Tag Archives: trial by ordeal

“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.


“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.