Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The road to Gallows Hill.

            Though not one of the first to be accused, Bridget Bishop was the first to go to trial. She was the obvious choice. Nobody had a worse reputation or was more reviled and feared. Two years earlier she had been called before the Essex County Court on the accusation of being a witch. The case had been dismissed due to the intervention of Reverend John Hale of Beverly (the village where Bridget was living at the time); he said that he was “hoping better of Goody Bishop.” To the people of Salem, his hope had not been justified. In every way Bridget lived in a manner highly improper for a Puritan woman. She wore makeup, lace-bedecked clothes, and she was often seen in a scarlet vest. She never attended church services. She had an argumentative nature and a wicked and threatening tongue. She ran an unlicensed tavern from the home she shared with her third husband. It was located just outside Salem Village and had become a gathering place for young men; surely their morals were being corrupted. Her relationships with her two previous husbands had been turbulent and at times violent; when both men died there had been much whispering about their having been bewitched to death.
            An incident that had occurred five years ago loomed large in people’s minds. A woman who lived a half mile from Bridget’s tavern had confronted her about the nightly noise and carousing. Immediately afterwards, according to her husband, his wife began acting “distracted” and expressed fears that she had been bewitched. A month later he found her with her windpipe and jugular vein cut; a small pair of scissors lay nearby. Though it was officially deemed a suicide, those who had seen her wound believed it was impossible for a person to mangle oneself so badly with so small a weapon.
           At her hearing and trial, during which Bridget was defiant and disrespectful, many came forward to speak out against her; this time Reverend Hale was among them. Villagers told of nightly visitations by her specter and of afflictions and deaths that occurred after angering her. A man who had been employed to take down a cellar wall in a home in which Bridget had once lived testified to finding several poppets, made of rags and hog’s bristles, with headless pins in them.
            The actions of the girls were, again, decisive. When Bridget rolled her eyes the girls’ eyes were compelled to roll in their sockets, displaying the whites in a grotesque fashion. When she haughtily claimed that she didn’t even know what a witch was, the girls shrieked that her specter, brandishing a rod, was at that moment coming toward them. All watched as the girl nearest Bridget was stuck down from an invisible blow, then the next, then the next, as the specter went from one to another.
            Though the jury quickly handed down a guilty verdict, execution was delayed eight days because the old colonial law making witchcraft a capital offense had expired. On June 10, two days after the law was reinstated, the lone hanging took place on Gallows Hill.
            Bridget’s execution was widely accepted as just, and her death unlamented. Nobody could be more different from her than Rebecca Nurse. The Nurse case was crucial: if she could be found guilty the authority of the girls’ accusations would be entrenched and no one could be considered immune.
            This seventy-one-year-old woman, whose manner was meek and humble, had been a devout churchgoer all her life. She had raised a large family, all of whom held respected places in the community. She seemed to be the essence of what a Puritan woman should be. The first to cry out against her was Ann Putnam, Sr.; she told of how she been visited by Rebecca Nurse’s specter, which had tempted, tortured and tried to kill her. Two women who went to the Nurse home to tell her of the accusation wrote of her reaction. She said that she had heard of others spoken of that were as innocent as her. She sat amazed, and then said that she was as clean as a child unborn, but added, “What sin hath God found out in me unrepented of that He should lay such an affliction upon me in my old age?”
            At her hearing the girls had violent fits. Rebecca could not explain what was going on. She said that the girls did appear to be bewitched, but that she was clear. Why, John Hathorne asked, did the girls say her specter was afflicting them if it were not so? Did she think that the girls were murderers, to willfully accuse her falsely and thus cause her to be hanged? “I cannot help it,” she answered, “the devil may appear in my shape.”
            Others accused — including one of the first three, Sarah Osborne — had spoken similar words in response to the spectral evidence against them, and these words would be heard again and again from the accused. Again and again, but to no avail. It was the opinion of those conducting the hearings and trials that the devil was unable to take on the likeness of an innocent; he could appear in someone’s guise only with their consent. Though one of the justices did not concur on this pivotal issue. After the Bishop trial Nathaniel Saltonstall resigned from the court; his main objection had to do with the use of spectral evidence. He was not alone in questioning its worth; some clergymen in New England were cautioning that such evidence must be handled with care, as the devil’s wiles were beyond man’s reckoning. Saltonstall’s resignation changed nothing. Chief Justice Stoughton, the dominant figure on the court, firmly believed in spectral evidence, as did the other justices, including the one who replaced Saltonstall. So verdicts of guilty continued to be based on evidence that an accused’s specter had carried out diabolical acts. All evidence provided by the girls, in both words and actions, was spectral.
