows Hill this date. With the executioner’s due respect to John Willard, George Burroughs, George Jacobs, Sr. and The Crucible main character John Proctor, we’re elated this date to focus on the only woman among them — Martha Carrier.

Carrier is the subject of the recent historical novel The Heretic’s Daughter by her tenth-generation descendant Kathleen Kent, whom we’re delighted to welcome for an interview on this anniversary.

How did you first learn of your connection to Martha Carrier, and how does your family feel about this link?

I was very fortunate to have heard stories of the colonial Carriers from the time I was a young child. My first memory of hearing about the Salem witch trials was when I was eight years old, visiting my maternal grandmother. She was the first one to tell me that my grandmother back nine generations, Martha Carrier, had been hanged as a witch in 1692. When I asked her if Martha was in fact a witch, my grandmother said, “Sweetheart, there are no such things as witches, just ferocious women.”

She, along with the rest of my family, had a great sense of pride over Martha’s courage in standing up to her accusers. She was one of the few people, out of the 150 New Englanders accused of practicing witchcraft, who not only refused to admit to being guilty, but also never accused anyone else of being a witch, which most people did to save themselves.

Your book tells the story of Martha Carrier from the perspective of her 10-year-old daughter. As an author, how did you approach the research, especially when it comes to Martha as an individual? Is that something you were able to source pretty strongly or did it require a lot of filling in the blanks?

The Heretic’s Daughter was my first novel, and it took five years of research and writing to complete it.

Fortunately, there is a wealth of historical information about the colonies during that time. The courts where the witch trials were conducted kept very meticulous records so I was able to gather a lot of facts regarding the magistrates and deponents, as well as the accused. There are so many wonderful fiction and non-fiction books alike that have been written about the Salem witch trials, but I wanted to write a very personal story about the Carrier family; how they lived day to day, how they survived disease, Indian raids, hostility from their neighbors, and ultimately the witch trials. I was able to weave in a lot of my family’s stories — the cow that gave golden milk, Andrew’s near death experience in the prison — that have been passed down through 10 generations.

When I first began working on the book, it was written from Martha’s point of view, but I decided it would make more compelling reading if the narrator was one of the Carrier children, Sarah, and it is through her eyes that we see the growing hysteria over witchcraft, and her struggle with Martha’s strong, unyielding character. This theme of mother-daughter conflict is central to the book’s development.

So, who was Martha Carrier and why did she become one of the people caught up in the Salem witch trials?

Martha Carrier had evidently long been resented by the community in Andover, where the Carrier family lived during the Salem witch trials, because of her forceful nature. She argued over boundary lines with several neighbors (which was a common occurrence amongst the settlers), telling one neighbor, “I will stick as close to you as bark on a tree.” (source: Salem witch trial deposition; see this document) She was also married to a man who had fought in the English Civil War, and was widely rumored to be one of the executioners of King Charles I of England. Martha fell outside of the Puritan ideal of what a woman was supposed to be and was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that when she was asked by her judges if she had ever seen the Devil, she responded by telling them that the only devils she had ever seen were the men sitting in judgment before her.


One of 20 granite benches commemorating the Salem witch trial victims at a memorial. (cc) image from Deaf RED Bear.

Her own children accused her of witchcraft. Are you descended through those kids as well? And do we know anything about how they later dealt with or rationalized that act?

My family is descended from Tom, Jr., and I learned the full genealogy at an early age from my grandparents. Four of Martha’s five children were arrested to compel her to admit to being guilty. Her two oldest sons were arrested first, and they were tortured until they agreed to testify against their mother. Tom and Sarah were then arrested — the real Sarah being only 7 years old at the time, and the second youngest child to be imprisoned during the trials — and they quickly admitted that they, too, were complicit in witchcraft.

During the research, I discovered how truly awful the conditions were in the Salem jail. Nearly half of the 150 people arrested from towns all over New England were under the age of 18. The surprising thing was not that people died, but that anyone survived at all. The four children were kept imprisoned for months after their mother was hanged and they were finally released in the fall of 1692. Within a few years, their father, Thomas, collected his children and grandchildren and moved to the wilds of Connecticut to start a new life.

How did she try to defend herself?

