Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#168: Witchcraft


I've always been fascinated with the origins of words, in particular when I first heard them and how they apply into the modern world. I'm well aware of the meaning of the words 'witch hunt', (and isn't that a great font?) and how they became very popular in the 1950s through the use of the term in Arthur Miller's brilliant 1950s play, The Crucible.

I performed in The Crucible when I was in year 11 at school, and apparantly I didn't do a bad job. Ah, you see the ham inside of me hasn't gone off just yet.  I did bloody well as John Proctor and although I didn't get the girl in the end, I did get a great pre-death scene.  And the death itself?  Well, as anyone who has performed The Crucible knows, Proctor is hung but the really impressive execution happens off stage when poor old Giles Corey is crushed to death.  You see Giles suffered Peine forte et dure, and for those too lazy, or ignorant to look it up, Giles was a crotchety old bastard who refused to enter a plea, any plea, even though he was tortured.  The method of torture, in this case, involves the subject is pressed beneath an increasingly heavy load of stones, in an attempt to make him enter a plea. Brilliant!

What stunned me the most though at the time was that Giles Corey was a real person.  Born in 1611 he was married three times and ultimately accused of being a warlock by three young girls, who were more than likely trying to cover their own tracks after being caught out doing things that they shouldn't have been doing.  He was duly arrested in April 1692 and refused to enter a plea.

After sitting in the pokey for five months with his wife, Martha, Giles was then brought before the court and faced his accusers.  The testimony against him was read out.  This is taken from a deposition dated the 9th of September, 1692, and is held in the files of the Court of Oyer and Terminer:
Mercy Lewis v. Giles Corey: The Deposition of Mercy Lewis aged about 19 years who testified and said that on the 14th of April 1692 "I saw the Apparition of Giles Corey come and afflict me urging me to write in his book and so he continued most dreadfully to hurt me by times beating me & almost breaking my back tell the day of his examination being the 19th of April and then also during the time of his examination he did affect and tortor me most greviously: and also several times sense urging me vehemently to write in his book and I veryly believe in my heart that Giles Corey is a dreadful wizard for sense he had been in prison he or his appearance has come and most greviously tormented me. Mercy Lewis affirmed to the jury of Inquest. that the above written evidence: is the truth upon the oath: she has formerly taken in court of Oyer & Terminer: Septr 9: 1692.

Other depositions were equally as useless and biased, not to mention outright lies.  Giles sat still and mute throughout the trial, no matter what evidence was put before both himself and the court.

It was a great load of shit really, but a very dangerous load of shit at that.  Giles was continually asked (and orderd) to enter a plea of some sort and time and again refused.  It was then that the order to 'persuade' Giles was issued.  According to the law of the time a person could not be tried if they refused to enter a plea.  Opportunity was always given for a plea to be entered, and the alternative was normally more than enough to convince people to enter a plea, if they were guilty or not.   After refusing, again, to enter a plea Giles was stripped naked and a heavy board laid on his body. Rocks or boulders were then laid on the plank of wood. Such was the process of being pressed to death in the name of justice.

Giles had no choice.  If he had entered a plea of not guilty then he'd have been found guilty regardless and put to death.  If he'd plead guilty then he'd have been put to death as a warlock.  Such was the hysteria of the time.

Thus the order was given for Giles to be "...remanded to the prison from whence he came and put into a low dark chamber, and there be laid on his back on the bare floor, naked, unless when decency forbids; that there be placed upon his body as great a weight as he could bear, and more, that he hath no sustenance, save only on the first day, three morsels of the worst bread, and the second day three droughts of standing water, that should be alternately his daily diet till he died, or, till he answered."

Here's where Giles became a legend in my eyes.  Giles was placed in a pit in an open field beside the jail and in accordance with the process, before the Court and witnesses, stripped of his clothing, laid on the ground in the pit, and boards placed on his chest. Six men then lifted heavy stones, placing them one by one, on his stomach and chest. Despite this Giles Corey did not cry out, let alone make a plea.  In fact he did better than cry out or beg for mercy.

After two days of suffering, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. On each occassion he merely replied, "More weight." The sherriffs of the court were more than happy to oblige him and as such more rocks were piled on him.  In a particularly sadistic extra form of punishment, the Sheriff would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey's bulging eyes. A witness, Robert Calef, later said, "In the pressing, Giles Corey's tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again."  Still Giles would not enter a plea either way.  One of the reasons why Giles did this was to protect his family, believe it or not.  Under the law of the time if Giles was not convicted of a crime then the state would not be able to sieze his farm upon the death of both himself and his wife.  Giles had recently deeded the farm to his two sons-in-law, thus ensuring that they would have something once he was gone.
The only food given to Giles during this torture was a mere three mouthfuls of bread and water.  Finally, on the 16th of September, 1692, Giles Corey cried out "More weight!" and died.  According to the official report, "...about noon at Salem, Giles Cory was pressed to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the court and Captain Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance, but all in vain."

Giles might have lost his life, but he proved his point.  Never allow anyone to prove false charges against another.  Poor Giles, his wife of less than two years, Martha, was executed by hanging a mere six days later.  The only thing that can be remotely called positive from all of this was their son, Thomas, being awarded £50, as compensation for his mother being illegally hanged, on June 29, 1723.  Initially buried in an unmarked grave, Giles was subsequently given his proper due with a suitable headstone with the simple statement that you can now see.

I can't help but admire Giles Corey.  I admired him then and I still admire him now.  His death was possibly the most brutal carried out during the Salem Witch Trials as the bulk of the other accused were hanged.  All of those brought to trial were ultimately found guilty and nineteen people, fourteen men and five women, were executed without any actual evidence provided.  Since then the term 'witch hunt' has become synonomous with an unfair trial, especially one in which the verdict has been decided before a plea has been entered, or any real evidence has been lodged.

I'd love to perform in The Crucible again, and I'd easily hand over the much desired character of John Proctor for a chance to play Giles Corey and have that stunningly impressive death scene.

I also can't help but admire Greg Matthews too, but we'll get into that at a later date.  After all that's one bastard of a drinks break that he's taking there.  Yeah yeah!

Meanwhile, digest this stuff and tomorrow I'll tell you why I don't like this man that you see on your right.

Seriously.

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