In “Ordeal by Touch” (April/May), Lawrence B. Custer examined the seventeenth-century practice in the Massachusetts Bay Colony of finding a murderer by requiring a suspect to touch the victim’s corpse. It is historically significant that a comparable phenomenon occurred in the Plymouth Colony in 1675.
It is alleged that King Philip of the Wampanoags ordered the execution of one John Sassamon, an Indian traitor. This was done. The colony, which had found Sassamon useful, rounded up several promising suspects and noted that, although Sassamon’s corpse had been interred for several months, it bled when one of the three suspects approached it. In George F. Willison’s Saints and Strangers , Dr. Increase Mather is quoted as reporting that Sassamon’s corpse “fell a-bleeding as fresh as if it had been newly slain, albeit it was buried a considerable time before that.” Naturally, this proof justified the quick hanging of all three Indian suspects.
To the Wampanoags, this interference with Philip’s discipline was not to be tolerated. After years of humiliation, the Indians rebelled and fell upon the neighboring town of Swansea. Thus, the hangings, justified by the bleeding, ignited King Philip’s War.