“In Salem the witch trials consisted of crude and unusual punishment.”

Salem never fails to provide us with bizarre student commentary.

I know what he meant. The urgent examination of people suspected of witchcraft often took the form of what we would certainly call torture: chaining head-to-heels, sleep deprivation, trial-by-ordeal (the sink-or-float trial by water, for instance, where drowning would prove Satan wasn’t helping you out), pressing, nonstop interrogation. I’m not sure we would call this “crude,” but it certainly seems cruel. The Puritans would also point out, I’m confident, that “punishment” can only follow a trial; the trial itself may be hard on the accused but isn’t itself punishment. They would also argue that since God’s forgiveness was contingent on confession and contrition, forcing a confession was benevolent on the examiners’ part: execution would follow, but the soul would not be damned.

Before we discuss crude punishment, let me hasten to exculpate Autocorrect and Spellcheck. I just typed “crule and unusual punishment” into a Word document, and Bill Gates gave me “cruel” right away. I had to go down four choices to get to “crude.” Of course he might have typed “crued” (I know whenever I try to type my friend Sam’s name, my fingers make him “Same,” and maybe my student’s fingers figured a letter following “e” and ending a word had to be “d”), in which case Bill would have supplied “crude.” Well, I’m going to assume that the intended word was “crude.” My young man may believe that the Constitution, written long after  the witch-trial craze had passed, protects us against “crude and unusual punishment.”

Of what would crude punishment consist? I suppose no methods we would consider sophisticated would be eligible; but a lot of the punishment (and torture) methods that strike us as weird or horrid or medieval or barbaric are perfectly sophisticated in their way. The Iron Maiden? The rack? The wheel? These were finely structured mechanisms that could be applied with exquisite precision.

Does “crude” mean “obscene,” as “crude language” usually means “obscene language”? By that definition, any of the approaches mentioned so far are “crude.” But that’s not the definition we generally associate with “crude” in relation to anything other than language.

We usually say “crude” when we mean “primitive” (snobby application that, as any artist would tell you), or “rough-hewn,” or “makeshift.” Piling rocks on the chest is a pretty crude substitute for, say, the Iron Maiden.

Cruel or crude: I don’t want it, and I certainly don’t want it before I’m found guilty of anything. If a trial consists of punishment, what could come after it? If we follow the Salem pattern, first comes suspicion, then arrest, then torture, then trial, then execution. Seems to me that the whole process is punishment, especially when the accused is actually innocent of the suspicion/charge. After those successive forms of agony, enhanced by the vicious scowls and howls of former friends and neighbors, the execution must have felt more like relief than punishment.

Unfortunately, left to themselves most humans will apply crude forms of trial and punishment on the grounds of mere suspicion. It isn’t easy to hold human hounds at bay; and once we do have a legal system that is designed to do so, we must make sure we don’t trash it when the next scare comes along.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

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