Read CHAPTER XXVIII of Dulcibel A Tale of Old Salem , free online book, by Henry Peterson, on

The Cruel Doings of the Special Court.

Meanwhile the Special Court of seven Judges a majority of whom were from Boston, with the Deputy Governor of the Colony, William Stoughten, as Chief-Justice was by no means indolent. Of the proceedings of this court, which embodied apparently the best legal intellect of the colony, no official record is in existence. Its shameful pages, smeared all over with bigotry and blood, no doubt were purposely destroyed. So far as we are acquainted with the evidence given before it, it was substantially the same as had been given at the previous examinations before the committing magistrates.

That nothing was too extravagant and absurd to be received as evidence by this learned court, is proven by the statement of the Reverend Cotton Mather, already alluded to, relative to a demon entering the meeting-house and tearing down a part of it, in obedience to a look from Mistress Bridget Bishop of which diabolical outrage the Court was duly informed. Besides, there could have been no other kind of evidence forthcoming, that would apply to the crime of which all the accused were charged, Witchcraft. Many of the prisoners indeed were accused of murdering children and others, whose illness had been beyond the physician’s power to cure; but the murders were all committed, it was alleged, by the use of “spectres,” “familiars,” “puppets,” and other supernatural means. Against such accusations it was impossible for men and women of the highest character and reputation to make any effectual defence, before a court and jury given over so completely to religious fanaticism and superstitious fancies. To be accused was therefore to be condemned.

Yes, this Special Court, having had all its misgivings, if it ever really had any, quieted by the answer of the council of ministers, was doing quick and fearful work.

Meeting again in the latter part of June, it speedily tried, convicted and sentenced to death five persons: Sarah Good, Sarah Wildes, Elizabeth How, Susanna Martin and Rebecca Nurse.

Then, adjourning till August 5th, it tried and convicted George Burroughs, John Procter, Elizabeth Procter, George Jacobs, John Willard and Martha Carrier.

Then meeting on September 9th, it tried and condemned Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker and Ann Pudcator; and on September 17th, Margaret Scott, Wilmot Reed, Samuel Wardwell and Mary Parker.

It will be noticed that of the above nineteen persons, only five were men. As the greater number of the accusers were also of the female sex, it was natural, I suppose, that this should be so. And thus we find that the word witch is applied indifferently in the old records, to men and women; the masculine term wizard being seldom used.

That the learned Judges were fully as superstitious as the people at large, is conclusively proved by certain facts that have come down to us. In the case of that lovely and venerable matron, Rebecca Nurse, the jury at first brought in the verdict “Not guilty.”

But immediately all the accusers in the Court, and all the “afflicted” out of it, made a hideous outcry. Two of the Judges said they were not satisfied. The Chief-Justice intimated that there was one admission of the prisoner that the jury had not properly considered. These things induced the jurors to go out again, and come back with a verdict of “Guilty.”

One of the charges against Rebecca Nurse, testified to by Edward Putnam, was that, after the said Rebecca Nurse had been committed to jail, and was thus several miles distant in the town of Salem, “she, the said Nurse, struck Mistress Ann Putnam with her spectral chain, leaving a mark, being a kind of round ring, and three streaks across the ring. She had six blows with a chain in the space of half-an-hour; and she had one remarkable one, with six streaks across her arm. Ann Putnam, Jr., also was bitten by the spectre of the said Rebecca Nurse about two o’clock of the day. I, Edward Putnam, saw the marks, both of bite and chains.”

It was a great hardship in all these trials, that the prisoners were not allowed any counsel; while on the other hand, the members of the Court seemed to take it for granted from the first, that they were guilty. The only favor allowed them was the right of objecting to a certain extent to those jurors whose fairness they mistrusted.

One of the accused, a reputable and aged farmer named Giles Corey, refused to plead. His wife, Martha Corey, was among the convicted. At her examination, some time previous, he had allowed himself to testify in certain respects against her; involved as he was for a time in the prevailing delusion. But he was a man of strong mind and character; and though not entirely able to throw off the chains which superstition had woven around him, he repented very sorely the part he had taken against his wife. This was enough to procure his own accusation. The “afflicted girls” brought their usual complaints that his spectre tormented them. They fell down and shrieked so wildly at his examination, that Squire Hathorne asked him with great indignation, “Is it not enough that you should afflict these girls at other times without doing it now in our presence?”

The honest and sturdy man was visibly affected. He knew he was not consciously doing anything; but what could it all mean? If he turned his head, the girls said he was hurting them and turned their heads the same way. The Court ordered his hands tied and then the girls said they were easier. But he drew in his cheeks, after a habit he had, and the cheeks of the girls were sucked in also, giving them great pain. The old man was fairly dumfounded. When however one of the girls testified that Goodman Corey had told her that he saw the devil in the shape of a black hog in the cow-house, and was very much frightened by it, the spirited old man said that he never was frightened by man or devil in his life.

But he had a fair property, and two sons-in-law to whom he wished to leave it. He knew well that if he were tried he would be convicted, and that would carry with it the confiscation of his property. So, as other noble-hearted men had done in that and the previous age, he refused when brought before the Special Court, to plead either “guilty” or “not guilty.” In these later times the presiding Judge would simply order a plea of “not guilty” to be entered, and the trial would proceed. But then it was otherwise the accused himself must plead, or the trial could not go on. Therefore he must be made to plead by placing heavy weights upon his breast, and adding to them until the accused either agreed to plead, or died under the torture. In which last case, the prisoner lost his life as contumacious; but gained his point of preserving his estate, and title of nobility if he had any, to his family.

So, manly old Giles Corey, remorseful for the fate he had helped to bring upon his wife, and determined that his children should inherit the property he had acquired, maintained a determined silence when brought before the Special Court. Being warned, again and again, he simply smiled. He could bear all that they in their cruel mockery of justice could inflict upon him.

Joseph Putnam and Master Raymond rode down to Salem that day to the orchard where the brave old man was led out of jail to meet his doom. They saw him, tied hand and foot, and heavy flat stones and iron weights laid one by one upon him.

“More! More!” pleaded the old man at last. “I shall never yield. But, if ye be men, make the time short!”

“I cannot stand this,” said Master Raymond.

“We are powerless to help him let us go.”

“To torture an old man of eighty years in this way! What a sight for this new world!” exclaimed Master Putnam, as they turned their horses’ heads and rode off.

His executioners took Giles Corey at his word. They knew the old man would never yield. So they mercifully heaped the heavy weights upon him until they had crushed out his life.