On this day in 1692, three residents of Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony were charged with the illegal practice of witchcraft. Twelve-year-old Abigail Williams and ten-year-old Elizabeth Parris were ill with some unknown sickness, and accused the trio of biting and pinching the girls, and poking them with knitting needles.
Massachusetts Governor William Phips established “Courts of Oyer and Terminer” (to hear and determine) to hear the charges. Sarah Goode, Sarah Osborne, and an Indian slave from Barbados named Tituba, being the first so accused. Five men and fourteen women were hanged as witches over the following seven months. As many as 17 more died in the tiny, freezing stone compartments which then passed for jail cells.
According to the law of the time, the accused were required to enter a plea. Guilty or not guilty. Without such a plea, there could be no trial. On March 19, 72-year-old Martha Corey was arrested for witchcraft. Martha’s husband, 81-year-old Giles Cory, was so caught up in the hysteria as to join in the accusations against his wife. Until he himself was accused.
Martha Corey: “I, sir, am innocent to a witch. I know not what a witch is”.
Judge Hathorne: “If you know not what a witch is, how do you know you are not one?” ~ The Crucible
Corey refused to plead, so he was subjected to the “peine forte et dure” (French: “hard and forceful punishment”). Stripped naked and placed under a board, Corey was tied spread-eagle on is back, his arms and legs secured, by cords. Stones of increasing size were heaped on top, to extract his plea. This torture went on for two days, the man given nothing but the “worst bread” on day one, and “standing” water, the following day.
Knowing his possessions would be forfeit to his tormentor in the event of conviction, Corey’s only response was “more weight”.
Giles Corey’s persecutor was Essex County High Sheriff George Corwin, he who signed warrants for the arrest and execution of those condemned of witchcraft. It was he who (conveniently) received the belongings, of those so condemned. In the end, Corwin himself was standing atop the pile of stones, shoving Corey’s tongue back into his mouth, with a cane.
The end came on Monday September 19, around noon. One witness remembered the old farmer’s last words: “Damn you. I curse you and Salem!” Martha Corey was hanged, three days later.
“Politics: A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage”. – Ambrose Bierce
Even then, George Corwin came after Corey’s adult children, to extort money from the Corey farm. What a guy. In 1710, Corey’s daughter Elizabeth and her husband John Moulton filed a lawsuit, seeking damages. Elizabeth’s statement to the court said, “After our father’s death the sheriff threatened to seize our father’s estate and for fear we complied with him and paid him eleven pound six shillings in money.”
The hideous nature of Giles Corey’s death did much to cool the ardor, for the persecution of witches. Governor Phips dissolved the Courts of Oyer and Terminer a month later, around the time his own wife was accused of witchcraft.
This George Corwin character must have been some 14-carat SOB but, he would get what he had coming, in the end. Four years after the witchcraft hysteria of 1692, the High Sheriff died of an apparent heart attack, at the age of 30. Salem resident Phillip English was accused in the earlier madness, when Corwin seized his property. English put a lien on the corpse and delayed its burial, until he could be reimbursed. The lien was eventually satisfied, and the debt paid back. How long George Corwin was left to rot, is unknown to this writer.
Sometime in the 1830s, the writer Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “W” to his name, distancing himself from his twice-great grandfather and Salem witch trial judge, John Hathorne. It didn’t do a lick of good for the poor collection of oddballs and outcasts who would not survive the witchcraft hysteria of 1692.
For three hundred years, nineteen innocents were believed to have been hanged on Gallows Hill. You can visit Gallows Hill Park if you like, in modern-day Salem. Today it’s more of a skate park, than historic site. In 2016, the Gallows Hill Project of Salem State University determined the place to have been Proctor’s Ledge, not Gallows Hill. It’s an interesting story in itself, for those inclined to read more. Salem State’s story, is linked above.