On the Subject of Mass Hysteria: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the United States Post 9/11

The Execution of Giles Corey

The Execution of Giles Corey

By Elaine Magliaro

The first post that I wrote for Res Ipsa Loquitor as a guest blogger in 2010 was about Giles Corey. Corey, an elderly man, was a victim of the Salem witch hysteria. He was executed–not by hanging…but by being crushed to death. What prompted me to write about Corey at that time was the fact that people in our country were being whipped into frenzies by the following things: the belief that Sharia law could be instituted in the United States, the proposed building of a Muslim cultural center not far from Ground Zero, and stories about Americans being beheaded in the Arizona desert.

After the release of the Senate’s CIA torture report earlier this week, I thought it appropriate to revisit the Salem Witch Hysteria–another shameful period in our country’s history when innocent people were put to death because of fear–the kind of fear that lead our country down the dark tunnel to torturing human beings in the aftermath of 9/11.

Here’s a poem by an unknown author that summarizes the story of Giles Corey’s ordeal:

THE MAN OF IRON

Giles Corey was a wizard strong, a stubborn wretch was he;
And fit was he to hang on high upon the locust tree.

So, when before the Magistrates for trial he did come,
He would no true confession make, but was completely dumb.

“Giles Corey,” said the Magistrate, “What hast thou here to plead
To those who now accuse thy sould of crime and horrid deed?”

Giles Corey he said not a word, no single word spoke he.
“Giles Corey,” said the Magistrate, “We’ll press it out of thee.”

They got them then a heavy beam, then laid it on his breast;
They loaded it with heavy stones, and hard upon him pressed.

“More weight,” now said this wretched man. “More weight!” again he cried;
And he did no confession make, but wickedly he died.

Giles Corey refused to stand trial. He believed there was no possibility that he would be found not guilty. Corey was not hanged. His punishment was different from the punishment of those found guilty in their witchcraft trials. “Because Giles stood mute, he was given the dreaded sentence of peine forte et dure even though this procedure had been determined to be illegal by the government of Massachusetts.” In September of 1692, Corey was crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones—while his neighbors watched. “Robert Calef, in his report of the event, added a gruesome detail: Giles’s ‘tongue being prest out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his cane forced it in again, when he was dying.’”

About the Salem Witch Hysteria from the Salem Witch Museum:

In January of 1692, the daughter and niece of Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village became ill. When they failed to improve, the village doctor, William Griggs, was called in. His diagnosis of bewitchment put into motion the forces that would ultimately result in the death by hanging of nineteen men and women. In addition, one man was crushed to death; seven others died in prison, and the lives of many were irrevocably changed.

To understand the events of the Salem witch trials, it is necessary to examine the times in which accusations of witchcraft occurred. There were the ordinary stresses of 17th-century life in Massachusetts Bay Colony. A strong belief in the devil, factions among Salem Village fanatics and rivalry with nearby Salem Town, a recent small pox epidemic and the threat of attack by warring tribes created a fertile ground for fear and suspicion. Soon prisons were filled with more than 150 men and women from towns surrounding Salem. Their names had been “cried out” by tormented young girls as the cause of their pain. All would await trial for a crime punishable by death in 17th-century New England, the practice of witchcraft.

**********

History marches on…but some things do not change. As Wislawa Szymborska wrote in her poem “Tortures”:

Nothing has changed.
The body shudders as it shuddered
before the founding of Rome and after,
in the twentieth century before and after Christ.
Tortures are just as they were, only the earth has grown smaller,
and what happens sounds as if it’s happening in the next room.

NOTE: You can read more about Giles Corey in the sources I linked to below.

SOURCES

Salem Witch Trials

Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

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9 Responses to On the Subject of Mass Hysteria: The Salem Witch Trials of 1692 and the United States Post 9/11

  1. blouise says:

    As always, when mankind is behaving badly, it is a good idea to quietly look for those who benefit from the bad behavior. History eventually strips away the fear and hysteria to reveal the profiteers.

