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Ordeal By Touch
Up until the last century in some parts of the country, a murderer’s guilt could legally be determined by what happened when he or she touched the victim’s corpse
April/May 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 3
Belief in the ordeal by touch was so strong that on occasion the perpetrator of a crime could be identified by proxy. In a case in England in 1611 suspicion arose about a man’s cause of death, his body was exhumed, and the neighborhood summoned to touch it, “according to custom.” “The murderer, a man of high rank whose position removed him from suspicion, stayed away, but his little daughter, attracted by curiosity, happened to approach the corpse when it commenced bleeding, and the crime was proved.” Nor was the whole body necessary; in another case a young man quarreled with a friend, stabbed him, and cast his body into a river. A half century later a fisherman brought home a human bone he had found in his nets. When the murderer examined it, supposedly the bone streamed with blood. When told where the bone had been found, the old man confessed his crime and was condemned.
It is surely significant that many, though not all, of these cases involved murders committed against one family member by another. Intense horror was doubtless often felt by those called upon to touch close relatives they had murdered. And in most cases the body was not newly dead. What, if anything, physically happened to the corpse during the ordeal is open to conjecture; what happened in the mind of the suspect may easily be imagined. The ordeal addressed itself “powerfully to the conscience and imagination of the accused, whose callous fortitude no doubt often gave way under the trial,” wrote Lea. The ordeal was revived “in one instance with this object, and the result did not disappoint the expectations of those who undertook it. In the case of People vs. Johnson, tried in New York in 1824, the suspected murderer was led from his cell to the hospital where lay the body of the victim, which he was required to touch. Dissimulation, which had before been unshaken, failed him at the awful moment; his overstrung nerves gave way, and a confession was faltered forth. The proceeding was sustained by court. …”
The New York case followed by half a century what seems to have been the last use of the ordeal in Massachusetts. In December 1768 Jonathan Ames married Ruth Perley and took her to live with him in his parents’ home. She became a mother in May, and a few days later she “died under circumstances which caused suspicion in the neighborhood,” according to the historian George Francis Dow. “When it was found that no sufficient evidence could be adduced to hold either the husband of the murdered girl, or his mother, then was demanded an exhibition of that almost forgotten ‘ordeal of touch.’ The body [having been exhumed] was laid upon a table with a sheet over it and Jonathan and his mother were invited to prove their innocence by this gruesome test. The superstition required the suspected party to touch the neck of the deceased with the index finger of the left hand. Blood would immediately follow the touch of the guilty hand, the whiteness of the sheet of course making it plainly visible. Both mother and son refused to accept the ordeal. …”
Within a week Jonathan Ames and his mother were arrested and confined in the same Salem jail in which those accused of witchcraft had been incarcerated three-quarters of a century earlier; they were soon indicted and shortly brought to trial. John Adams, the future President of the United States, then thirty-four years old, was counsel for the accused. Jonathan Ames turned King’s evidence against his mother, and the trial lasted through the night. At nine o’clock the next morning the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.
The cases often involved murders of family members. Intense horror must have been felt during the ordeal.
Why Mrs. Ames was saved is open to conjecture: it is not known whether the jury was informed of the defendants’ refusal to submit to the ordeal. What is significant is that the avoidance of the ordeal led, at least in part, to an indictment.
What happened in these cases? Did some actual, physical change take place in the corpses? Or did those who were required to endure the ordeal react emotionally, thereby betraying themselves? No one can be certain. Perhaps it was the interaction of a guilty conscience with a belief both in the supernatural and in the omnipresence of God, for this was His “usual mode of discovering murderers,” according to the indictment in the Stansfield case. The settlers of Massachusetts were heirs to these convictions and to the superstitions of the folk culture that had produced them, and those who were subjected to the ordeal by touch doubtless believed beforehand that it would either prove or disprove their guilt.
“The seventeenth century mind in New England, in all that concerned an understanding of nature, was still medieval,” wrote Charles Andrews. It is not surprising that these early colonists would apply an ancient test for the detection of that most heinous of all crimes. If they believed that God had fixed guilt upon the first murderer because the blood of his victim cried out to Him, He could do no less in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.