September 17th, 1692 – Salem, Massachusetts – Part 2
When we left the courtroom I soon found out that this unusual day was not quite over. Nathaniel told me to stay beside him and we followed the throng of people as they left, all apparently going to the same place. As we walked, Nathaniel explained that we were going to witness the torture of one Giles Corey. Corey had been accused of being a witch by three of the “afflicted” girls. One stated that he had appeared to her as a specter, beaten her, and tried to force her to write her name in the Devil’s book. This, it seems, was the procedure for making a covenant with the Devil and thus becoming a witch. A second girl testified that a ghost had appeared to her and announced that it had been murdered by Corey. Later other girls would state that he was a dreadful wizard and tell stories of spectral assaults. I could not work out why we were heading to a torture, nor what manner of torture it would be, since my understanding was that those convicted of witchcraft were hanged. Nathaniel was kind enough to enlighten me.
Giles Corey had been in jail already for five months, along with his wife Martha who had been accused first. Giles defended her, thus earning the attention and accusations of the girls, but interestingly he had originally testified against her. Perhaps she had burned dinner that night. Knowing full well that he would be convicted, he refused to enter a plea of either guilty or not guilty. Without a plea there could be no trial and he could not be convicted. In this situation the penalty for refusing to plead was known as “peine forte et dure” – French for “strong and hard punishment”. I would soon find out what this entailed.
The crowd had come to a stop in a field next to the jail, and they were forming a circle around a shallow pit that had been dug, with a large pile of boulders behind it. Standing beside the pit was an old man who looked to be at least 80 and Nathaniel informed me that this was Giles Corey. Another man, who turned out to be the sheriff, was holding Corey by the arm and now that everyone was here the unpleasantness began. The sheriff asked Corey one more time if he was willing to plead guilty or not guilty. When Corey refused he was made to get naked and lie down on his back in the pit. A wooden board was then placed over his body, with just his head sticking out, and several men began to place the boulders on top of the wooden board. By the time they stopped there was an enormous weight pushing down on Corey. I really did not want to stay and watch this, but the last thing I wanted was to draw attention to myself. For several hours the crowd remained there watching Corey’s suffering. Eventually, as darkness approached, the crowd began to disperse and Nathaniel took me to his home.
Over the course of the next day we returned to the field several times, as did the rest of the town. I had no desire to witness Corey’s torture but I went where Nathaniel went. Several times during that day we heard the sheriff ask Corey if he was ready to plead. And each time the old man simply said, “more weight”. The sheriff’s men responded by placing more boulders on top of him. That entire day Corey received only three morsels of bread to eat, and nothing to drink. According to Nathaniel, the punishment required this bread to be of the worst variety. And the next day, if still alive, he would be allowed three sips of water, but this water had to be foul, standing water.
After a restless night we returned to the field late on the morning of September 19th. Corey was still alive, but barely so. The sheriff was standing on the pile of rocks, looking down at Corey whose tongue was sticking out of his mouth, literally pressed out of him. The sheriff used his cane to stick the tongue back in. One more time he asked Corey if he was ready to plead and one more time Corey responded with “more weight”. The men placed more rocks on the pile and that was as much as the old man could take. His eyes closed for the last time. The sheriff then ordered that his body be buried in an unmarked grave and, without ceremony, the people simply left and went back to their homes.
September 22nd, 1692
This was turning into one of my longer journeys. The two days after the death of Giles Corey had been uneventful, and I had laid low at Nathaniel’s house most of the time. Ordinarily I do more exploring on my travels, but with the crazed paranoia that was rife in Salem I preferred not to take any chances. I had really hoped that I would wake up in my own time before this day rolled around, but that was not to be. For this was the day that eight more innocent people were to be hanged as witches, and I knew I would have to accompany Nathaniel to witness the executions.
We went into the town, where again a crowd of people was forming. We joined them and soon a horse and cart drove past us carrying the eight condemned souls to their fate. The crowd followed as the cart drove through the town, parading its contents, before heading towards a hill just outside the town. On its way up the hill the cart got stuck for a while and I could clearly hear some within the crowd suggesting that the Devil was hindering it. Eventually though, the cart got free from the Devil’s clutches and made it to the top of the hill, stopping beside a large tree.
Obviously I had never before wanted to witness an execution. Unfortunately, due to the 17th century manner of hanging, my first experience of it was rather more gruesome than expected. One at a time each of the eight was made to climb the steps of a ladder that was leaning against a long, horizontal branch. Once up a few rungs, the noose went around their necks. A short speech from the clergyman followed and after a few words from the condemned – some prayed, some protested innocence – the ladder was kicked out from underneath them. This was where the unexpected part happened, as they did not drop and die quickly with broken necks. Instead, because of the short drop off the ladder, they dangled and were slowly strangled to death, sometimes over the course of several minutes. The choking and gurgling and kicking were quite horrific to watch and hear. After all eight of them had been killed the clergyman turned towards the suspended bodies and said, “What a sad thing it is to see eight firebrands of Hell hanging there.” And with that Nathaniel and I followed the people as they turned back towards town and made their way home. Including Giles Corey’s death, twenty people had now lost their lives to the Salem paranoia. I will not soon get the sights and sounds of these last few days out of my head.
We walked all the way to his house in silence and once there I told Nathaniel I had to go and lie down for a while. I quickly fell into a fitful sleep and when I awoke it was with enormous relief that I found myself back home. My travels through time are obviously an amazing and wonderful experience and long may they continue. But seeing what people were capable of in Salem and witnessing those nine gruesome deaths…perhaps that’s a memory with which I would happily part.