Martha Carrier was so vocal in her own defense during the trials that Cotton Mather, one of the most famous theologians of his day, named her the “Queen of Hell.”

This Rampant Hag, Martha Carrier, was the Person, of whom the Confessions of the Witches, and of her own Children among the rest, agreed, That the Devil had promised her, she should be Queen of Hell.

Mather

When she was confronted by the accusing girls, she turned to her judges and said, “It is a shameful thing that you should listen to these folks who are out of their wits.”

By the time of her arrest, several women had already been sentenced to be hanged, and she knew that her refusal to confess would mean death. She never wavered in her testimony and never accused another person to save herself, even when her four children were arrested and two of her sons were tortured.

Do you feel like she’s an overlooked figure in this affair? She’s not, for instance, even a character in The Crucible.

Arthur Miller did extensive research for The Crucible, but he did make changes to the historical facts for fictional purposes: for example John Proctor was in his seventies during the trials; hardly the strapping figure played by Daniel Day Lewis in the film adaptation.

There were so many remarkable people and events during the trials that he had to choose selectively in order to illustrate his primary motivation in writing the play which was to shed light on the McCarthy era communist “witch” trials.

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote about Martha Carrier, as did Cotton Mather, but her forceful character made her a difficult subject, especially when there were more motherly figures like Rebecca Nurse, or titillating young characters like Abigail Williams to explore.

At this distance of time, Martha Carrier must have a great many descendants. Are you in touch with other branches of the family?

Soon after publishing The Heretic’s Daughter, I started getting emails and letters from fellow descendents of Thomas and Martha Carrier telling me that they, too, had heard many of the stories that I had grown up with.

For the release of my second novel, The Wolves of Andover, about Thomas Carrier’s life, I decided it would be fun to invite some of these extended family members to Salem for a book launch. On November 5th, 2010, nearly 250 Carrier descendents, some of them flying in from as far away as Washington State, California and Arizona, came to Salem for a weekend of author talks, receptions and story swapping. A video on my web site captured some of the highlights from that remarkable weekend.

We came as strangers and left Salem as family.

Ultimately, what’s changed about you yourself from your literary encounter with this famous ancestor?

The Salem witch trials were a dark period in American history, but from researching those events I discovered that positive changes occurred over time in the judicial system, the penal system, and for religious tolerance. I am awe-struck by the courage and fortitude of the settlers who sacrificed so much for their children and grandchildren.

And I am especially proud of my heritage: that my 9x great-grandmother defended her principles and conscience, even in the face of death. An interviewer once asked if, having written the novel, I felt I was speaking for Martha Carrier, and I said that I felt she had been speaking for me. A ferocious woman indeed!

With your second book, The Wolves of Andover, you’ve written two about the Carrier family. What’s your next project?

Wolves is a prequel to Heretic, as it explores the life of Thomas Carrier during the English Civil War and his journey to the new world from London.

I am about halfway through my third novel, but this one is quite different from the first two. It takes place during reconstruction era Texas in 1870, and chronicles a particularly chaotic, violent time in Texas history.

There’s another fine interview with Kathleen Kent here. -ed.

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1692: Bridget Bishop, the first Salem witch hanging

4 comments June 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1692, the pious folk of Salem, Mass., hanged their first witch.

Local bawd Bridget Bishop, pushing 60 and onto her third husband, was a natural target for the emergent civic insanity.

She liked living it up down at the tavern with a red bodice and the occasional game of shuffleboard. When she entered the courtroom, all the little brats with the sorcery stories (strangers to the accused before all this started) fell down and howled. When the Salem goodwives were tasked with groping her for bodily disfigurements that might be a witches’ mark, they

discovered a preternathurall Excresence of flesh between the pudendum and Anus much like to Tetts & not usuall in women

Bishop was obstinate in repelling the charges against her, even uppity enough to question her persecutors’ categorical assumptions.

I am innocent I know nothing of it I am no witch I know not what a witch is.

(Both the above excerpts can be found in the proceedings against Bishop — and other witchcraft defendants — lodged here.)

The local respectable citizens certainly weren’t about to entertain any wisecracking about the whole “witch” construct from the likes of Bishop. (She’d already been accused once before, in 1680.) In Puritan Bible-basher Cotton Mather’s embarrassing 1693 defense of the proceedings, he’s got Bishop’s WMDsdaemonic influences confidently sussed out.