            In the face of constant prodding by Hathorne to confess, Rebecca asked, “Would you have me belie myself?” In support of her over forty neighbors testified that they never had cause to suspect Rebecca of witchcraft. But there was opposing testimony from confessed witches and others in the community. In all, she would be accused of causing twenty deaths. During the hearing the girls created such a clamor that it was impossible for Reverend Parris to record the questions and answers. Twelve- year-old Ann Putnam had become the fervent leader of the girls. Both she and her mother had violent fits; at one point the mother collapsed and had to be carried out of the meetinghouse by her husband.
            When Rebecca was sent to prison to await trial her large family worked vigorously to defend her. They passed a petition among neighbors, which thirty-nine signed, vouching that she had always conducted her life according to God’s word. To testify in her favor or to sign the petition took courage, for if Rebecca was found guilty these people would be in a position of having aided a witch. Also, a pattern had emerged: those who opposed the girls would be the next to be accused. Relatives who stood up for a family member were especially vulnerable. In Rebecca’s case, her two sisters were accused of being witches and were jailed.
           At the Nurse trial there was enough evidence in her favor for the jury to find a verdict of not guilty. At these words the girls went into a pandemonium beyond anything previously seen. They fell into hideous convulsions, they howled and roared, their heads jerked and snapped. Out of this demonic uproar Rebecca walked free, onto the streets of Salem Town.
            But it was not over. Shaken by the tortures the girls were undergoing, the justices felt uneasy about the verdict. Stoughton chided the jurors for their “false pity” and asked if they had fully taken into account a remark Rebecca had made. A confessed witch had testified against her and Rebecca had said, “What, do these persons give evidence against one now, they used to come among us?” Someone was directed to call Rebecca back to explain her words. When she was again in the courtroom and was questioned, she stood silent, as if in another world. Because of her inability to speak and her strange, witchlike demeanor, the jury reconsidered their verdict and declared her guilty.
            Shortly thereafter a petition on behalf of Rebecca was presented to the court, providing an explanation for her remark and stating that she had not given it when she was brought back before the justices because she was confused, hard of hearing and her heart was full of grief. Another petition was submitted in her defense regarding a supposed witch’s teat that had been found on her body during a search in prison. One of the examiners said that the “supernatural mark” was nothing more than what was commonly found on women who had born many children; the petition asked that midwives reexamine her. Two who did stated that the “teat” was merely a natural infirmity of the body.
            Armed with the evidence in her favor, Rebecca’s sons took their case to Sir William Phips, and the governor granted her a reprieve from execution. But a few days later Phips received an urgent visit from some of the justices. They brought alarming news: at the very moment the governor’s hand had signed the paper sparing Rebecca, her devils had been released and were now killing the girls. Phips recalled his reprieve and departed the colony for the Indian war in the north.
            On July 19 Rebecca Nurse was hanged on Gallows Hill, along with four other witches. That night her sons took her body from the crevice where it had been shoved and secretly buried it. Two months later one of her sisters was also put to death.
            Days before her execution, Rebecca had been carried into the crowded church meetinghouse seated upon a chair; she was unable to stand under her own power. There she was publically excommunicated, thus condemning her soul to eternal damnation.

             Martha Corey was, like Rebecca Nurse, a churchgoing member of the community, though there was a stain on her reputation: she had given birth to an illegitimate mulatto child, a boy who was still living with her. Unlike Rebecca, Martha was far from meek. Intelligent and outspoken, she publically scoffed at the witchcraft proceedings and expressed her opinion that the girls were lying. When told that Ann Putnam, Jr. had accused her of being a witch, she went to the Putnam home to settle matters. But there was no reasoning to be done; Martha had entered the lion’s den. Thomas Putnam had signed many complaints and depositions against witches, and he frequently testified at hearings and trials. Not only were his daughter and wife afflicted, but also their maidservant, Mercy Lewis.
            As soon as Martha entered the house both Ann, Jr. and Mercy were choked and blinded, their feet and hands twisted; Ann had a vision of Martha’s specter at the fireplace, turning a man on a spit. Thomas Putnam ordered Martha from the house. Later that evening he wrote of Mercy Lewis being “drawn toward the fire by unseen hands as she sat in a chair and two men hold of it. Yet she and the chair moved toward the fire though they labored to the contrary.” The struggle went on until the invisible force departed. Thomas Putnam’s written account of what had occurred during and after Martha’s visit was entered as evidence against her.
            Martha looked to the day of her hearing as one of vindication; she stated that she would “open the eyes” of the magistrates. Words such as these, and her defiant attitude as the girls were afflicted in her presence (she called them “distracted children” and even laughed at what she called their “antics”) angered the magistrates. They and others in the meetinghouse considered the tortures being inflicted on the girls far from a laughing matter. Martha was not to have her day of vindication; at one point a woman in the audience threw a shoe that struck her in the head.