    I remember an American history class I took in college. One segment was on Congregationals/Presbyterian s (Pilgrims/Puritans) and the witch hunting frenzy that had engulfed Europe and spread to the new world. The grade for that particular segment was based on an essay question that had been posited at the beginning of the segment and was dependent on each student’s own research into the period. Who Benefited Most From The Witch Trials held In The Colonies?

    I filled one blue book with my answer and received an “A”. Doctors were an emerging profession at the time and midwives were their only real competition. I remember that was my topic sentence and the rest of the blue book’s contents supported that position. When the Witch Trials finally came to an end here in the colonies, doctors were firmly entrenched and midwifery was on the wane. (This was also true in Europe)

    Get a jump on history. In the midst of the fear and hysteria, quietly look for those who profit and what role they are playing in the fear mongering.

  2. Torture – “which” hunting – the {un}patriotic thing to do?

    After 9/11 – if one even dared to criticize the President, question authority, speak out about not going to war; the community would rally together and trounce your arguments that Saddam couldn’t nuke anything – by your neighbors trying to cook you.

    Most forget that Bush’s POTUS rating was one of the worst of all time and then he said “I’ve hit the trifecta”. Many progressives shied away from me – as did others of others in McCarthy days.

    Self preservation serves many evils!

  3. Elaine M. says:

    blouise,

    There has also been talk about disputes over land being a reason for some victims being accused of witchcraft.

    About Rebecca Nurse from Wikipedia:

    The Nurse family had been involved in a number of acrimonious land disputes with the Putnam family. On March 23, 1692, a warrant was issued for her arrest based upon accusations made by Edward and John Putnam. Upon hearing of the accusations the frail 71-year-old Nurse, often described as an invalid, said, “I am innocent as the child unborn, but surely, what sin hath God found out in me unrepented of, that He should lay such an affliction on me in my old age.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rebecca_Nurse

    From a local source:
    In Honor of Rebecca Nurse–Hanged: July 19, 1692

    Rebecca and Francis Nurse found themselves in a land dispute with the very powerful and influential Putnam family. When in March 1692 Ann Putnam charged Rebecca with witchcraft the community is stunned. At her trial the verdict is, at first not guilty. But then… the jury is instructed to reconsider because the strange behavior of the accusers continued. Sentenced to hang on July 19, 1692 after the jury re-examined their verdict Rebecca Nurse goes to her death. Afterwards, the corpse is buried in a common grave but in the clouds of midnight, Nurse’s family reburies the body within the grounds of her homestead.

    http://patch.com/massachusetts/salem/in-honor-of-rebecca-nurse-hanged-july-19-1692

  4. Crap such as that – by the greatest evil does upon the earth (profiting off of mayhem/homicide) – makes me weep and vexes me to anger – greatly.

    How many innocents slaughtered – and how many guilty played a part!

  5. buckaroo says:

    “When the Illinois Democrat talks about bringing together red and blue America, does he mean that he will persuade the red (Republican) part to come around to blue (Democratic) policies — or does he mean that he will forge a new, centrist answer that will bridge the red-blue divide?

  6. Anonymously Yours says:

    When times change, human nature rarely recalls.

  7. Bob Stone says:

    Did you know that when you take the phrase “snitches get stitches” and run it through Google translate, you get this:

    “Let either of you breathe a word, or the edge of a word, about the other things, and I will come to you in the black of some terrible night and I will bring a pointy reckoning that will shudder you.”

    Fascinating.

  8. blouise says:

    Elaine,

    (I am referring to the Witch Craze that ran from the mid 1600’s through the early to mid 1700’s here, in the Colonies. Earlier witch hunts I in Europe were more grounded in religiosity and loss of power fears on the part of the elites.. The Colonies were late to the game but here, as earlier in Europe, the Witch Craze was driven mainly by the elites and especially medical doctors looking to solidify their incomes.)

    Lots of folks jumped on board to take advantage of the atmosphere but the fledgling medical practices of predominantly male doctors received the greatest long-term benefits. Midwives with their herbs, potions, and politicized remedies were eradicated both here and abroad. This “witchcraft” view is still present today … think Alternative Medicine and its wary relationship with the American Medical Association.

  9. Bob just imitated Spock..

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