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.