            Among the many who testified against her was her eighty-year-old husband, Giles Corey. He recounted incidents regarding Martha that mystified him. But his doubts about her were tentative; after she was imprisoned his misgivings grew, and he stated that he believed her to be innocent. Shortly thereafter he was accused by the girls of being “a most dreadful wizard.” At his hearing he entered a plea of not guilty and tried unsuccessfully to defend himself against the onslaught of the girls.
            In the months he spent in prison awaiting trial a plan must have formed in Giles Corey’s mind, one he would carry out to the brutal end. A huge, powerful man, in his younger days he had been notorious for his quick temper and violent actions; he was no stranger to the courts. Age had mellowed him, and during the hearing his attitude toward the magistrates had been humble. But at his trial he stood mute; he refused to speak a single word. No judgment could be made if the accused remained silent. He was declared in contempt of court; to force him to speak he was taken to a field and stones were added to a board placed on his chest. On the second day the weight was so great that his tongue was forced out of his mouth; Sheriff George Corwin pushed it back in with his cane. It was said that during his ordeal Giles would utter only two words: “More weight.” Finally the weight killed him. Three days later his wife was hanged.
            There was obviously a purpose to Giles’ silence, and it was not to escape death. A possible explanation is that, knowing he would be found guilty and also knowing he was no wizard, he stood mute to show his contempt for the proceedings. Some have put forth the theory that Giles was acting under the belief that his silence — which blocked a guilty verdict from being handed down — would prevent confiscation of his personal property. This is unlikely, because the existing laws regarding forfeiture and confiscation granted no such immunity.
            Under the original Massachusetts charter, forfeiture of chattel (movable goods) had not been allowed, but that charter had been declared invalid by King James II. He decreed that English law was to prevail in the colony, and under this law forfeiture was to be carried out in the case of those who were convicted of a felony, who fled justice, or who stood mute. Goods would be confiscated and sold, with the money being forfeited to the King. Only men, single women or widows who had not remarried were subject to such action; a convicted witch who was married did not have property confiscated because legally she owned nothing — all property belonged to her husband.
            When King James was deposed in 1689, the man he had appointed to govern Massachusetts was arrested and jailed. High officials from the colony went to England, trying to get the new king, William of Orange, to allow the reinstatement of their old charter. They met with limited success. The revised charter, which went into effect in May, 1692 — in the midst of the witchcraft crisis — restricted the colony’s autonomy by means of a “repugnancy clause” stating that no law contrary to English common law was allowed. The new governor appointed by William of Orange, Sir William Phips, acted in accordance with that clause; he directed the Court of Oyer and Terminer to proceed “according to the Law and Custom of England.” Thus forfeitures and confiscations were still in effect. In Corey’s case, standing mute was actually a cause for forfeiture to take place. He had made a will in prison; in it he deeded his extensive farmland to Martha’s two sons who had stood by her. His willing of land was allowed, but all movable goods on that land — livestock, wagons, harvested crops, etc. — were confiscated.
            Twenty-five-year-old George Corwin, sheriff of Essex County, conducted the hangings and also carried out the confiscations. He and his deputies arrived at the house of an individual who was subject to forfeiture (often on the same day a conviction was handed down) and told family members that, “in their majesty’s name,” their personal goods were “forfeited to the King.” He offered relatives the option of paying him money in lieu of his taking away their possessions; this some were able to do, others paid to keep certain items. In the case of those who were unable to pay him anything — or refused to do so — he would make a clean sweep, carting away livestock, bushels of corn and wheat, wagons, barrels of cider, furniture, blankets, clothing, cooking utensils, food — everything. A wife of a convicted wizard had the wedding ring taken from her finger. Although this was legal under English law — only the clothes to cover a married woman’s body were immune from confiscation — Corwin’s actions were seen by many as overly-zealous. Also, the vast majority of people strongly wanted their old charter to be the law of the land, and it had not allowed forfeiture. The confiscations added to the disarray and hardship of life in Salem. Some families were left destitute and had to move out of the area or depend on charity to survive.
            As deputy constable, John Willard had the job of arresting the accused and escorting them to and from the hearings and trials. He was troubled by the prison conditions he observed and the heavy chains that even the elderly had to wear; also, he believed that some of the accused were innocent. He finally expressed his opposition to the witch hunt and refused to take any further part in it. Soon the girls and Ann Putnam, Sr. were denouncing him as a wizard responsible for twelve murders. He fled the village on horseback but was captured forty miles away and returned to Salem, where he joined the imprisoned. He would be convicted and hanged.
Continued with Doubts and voices of dissent.

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