George Corwin: High Sheriff of Essex County

George Corwin was the high sheriff of Essex County during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. He was the nephew of Judge Jonathan Corwin and Judge Wait Winthrop and the grandson of John Winthrop the Younger, the Governor of Connecticut.

George Corwin was born in Salem, Massachusetts on February 26, 1666 to merchant Captain John Corwin and Margaret Winthrop, daughter of John Winthrop Jr.

On April 23, 1688, George Corwin married his first wife, Susanna Gedney.

In 1690, Corwin served as a captain in the Quebec Expedition under Sir William Phipps.

It appears that Susannah Gedney must have died shortly after their marriage because Corwin married her sister, Lydia Gedney, sometime before 1693.

Sometime around 1691 or 1692, Corwin’s mother died and Corwin inherited the house his grandfather built at 148 Washington Street.

Map of Salem, Mass, circa 1700, published in the Essex Antiquarian, Volume 3
Map of Salem, Mass, circa 1700, published in the Essex Antiquarian, Volume 3

On June 21, 1693, George and Lydia’s only child, Bartholomew Corwin, was born.

George Corwin in the Salem Witch Trials:

After the Salem Witch Trials began in March of 1692, a special court had to be established to hear all the cases.

On May 27, 1692, Governor Phipps established the Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear the witchcraft cases and also appointed George Corwin as high sheriff of Essex County.

It’s not clear how Corwin obtained such a prestigious position at the young age of 25 but it may have been due to his family connections.

Corwin’s duties as high sheriff involved signing arrest and death warrants, confiscating personal property, such as money, goods, housewares and livestock, and carrying out executions.

In April, Salem merchant Philip English and his wife Mary were arrested on charges of witchcraft and later escaped from the Boston jail and fled to New York.

To pay for the English’s jail fees, Corwin and his men went to their home and warehouses and confiscated everything they could find, such as furniture, plates, wine, lumber, grain, fish, clothing, and livestock which totaled about 1,183 pounds. This act would later lead to a legal battle between Corwin and English after the trials.

On Friday, June 10, 1692, Corwin carried out his first execution when he was ordered by the court to transport Bridget Bishop from the Salem jail to the execution site, at what is now known as Proctor’s Ledge, to hang her.

It is not known if Corwin himself carried out the execution or if one of his men did it but Bishop was forced to climb a ladder, which had been propped up against either a tree or gallows, and a noose was tied around her neck. She was then either pushed off the ladder, by either Corwin or one of his men, or the ladder was kicked out from under her and she was hanged.

As required, Corwin returned to the court later in the day to report that he had carried out his orders. On the back of Bishop’s death warrant he wrote the following words:

“According to the within written precept I have taken the body of the within named Bridget Bishop of their majes’ts goale in Salem and safely conveyed her to the place provided for her execution and caused the said Bridget to be hanged by the neck until she was dead [and buried in the place] all which was according to the time within required and so I make return by me
George Sheriff.”

After writing the words “and buried in the place,” Corwin crossed these words out for reasons that are not exactly clear. It wasn’t customary to bury the body at the execution site but it had been documented that the executed Salem Witch Trials victims were temporarily thrown into a rocky crevice at the execution site and possibly covered up until they could be buried or their bodies were claimed.

On July 19, 1692, sometime between 8am and noon, Corwin carried out his task as executioner again when he was ordered to transport Rebecca Nurse, Susannah Martin, Elizabeth Howe, Sarah Good and Sarah Wildes from prison by cart to the execution site at Proctor’s Ledge.

The executions were carried out the same way Bishop’s was and the bodies were placed in the rocky crevice, after which it is believed that some of the family members of the victims retrieved some of the bodies under the cover of night.

Corwin again returned to the court later that day and wrote the following words on the back of their death warrant:

“I caused the within mentioned persons to be executed according to the tenour of the with[in] warrant George Corwin sheriff”

He was called on to repeat this action again on August 19, 1692, when he was ordered to transport Martha Carrier, George Burroughs, John Willard, George Jacobs and John Proctor to the execution site and hang them as well.

One of Corwin’s most infamous acts of cruelty took place on September 19, 1692 when he took Giles Corey to a field next to the old Salem jail, which is now Howard Street Cemetery, and tortured him until he died.

“Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death”, illustrator unknown, in Witchcraft Illustrated by Henrietta D. Kimball, circa 1892
“Giles Corey’s Punishment and Awful Death,” illustration published in “Witchcraft Illustrated” by Henrietta D. Kimball in 1892

Corey had used a legal tactic known as “standing mute” to prevent his trial from continuing. In order to force Corey to comply with the court proceedings he used a torture technique known as “peine forte et dure.”

Around noon that day, Corwin took Corey to the field, stripped him naked and forced him to lay down on the ground while he placed a board on top of him. Corwin then placed heavy rocks on top of the board while asking Corey if he would comply, to which he simply responded “more weight.”

The torture went on for two days and at one point Corey’s tongue protruded from his mouth due to the pressure. Corwin borrowed an onlookers walking stick and forced Corey’s tongue back in his mouth. After two days passed, Corey died and was buried in or near the crossroads by Butt’s Brook (Roach 297.)

It has long been rumored that Corey placed a curse on Salem and its sheriff during his torture when he shouted “Damn you! I curse you and Salem!” at the sheriff before he died.

