Daily Archives: March 10, 2011


Pressed for an Answer

The course of history has occasionally been changed by inspiring speeches; Winston Churchill certainly rallied his countrymen during the darkest days of World War II, to give just one example.  There have also been turning points that were set in motion not by soaring rhetoric, but by a pithy phrase.  In effect, someone told a supposedly superior opponent to go to hell.

Among those was John Paul Jones, a sea captain during the American Revolution.  He was locked in a fierce battle with a British ship called the Serapis in September, 1779.  You probably recall Jones’ famous response to a surrender demand:  “I have not yet begun to fight,” he said.  It’s hard to appreciate how bold that retort was unless you know that his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, was on fire at the time.  And sinking.

Jones and his men continued to fight; three hours later the British captain surrendered and John Paul Jones took command of the Serapis.  A day or so later, the Bonhomme Richard was on the ocean floor.

A similar act of defiance occurred during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II.  German General Heinrich von Lüttwitz conveyed a surrender ultimatum to his American counterpart, General Anthony McAuliffe.  An official reply was typed up and carried back.  It read:  “To the German Commander, NUTS!  The American Commander”.  Apparently the Germans weren’t sure what that meant, so the guy who delivered the message to them, Col. Joseph Harper, explained it in even more colorful language.

The words of defiance that I marvel at most were those of Giles Corey, who got caught up in the hysteria surrounding the Salem Witch Trials.  Giles was an 80-year-old farmer and church member; his wife Martha had dared to publicly question the wild charges that were being made.  That got Martha accused of being a witch.  When Giles came to his wife’s defense, he was accused, too.

There was a quirk in the law of Massachusetts colony at that time:  anyone who refused to enter a plea could not be tried.  To keep people from avoiding justice, though, the law provided the means to encourage an individual to plead.  The accused was placed on the ground and heavy rocks were placed on top of him until he either admitted guilt or claimed innocence.

That’s what happened to Giles Corey:  he got pressed.  Knowing that he would probably be hanged by the mob no matter what he said, he refused to enter a plea.

Boulders were piled on him.  At one point the sheriff stood on top of the boulders, staring down at Giles’s bulging eyes.  This torture went on for two days.  Then, on September 19, 1692, the authorities thought they had softened him up, so to speak.  The sheriff asked him if he pleaded guilty or innocent.

Giles Corey gasped out a defiant reply:  “More weight.”

So the authorities piled more weight on the old man, and of course he died.  Because he refused to plead, though, he died in possession of his estate.  If he had entered a plea and been found guilty — as he inevitably would have been — his property would have been forfeited to the government. 

I guess you could say that they crushed Giles Corey, but they didn’t break him.