“I know not what a witch is”
One of the most shameful incidents in American history resulted in 14 women, six men and two dogs being executed. Of the 20 human executions, 19 people were hanged and one pressed to death. The witch trials in Salem were not the first in America — in 1648 a witch was hanged in Charleston and another in 1655 in Boston.
One day in the house of the Reverend Samuel Parris, ten girls aged nine to 17 listened to the tales of his West Indian slave, Tituba, who told them of voodoo, black magic and sorcery. Later, Elizabeth, the nine-year-old daughter of the clergyman, awoke after having a nightmare. A doctor examined her and insisted that she had been bewitched. Soon some of the other girls who had heard Tituba’s tales began to exhibit signs of being possessed by evil.
Three women were arrested — Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne — and charged. A further 175-200 people were imprisoned, at least five of whom died in jail. The first to be hanged (on 10 June 1962) was 60-year-old Bridget Bishop, a thrice-married woman known for her outrageous dress sense. Bridget denied all charges of witchcraft, saying, “I know not what a witch is.” Sarah Osborne died in prison on 10 May 1692 before she could be tried. On 1 March 1692 Sarah Good was tried and she was hanged on 19 July. On 24 March 1692 Dorothy — sometimes called Dorcas — Good was arrested and apparently confessed to being a witch, despite being only four years old. She was kept in chains in prison for eight months until she was released on 10 December for a bond of £50.
On 19 September 1692 Giles Corey, 80, became the only man ever to be pressed to death in America. He was accused of witchery but refused to enter a plea at his trial. He was dragged into a field opposite the jail where he was spread-eagled naked, his ankles and wrists tied to stakes, and a rough wooden board the size of a door placed over him. As more stones were added he said only “More weight”, so that he might die sooner.
His ribs cracked, his intestines burst and lungs were crushed. In extremis Corey’s tongue involuntarily protruded from his mouth; the sheriff used his cane to push it back. Corey suffered for two days before dying. Pressing (peine forte et dure) had been illegal in Massachusetts since 1641 (51 years before Corey’s death), although it was not abolished in England until 1827.
Salem, Massachusetts, America
Friday 10 June 1692
The paranoia about witches disappeared almost a quickly as it arrived and the townspeople decided that the young accusers had been mistaken. No punishment was administered to them. Legend has it that the ghost of Giles Corey appears in Salem prior to a disaster occurring in the town. In 1956 the Massachusetts General Court exonerated Bridget Bishop.