After Corey’s death, Corwin arrived at the Corey farm to either confiscate his goods or receive payment for Corey’s jail expenses. Corey’s son-in-law, John Moulton, found the money to pay Corwin after selling some of his livestock.

On September 22, 1692, the last hangings of the Salem Witch Trials took place when Corwin transported Martha Corey, Mary Easty, Alice Parker, Mary Parker, Ann Pudeator, Wilmot Redd, Margaret Scott, and Samuel Wardwell to the execution site to hang them.

After Mary Parker’s hanging, Corwin sent an officer with confiscation orders to her Andover farm but her sons explained that she had nothing to confiscate because they had inherited the estate. The officer took their corn, hay and cattle anyway.

When her sons complained about this to Sheriff Corwin he demanded another 10 pounds, possibly for Mary Parker’s unpaid jail fees but it’s not clear, and threatened to sell what he confiscated if they didn’t pay. The sons negotiated with Corwin and reduced to amount to six pounds.

George Corwin After the Salem Witch Trials:

On March 2, 1693, Philip English sent a petition to Governor Phips demanding back all of his goods that he says were illegally seized by Sheriff Corwin.

On March 6, 1693, Corwin met with Governor Phipps and delivered an inventory of all of the goods he confiscated from English and promised to return everything.

On April 26, 1693, Governor Phipps wrote to Sheriff Corwin and repeated his orders to return all of Philip English’s possessions,which Corwin apparently had not done yet.

On May 15, 1694, the Superior Court met in Ipswich to discuss Sheriff George Corwin’s disputed confiscations and found his accounts to be “just and true” and noted that the county still owed Corwin 67 pounds for his work. Furthermore, the court ruled that Corwin and his heirs were not liable for the money, goods and chattels that he seized as part of his duties.

On February 26, 1696, despite the Superior Court’s ruling that Corwin was not liable for the goods he seized on the job, Philip English sued Corwin again for the goods he had confiscated from him.

The writ demanded that Corwin either pay 15 pounds as a bond or he had to appear in court at the next session. Corwin didn’t have the money to pay the bond and was ill at the time so he couldn’t appear in court either. As a result, the constable arrested Corwin and brought him to the Salem jail (Roach 520.)

It is believed that one of Corwin’s relatives paid his bail to get him out of the Salem jail and Corwin then hired Joseph Neal as his attorney in the case.

Only a few months later, George Corwin died of a heart attack on April 12, 1696, at the age of 30 years old. Local legend says that it was Giles Corey’s curse that killed him and that the curse also killed many Essex County sheriffs since 1692.

In 1981, Essex County Sheriff Robert E. Cahill was forced to retire early due to a stroke, heart attack and rare blood condition, and he began looking into the history of the sheriff’s office. Cahill found a long history of Salem sheriffs dying early or retiring early due to heart attacks and blood conditions.

Cahill believed that when the sheriff’s office was moved from Salem to a new prison in Middleton in 1991, after the old Salem jail was shut down, it broke the curse and saved the future sheriffs from the same fate.

Since the move, no sheriffs have been diagnosed with any heart conditions or blood ailments. Cahill later died of a heart attack in 2005 at the age of 70.

George Corwin’s Grave:

It was rumored that due to Philip English’s pending lawsuit against Corwin, that English threatened to steal Corwin’s body and hold it for ransom.

An article on the New England Historical Society website states that English actually stopped Corwin’s funeral procession, stole the body and ransomed it for silver and jewels but it’s not clear if that actually happened or if it’s a local legend.

It is also rumored that Corwin’s family buried his body in the basement of his house to prevent his body from being stolen and only later reburied Corwin in the Corwin family tomb in Broad Street Cemetery after the threat had passed.

Sheriff Corwin's grave, photo published in the New England Magazine Volume 5, 1892
Sheriff Corwin’s grave, photo published in the New England Magazine Volume 5, 1892

In 1784, Corwin’s house was demolished and replaced with the Joshua Ward House which now serves as the Merchant Hotel.

Sources:
Roach, Marilynne K. The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-By-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Taylor Trade Publishing, 2004.
Curely, Jerome M and Dorothy V. Malcolm and Nelson L. Dionne. Legendary Locals of Salem, Massachusetts. Arcadia Publishing, 2013.
Hurd, Duane Hamilton. History of Essex County Massachusetts. Vol I, J.W. Lewis, 1888.
Upham, Charles W. Salem Witchcraft; With an Account of Salem Village, and a History of Opinions on Witchcraft and Kindred Subjects, Vol I. Wiggin and Lunt, 1867.
Waters, Henry Fitzgerald. The Gedney and Clarke Families of Salem, Mass. Salem Press, 1880.
Perley, Sidney. The History of Salem Massachusetts,Vol II, 1638 – 1670. Sidney Perley, 1926.
“SWP No. 063:Sarah Good executed July 19, 1692.” Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project, University of Virginia, salem.lib.virginia.edu/n63.html
“Dirty laundry and a friend save Philip English from the Salem Witch Trials.” New England Historical Society, newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/dirty-laundry-and-a-friend-save-philip-english-from-the-salem-witch-trials/

About Rebecca Beatrice Brooks

Rebecca Beatrice Brooks is the author and publisher of the History of Massachusetts Blog. Rebecca is a freelance journalist and history lover who got her start in journalism working for small-town newspapers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a B.A. in journalism. Visit this site's About page to find out more about Rebecca.

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