“Today, the residents of Essex County have placed their faith in me and elected me to be their next Sheriff. I appreciate your support and promise to do everything within my power to protect all of the citizens of this county, not merely some, and to uphold the laws of this state.”
That was my acceptance speech after I’d just been declared the winner of the special election to fill the position of the Sheriff of Essex County, Massachusetts. The election became necessary when the former sheriff passed away after suffering a heart attack at home several weeks earlier. If you’re not familiar with Essex County, it’s in the northern part of Massachusetts and it’s the most populous county in the state. It’s part of the greater Boston area and has a long and storied history since its founding in 1643, and for most of that time it has had two traditional county seats, Salem and Lawrence.
Originally, Salem had jurisdiction over the Southern District of Essex and Lawrence had jurisdiction over the Northern District, but that changed in 1999. That’s when the state eliminated nearly all of the county governments, except those in the southeastern third of the state. Although Salem and Lawrence no longer serve as the seats of county government, the county still maintains an active Sheriff’s Department and I’d just been elected to this important position. I will now be in charge of staffing, training, community relations, and public safety, along with being responsible for the budget. It’s going to be a considerable challenge.
Fortunately, my job got off to a smooth start and I encountered no serious problems over the first few months, either on a personal or professional level. It, however, changed on Halloween, and it was something that I could have neither anticipated nor foreseen.
I’d chosen to work late that particular evening, since I was expecting there might be problems created by this particular holiday. I thought those problems would be limited to a rowdy party or a fight at a bar, although there was also a slight chance that criminals might use the fact that they could wear costumes and masks to cover their illegal activities. Doing that would definitely hinder our ability to identify those who’d committed a crime, such as a mugging, theft, breaking and entering, grand larceny, or even selling drugs. However, what actually happened that evening had nothing to do with any of those potential problems.
I was sitting in my office and speaking with the lieutenant in charge of the night shift about a situation involving one of his men. Due to the sensitive and serious nature of our conversation, the door to my office was closed, and that only added to our surprise when we discovered an elderly gentleman in the office with us. We hadn’t either heard or seen him enter, but he was obviously dressed for the holiday, since he was wearing clothing that would have been more appropriate on one of the very earliest settlers in this area. Seeing he hadn’t so much as bothered to knock and was now interrupting our discussion, I decided to confront him about it.
“Anyone with manners would have knocked on the door of my office first and then waited to be invited in before they entered. However, since you’re already in here, what is it that you want?”
“I have come for thee, George Corwin. Thou hast treated me most unfairly and I have sought thee out so I may acquire justice.”
“First of all, I do not recognize you, let alone know who you are, so is this some kind of a joke or a prank?”
“No, this be a very serious matter.”
“Look, I understand why you’re dressed in old fashion clothing, since I assume it to be part of your costume, but why are you using such an outdated form of speech?”
“I speak the language as it was taught to me by mine beloved parents, so I warn ye not to carelessly dismiss mine accusation.”
“Thou sentenced me to be pressed until mine death, even though I hath done no wrong.”
“I never sentenced you to anything! I don’t even know you.”
“Sir, if I might interject,” the lieutenant interrupted. “I believe I understand what’s going on here and what this is all about.”
“Please enlighten me then.” However, instead of speaking to me, he turned toward the interloper.
“Art though Giles Corey,” the lieutenant asked.
“Aye that be mine name.”
As the lieutenant turned back to me, he spoke again. “I’m positive that I understand what this is about. Giles Corey was accused of being a witch in 1692, but he wouldn’t plead either guilty or not guilty to the charges. In order to loosen his tongue so he would plead one way or the other, the sheriff ordered that he be pressed.”
“What do you mean when you say the sheriff ordered him to be pressed? Do you mean with an iron?”
“No, sir, it was a form of torture that was used at the time. The accused would be forced to lie on the ground, face up, and then a board would be placed on top of his body. The sheriff would then begin to place small rectangular or flat boulders on the board until the person gave him the information he was seeking. In this case if was to encourage Mr. Corey to plead either guilty or not guilty, but Giles was so stubborn that he wouldn’t give in and so much weight was added to the board that it eventually caused his death. I imagine he died because he could no longer breathe, but the weight pressing against his body may have also broken a few of his ribs, which in turn could have punctured his vital organs.”
“Ok, I can see how he might have been treated unfairly, although he could have just entered a plea and ended the torture. But this doesn’t explain why he’s coming to me seeking his vengeance. Is it merely due to the fact that I’m now the sheriff?”
“That is partly the case, but it’s also due to the fact that the High Sheriff of Essex County was the one who did this to him and his name was George Corwin, the same as yours.”
“And now he believes I’m the same person who did that to him?”
“Possibly, or he might believe you are one of his descendents. It is said that with his dying breath, Giles Corey cursed the sheriff and all those who followed in that position, along with the Village of Salem. Apparently the curse was very effective. Even though George Corwin’s title was High Sheriff, it’s a fact that many of the men taking the job of sheriff from that point forward either died prematurely or were forced to retire due to serious illness. In fact, the string of deaths of the sheriff continued until the Sheriff’s Office was moved from Salem to Middleton.”
“So exactly how long did the deaths of the sheriffs continue?”
