“Martha Carrier’s heels were chained to the floor until she vomited.”

Some of my students’ problems understanding the events in Salem clearly involved an inability to visualize on the basis of printed text, not to mention a failure to apply common sense.

How, for instance, could having one’s heels (only heels?) chained to the floor induce vomiting?

The tied-neck-and-heels torture position baffled more than one student. Here’s what happened to Carrier’s sons, according to another: they “were tied to their neck and heels until blood was ready to rush to their nose.” I’m not sure how a person could be tied to his own heels, or his own neck; and I’d like to know how their torturers could tell when the blood was “ready to rush,” at which point the ties evidently were removed (note that she wrote “until”).

The torture was horrible, and the trials were unjust. “The witches were not given a fair chance to clarify themselves,” wrote yet another student. I imagine this means they weren’t given a chance to clear themselves of the charges, or to make themselves clear in their testimony, or to justify themselves as honest citizens—”clarify” seems to be a portmanteau word here (clear + [just]ify), or at least the result of a collision of ideas in the student’s mind. It certainly isn’t a word that in and of itself fits the context.

One “witch” got a bit of her own back, in a sense: Sarah Good, who famously told Rev. Nicholas Noyes at her execution that “I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.” If she was a witch, her curse certainly took a long time to work; more likely, though, it was sheer coincidence that 25 years later Noyes “died of a preliminary seizure.” My student meant “pulmonary”; the seizure was preliminary only to his death, and I’ve never heard cause-of-death called “preliminary” by anyone other than this student. The coincidence is taken by some to mean Good’s curse came true, although drowning in one’s own blood isn’t quite the same as drinking it. Perhaps it was God’s famous mills, grinding slowly, punishing Noyes at last for all the bleeding noses and vomit of the torture supposedly aimed at the victim’s salvation and the agonizing fight for air of the women and men who were hanged, and Giles Cory pressed to death.

Well, after thinking about these errors and strange understandings, I suppose I am more grateful than anything else that my students were unable to envision torture and violent death. Even though young people fed the witchcraft scare and enabled the deaths, the young are better spared such images and such knowledge.


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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