Cruel And Usual

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Of course, the jails these good citizens provided were rather flimsy. But breaking jail—or skipping bail—resulted in the irrevocable confiscation of your property, even if you were later found to be innocent. Essex County’s sheriff, George Corwin, seems to have been an exemplar of confiscation. An account of the period describes Corwin’s visit to the home of John and Elizabeth Proctor, two of the first victims of the town’s collective obsession. Corwin not only “seized all the goods, provisions, and cattle that he could come at” but even “threw out the beer of a barrel, and carried away the barrel; emptied a pot of broth, and took away the pot, and left nothing in the house for the support of the children.”

The support of the children was rarely a matter of any concern to the New England judicial system in 1692. Petitions to the governor to release prisoners in the wake of the witch-hunt included those made in the names of Stephen and Abigail Johnson, who were 13 and 11 years old, respectively; Dorothy Faulkner, aged 10; and Abigail Faulkner and Sarah Carrier, both eight.

Apparently not even these children were released until some provision could be made to pay off their accumulated “fees.” Adults fared even worse; coming up with the money could easily mean having to mortgage their farms, thereby reducing themselves to instant peonage. One Mary Watkins was released only when she persuaded her jailer to sell her off to a Virginia man as his indentured servant. No one saw any such value in the 81-year-old Sarah Daston; she was simply left in prison until she died. Three other adults and a newborn baby also died in jail before they could be released.

Yet perhaps the saddest petition of all was made in the name of the dead child’s older sister, Dorcas Good. The petition, to the General Court of Massachusetts, was written in 1710, at a time when the more or less repentant citizens of the colony were making modest restitution to some of the victims and their families. Dorcas’s mother, Sarah Good, was a salty, pipe-smoking woman, who had made the most famous speech from the gallows, defiantly telling one of her judges, “If you take my life away, God will give you blood to drink.” Now her husband, William Good, wrote of their daughter, confined with her mother and her dying infant sister, 18 years before:

“A child of four or five years [she] was in prison seven or eight months, and being in the dungeon was so hardly used and terrified that she hath ever since been very chargable, having little or no reason to govern herself. And I leave it unto the honorable Court to judge what damage I have sustained by such a destruction of my poor family… .”

It is very possible that a prison system that didn’t pay for itself quite so efficiently would have banished the devil from Salem before such brutalities were visited upon a little child. Without income from the prisoners themselves, the Massachusetts colony never would have been able to keep its murderous, jerry-built, witch-hunting machine going for so long. Only a people that pays for its own system of justice can judge the true worth of its laws.