There was little Occasion to prove the Witchcraft, it being Evident and Notorious to all Beholders. Now to fix the Witchcraft on the Prisoner at the Bar, the first thing used, was the Testimony of the Bewitched; whereof several Testify’d, That the Shape of the Prisoner did oftentimes very grievously pinch them, choak them, Bite them, and Afflict them; urging them to write their Names in a Book, which the said Spectre called, Ours. One of them did further Testify, that it was the Shape of this Prisoner, with another, which one Day took her from her Wheel, and carrying her to the River side, threatned there to Drown her, if she did not Sign to the Book mentioned: which yet she refused. Others of them did also Testify, that the said Shape did in her Threats brag to them that she had been the Death of sundry persons, then by her Named; that she had Ridden a man then likewise Named. Another Testify’d the Apparition of Ghosts unto the Spectre of Bishop, crying out, You Murdered us! About the Truth whereof, there was in the matter of Fact but too much Suspicion.

With this kind of slam-dunk evidence, Puritan New England wasn’t the sort of place to suffer a condemned enchantress a lot of dilatory appeals. Victims demanded closure, and two days after Bridget Bishop heard her sentence, she was strung up at Salem’s aptly named Gallows Hill.

There is at this point in the timeline of the Salem hysteria a slight pause in the proceedings as, having crossed the Rubicon and actually begun stretching necks, colonial elites consulted one another as regards the unfolding tragedy (and in the case of one of the judges, resigned).

The remainder finding themselves still committed to the crazy, Salem fired up its witch trials in earnest at the end of the month and greased the hanging rope for 18 more noosings, plus the nasty pressing to death of Giles Corey, over the months ahead.

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1692: Giles Corey, “more weight!”

9 comments September 19th, 2009 Headsman

Monday, September 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press’d to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket, who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.
Diary of Salem witch trials judge Samuel Sewall

Pressing to death — peine forte et dure — was a brutal procedure that wasn’t technically a method of execution: courts used it to extract a plea from a defendant, since the law of the time (altered in the 18th century) would not allow criminal proceedings to get underway without one.

Procedure: stake a fellow down and start piling crushing weight on his chest for hours or days until he agrees to enter a plea and start the trial.

For the sufficiently obstinate prisoner, it was a manner of exiting the world quite a bit more unpleasant than hanging. But it came with one significant advantage: since one died without a capital conviction, one could pass on one’s property rather than having it confiscated by the state. For Giles Corey, that was worth two days of agony.

PROCTOR: And Giles?

ELIZABETH: You have not heard of it?

PROCTOR:* I hear nothin’, where I am kept.

ELIZABETH: Giles is dead.

(He looks at her incredulously.)

PROCTOR: When were he hanged?

ELIZABETH (quietly, factually): He were not hanged. He would not answer aye or nay to his indictment; for if he denied the charge they’d hang him surely, and auction out his property. So he stand mute, and died Christian under the law. And so his sons will have his farm. It is the law, for he could not be condemned a wizard without he answer the indictment, aye or nay.

PROCTOR: Then how does he die?

ELIZABETH (gently): They press him, John.

PROCTOR: Press?

ELIZABETH: Great stones they lay upon his chest until he please aye or nay. (With a tender smile for the old man.) They say he give them but two words. ‘More weight,’ he says. And died.

PROCTOR (numbed — a thread to weave into his agony): ‘More weight’.

ELIZABETH: Aye. It were a fearsome man, Giles Corey.

Arthur Miller‘s The Crucible

Hard core, that Giles Corey.

Giles Cory pleaded not guilty to his indictment, but would not put himself on Tryal by the Jury (they having cleared none upon tryal) and knowing there would be the same witnesses against him, rather chose to undergo what death they would put him to. In pressing his tongue being forced out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying. He was the first in New England that was ever prest to death. (Source)

* Arthur Miller availed himself some dramatic license in The Crucible; among the more trifling was that the historical John Proctor was actually hanged a month before Giles Corey’s death.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Massachusetts,Milestones,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Torture,USA,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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