Graeme Wood

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Silent as a Grave

An accused Salem witch pays for the right to say nothing in court

Originally appeared in The Daily.

The right to remain silent is a beautiful thing. In 1692, at the height of the Salem Witch Trials, a gray-bearded farmer was asked whether he was a wizard and he refused to say. He was brutally executed. But if the Constitution has secular martyrs, that old farmer, Giles Corey, is surely the patron saint of its Fifth Amendment, and one of history’s greatest champions of keeping one’s trap shut.

From 1692 to 1693, Salem was engulfed in hysteria about witches who had supposedly infiltrated its fragile, pious community, controlling it by sorcery. Folk beliefs from England persisted in the New World, and in that harsh environment — where diseases mysteriously struck down people and animals, and every gust of wind might be a possible visitation from God or the Devil — society’s paranoiacs accused the town’s outcasts and weirdos of dabbling in the occult and causing all manner of ills. Evidence of guilt could be as minor as a wart or tumor, and, in fact, several women found themselves convicted on the basis of inconvenient beauty marks on their nether regions.

In the end, 20 alleged witches and wizards were executed, all victims of the gallows except Giles Corey. (In this way, the colonial Americans were more humane than continental Europeans, who preferred to burn witches alive. Over four centuries, tens of thousands of witches were convicted.) Many of the condemned protested their convictions until the very moment they swung on their ropes. But some admitted their sorcery, perhaps because of delusion, or in hope of getting lenience.

Giles Corey and his wife, Martha, were in the stubborn minority who insisted on their own innocence, at least at first. They were freethinkers relative to the rest of the population, and Martha doubted whether witches even existed. Giles was about 80, his wife a spry 65 or so, and they made the mistake of acting like a kooky old couple, publicly wondering whether the witch hysteria might be just that.

In  April, the waves of hysteria hit them in the form of a direct, detailed accusation by some of the original sources of witch mania: a group of teenage and preteen girls who had begun acting strangely — scampering around rooms, laughing uncontrollably and flapping their arms like birds — and who, when pressed, said they were the victims of sorcery.

Martha, they said, had ensorcelled them. Her disbelief in witchcraft was itself a sign of witchcraft. Her husband came to her defense, but then he too fell under suspicion. One of the confessed witches, 15-year-old Abigail Hobbs, confirmed that the elderly couple had conspired to bewitch the girls. Mercy Lewis, 19, said Giles came to her as a ghost and forced her to write in a book, then beat her, “almost breaking my back.”

Standing before the magistrate, the court asked the couple for their pleas, and Martha denied that she was a witch. Confession was then, as now, looked upon favorably by criminal and religious authorities, and the odds were in favor of her being allowed to go free, albeit disgraced, if she admitted her sorcery. But she held fast to her innocence, and the court determined that she should hang.

What precisely went through Giles’ mind upon witnessing his wife’s humiliation is unclear. But his tactic was unique among the accused during this sordid episode, and it led to a death far less merciful than a noose, perhaps as bad as the stake-burnings back in Europe. He saw a trial would be almost certainly fruitless because the jury was already convinced of his wife’s guilt, and his by extension. And if he did defend himself, he would have to submit to testimony by vindictive children one-seventh his age. None of this ordeal looked attractive to Giles, who resolved that the situation could not end happily but might still end with a little dignity.

So, rather than face the noose, he entered no plea at all — not innocent, not guilty, just passive resistance against the very notion that he would stand in judgment before a court so obviously mad in its application of justice.

The court, unfortunately for Giles, had ways of eliciting a plea. The procedure, called “pressing,” was never applied before or after in New England. The victim was disrobed and stretched over a flat surface. Then a board was laid over his chest, and rocks were piled upon the board until the uncooperative defendant entered a plea. The defendant often relented and gasped out a plea. But if he didn’t, he could expect to die from having his organs crushed, or from suffocation when the air was literally squeezed out of his body. Giles said nothing, even when his torturer taunted him by climbing onto the pile of stones. Determined to hasten his own demise, Giles responded to all demands for a plea not with a “Guilty” or “Not guilty” but with calls for “More weight.”

After two days of crushing, Giles died. Martha was hanged three days later. Giles did at least avoid one ignominy by avoiding a guilty plea or verdict: Because the court didn’t convict him, it couldn’t garnish his possessions, and his children were allowed to keep his farm. The townspeople were deeply impressed by Giles’ fortitude, nicknaming him the “Man of Iron,” and as if tortured by their own superstition, they believed for years that his ghost haunted the field where they had crushed him, so it could gloat over bad weather, local deaths or other misfortunes that befell residents of Salem.

Nowadays, if you fail to enter a plea, the court will assume you maintain your innocence and will proceed without prejudice, respecting your right to silence. But during the Salem Witch Trials, the absence of a right to silence meant that the court could demand that one speak and, as was almost certainly the case with Giles Corey, say something potentially incriminating. After all, Salem was a place where seemingly everything, such as disbelief in witches or a birthmark near the crotch, was a sign of guilt. In such a circumstance, silence is 24-karat, to say the least.

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