“Giles Corwin died in 1692, but Sheriff George Corwin didn’t die until 1696, at the age of 30. The curse continued to take effect on nearly every ensuing sheriff until the Sheriff’s Department relocated in 1991.”
“He was very young to be High Sheriff, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, but it’s believed he got the position due to nepotism because he was related to several prominent families, including a former governor of Connecticut, the magistrate overseeing the trials, and three other judges.”
“Ok, now I see how he got the job, and you’re saying the deaths of the sheriffs went on for three hundred years?”
“Yes, it did. And not only that, but whenever Giles Corey’s spirit is seen in the village it forebodes a tragic accident will soon follow.”
“It seems as if he got his revenge, but how did the different sheriffs die or what forced them to retire?”
“It is my understanding that they either died or were forced to retire because of heart problems or various blood ailments.”
“Ah, like my predecessor, so possibly the curse hasn’t ended, but I will now attempt to clear up the situation for this gentleman,” I offered as I turned back to face Giles Corey. “As far as I know, sir, I have no relationship, not even a distant relationship to the George Corwin who tortured you and was responsible for your death. And another thing is that if the curse supposedly ended in 1991 when this office was moved here from Salem, then you, Mr. Corey, have no reason to be here.”
We were waiting for Giles to respond to this statement when several other people suddenly appeared in my office, and once again no one bothered to knock and we didn’t hear them enter. The group included an elderly woman around the same age as Giles Corey, four younger women, and three younger men, and they were all dressed in similar period garb as Mr. Corey.
“Who the hell are these people?” I demanded.
”This be mine wife, mine daughters, two of their husbands, and mine son,” Giles Corey responded.
“Oh great, it’s a cavalry of relatives coming to support him in his effort.”
“It appears that way, sir,” the lieutenant agreed as the others began to move closer.
“Mine father is not a witch and was wrongly accused and murdered for a crime he did not commit,” one of the younger women stated.
“Then why didn’t he simply plead ‘not guilty’?”
“Mine neighbors disliked me and would have found me guilty even though I be innocent,” Giles replied with a tinge of bitterness in his voice.
“But you still should have pleaded ‘not guilty’.”
“If he hath entered a plea,” one of the younger women’s husbands added, “the sheriff would hath seized his property upon his death. By not pleading, his property passed along to us, as was right and proper.”
“Ah, I’m beginning to understand his stubbornness now, but why is he coming for me?”
“Thou art the namesake of the person who murdered him,” the older woman answered.
“But I don’t believe I share any of that George Corwin’s blood. I believe we merely share the same name and that it was totally a coincidence that my parents named me the same as the man who was responsible for your husband’s death. It had nothing to do with my heritage.”
“But someone must pay for what hath been done to me,” Giles Corey insisted. “Just allow me to touch thee and justice will be served.”
I stepped back slightly as he reached out his arm toward me.
“I believe many people have already paid for what happened to you,” I challenged. “If your curse killed that George Corwin a few years after you died, as well as nearly every person who became sheriff for the next 300 years, then I believe many people have paid dearly for the wrong that was done to you.”
“Thou art correct,” the older woman confirmed. “Dearest husband, it would behoove thee to leave what happened in the past. It is time for thee to spend thy time with thine family and release thy resentments over the happenings of the past.”
“Father, please listen to her. Mother be correct. Many years have passed since thy death and it is time for thee to release thine hatred.”
Slowly, the others managed to convince Giles they were correct and eventually they coaxed him into going with them. The lieutenant and I then watched as they all walked through the wall of my office and disappeared.
“I hate to contradict you, sir, but it seems as if you were incorrect,” the lieutenant stated. “The cavalry not only came to protect him, but it seems they also came to protect you.”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right. But tell me something. Since you know all about this, why did Giles admit to us that his neighbors didn’t like him?”
“Besides being accused as a witch, it was said that he was a very difficult person to get along with. I understand that he’d been caught stealing on several occasions, although I have no idea what he stole, and when John Proctor’s house burned down, Giles was suspected of being the one who’d set it on fire. Since there was no proof of his guilt, he was never charged or convicted. In addition to those things, he also beat one of his brother-in-law’s indentured farm workers, Isaac Goodale, to death after Isaac was caught stealing apples. I believe that should tell you why the people of Salem despised him.”
“It seems strange that he had been caught stealing, yet he beat an indentured man to death for the same crime.”
“That is true, and although I’d never read this anywhere, I’ve often wondered if those apples came from an orchard that belonged to Giles.”
“Yes, I suppose it’s possible, but in that case why wasn’t he convicted and hanged for killing Goodale?”
“It was due to the fact that using corporal punishment on indentured servants was legal, but since what he did was so excessive he was tried and found guilty, although he was merely fined.”
“That explains a lot. It tells me why his neighbor’s not only disliked him, but they might have even been afraid of him. I’m curious about something, though. How is it that you know about all of this?”
“When I first came to work for the Sheriff’s Department, I decided it would be in my best interest to learn as much as I could about the department’s past. This included going all the way back to the High Sheriffs of Essex County and pursuing it all the way to the current sheriff at the time I was hired.”
“I’m certainly glad you went to all of that trouble and I thank you for your assistance. I will also remember what you did for me when promotion time comes around again.”
“Thank you, sir. That will be greatly appreciated.”