Salem, Massachusetts – The town’s name lives in infamy, many say deservedly so, for hysteria and bloodshed brought about by intolerance and greed. From out of the mouths of many who died, it can be assumed that curses flew, damning their persecutors to the coldest flames of hell with one breath and declaring their innocence in the next.
Here, only the bravest of men wear a badge, not because of crime, but due to mortality from, some say, a different source. And even in death, among the many who died unjustly, there is at least one who watches and takes satisfaction in tragedy.
It’s safe to say that we Americans have, over our long and storied history, done some pretty stupid things to our fellow humans. From displacing the entire Native American nation to slavery, our culture was one of subjugating those different from ourselves with extreme prejudice. One such chapter, written in the blood of the innocent, occurred in Salem, Massachusetts, when greed and paranoia saw more than one hundred forty people accused of witchcraft, and caused the deaths of more than thirty people, one of whom became a legend.
Most of the civilized world knows what happened in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. But for those unfamiliar with the story, here is the (severely) truncated version. The Puritans inhabiting the then-British colony lived in a stressful environment, in which disease was rampant (smallpox) and attacks by Native Americans were a constant source of worry. It seemed to them that God himself was punishing them. When a pair of girls, 9-year-old Betty Parris and her cousin Abigail Williams (age 11), began behaving erratically with fits and general horrifying behavior, they, along with two others, began accusing certain members of Salem Village of witchcraft. When arrested, the accused were subjected to ridiculous tests or tortured until they confessed; then, contrary to popular belief, they were not burned at the stake but were in fact hanged. All except for one.
Giles Corey’s wife, Martha, was accused of “consorting with the devil and writing her name in his dark book” and was arrested. Giles himself was not initially charged but actually encouraged the accusations against his wife until he saw what a mockery the proceedings had become. When he tried to recant, he was accused as well and wound up in jail.
At 80 years old Giles was a land-owner with grown children, to whom he wanted to leave his property. But the laws at the time stated that anyone convicted of the “crime” of witchcraft would forfeit all property to be divided up among the city officials, all of whom were either in charge of arresting suspected witches or punishing them. When he realized that pleading innocent or guilty would result in no inheritance for his progeny, he pulled a legal mind-scramble and refused to enter a plea. Because of a loophole, no matter how he died, his land could not be given over to the community and, instead, had to be given to his heirs.
Incensed, the magistrate decided to torture him until he plead one way or the other. He was taken out to a field, a board was placed on his chest, and it was slowly piled with field-stones until the weight crushed him. According to records it took him more than two agonizing days to die. Before he died, Giles is reputed to have cursed not only the sheriff that arrested him but also the entire town. To cement his place as a legendary figure, his final words, when asked again for a plea, were reportedly “More weight!”
There are two specific phenomena that are linked to the curse Giles Corey spat at the town. The first is a curious rash of reports just before and after any tragedy occurs. In the wake of death, chaos and destruction, people report seeing the strange old man lurking about or standing at the scene of his own death. Before the great fire in 1914, he was sighted. It is believed that he watches every time the town crumbles a bit and takes a tiny piece of satisfaction at the pain his curse inflicts.
The second, though scientifically explainable, is weird, to say the least. From the day Giles Corey died, every person to hold the position of Sheriff in Essex County, beginning with George Corwin who arrested Giles, has either died in office or was forced into early retirement as a result of a heart or blood ailment. To be sure, the position of Sheriff is a stressful one, but for each and every man who held the office to have suffered such similar fates is a little chilling. Corwin himself died of a heart attack. More disturbing are the reports from many of the former Sheriffs of awaking in the night to see a strange old man in their bedrooms and feeling a crushing weight on their chests.
Salem is a beautiful town that doesn’t shy away from the atrocities committed there. They openly admit that what happened was terrible and have erected monuments to those who died as a result of the hysteria. The field where Giles Corey died is now Howard Street Cemetery, which sits beside the old jail house. While the gates are always kept locked, tourists often gain access by way of a large hole in the fence. The legality of access to the cemetery is uncertain, so it might be best to contact the authorities prior to a visit.
As Giles Corey is something of a harbinger of destruction, it might seem best if folks didn’t see him. However, if one were so inclined to go looking for him, the best bet would most likely be in September, the month in which he was killed.
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