Lithograph (1892) depicting artist’s vision of the Salem Witch Trials, by Joseph Baker. / Library of Congress
By Dolly Stolze / 10.01.2017
History is full of stories about curses spoken by prisoners, either rightfully or wrongfully convicted, on the way to their execution. The hexes were a prisoner’s supernatural retribution for perceived wrongs that the court dealt them. This cosmic vengeance often resulted in disease or gruesome accidents that caused untimely, often violent, deaths of doomed individuals. A curse’s infamy was reinforced by the number and gruesomeness of the fatalities. Although the lore around some curses have a historical basis, archaeologists rarely find evidence for it.
Sarah Good was one of the first victims of the Salem witch trials that plagued Massachusetts from 1692 to 1693, and resulted in the execution of 20 people. Abigail Williams and Elizabeth Parris accused Sarah of using her supernatural powers to torment and possess their bodies. Good was arrested and emphatically denied the charges in court. It should be mentioned that Sarah’s four-year-old daughter was also jailed for witchcraft at the same time as her mother, but was released at the end of 1692. To make matters worse for Sarah, she gave birth to another daughter while in prison, but the baby did not survive. Not many people could blame Sarah for leveling a curse against the very people who accused her of crimes she did not commit.
She was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. On July 19, 1692, when Sarah Good stood on top of the gallows, Reverend Nicholas Noyes, who served as minister over the trials, demanded that she confess. In response, according the Salem Witch Museum, Sarah said, “You are a liar. I am no more a witch than you are a wizard, and if you take away my life God will give you blood to drink.”
Memorial stone for Sarah Good in Salem. / Tim1965 on Wikipedia
It’s rumored that’s exactly what happened when Noyes passed away in 1717. He supposedly died when a blood vessel in his head ruptured and caused his mouth to fill with blood.
Realistically, we can’t say for sure that this is how Reverend Noyes perished. To corroborate the story about the circumstances surrounding Noyes’ death, forensic scientists would have to exhume his grave. There likely isn’t much of Noyes’ body remaining to confirm that a brain hemorrhage killed him.
It can be very difficult to find evidence in the archaeological record for the origin story for a curse because bodies decompose and written records are lost. But in 2004, The Guardian reported that archaeologists found physical evidence of one of the most deadly curses in English history.
In early 2004, archaeologists with Oxford Archaeology unearthed a mass grave between Oxford castle’s medieval fortifications and its prison. The grave contained 60-70 skeletons dating to between the mid-16th to mid-18th centuries. Dan Poore, an archaeologist with Oxford Archaeology, told The Guardian, “The early bodies may well be those from the Black Assizes era.”
In 1577, Rowland Jenkins, a “foul-mouthed” bookbinder, was tried during the assizes of Oxford, judicial sessions held periodically when traveling judges came to town, or his support of the Pope and saying mean words about Queen Elizabeth I. At the end of the 16th century in England, the Church of England was the state religion. The monarchy regularly jailed and executed anyone preaching support of the Catholic Church.
He was eventually convicted and nailed by his ears to a pillory, similar to the stocks. Jenkins was pissed at this outcome so he cursed the courtroom and the city.
That same year an epidemic in Oxford killed 300 people including the two judges, a clerk, the coroner, sheriff, and jury members of the assize. For this reason, the assize of 1577 became known as the Black Assize.
Historians argue that these people died from gaol fever, also known as typhus. Typhus is a bacterial infection spread by lice and is common in the unsanitary, overcrowded prison conditions. Prisoners often died from gaol fever while in custody because they had to wait on a judge to come to town to hear their case. Typhus would spread from the jail to the court when prisoners were finally brought in front of the judge.
Oxford archaeologists believe that the mass grave they uncovered in 2004 held prisoners that died as the result this typhus epidemic, that some attribute to Jenkins’ words, because the skeletons date to the right period, the grave is close proximity to the old prison, and most of the individuals are male.
Plaque inside the Oxford county hall. / Motacilla via Wikipedia.
In the 19th century, city officials mounted a plaque on a wall inside the county hall that memorializes the cursed uttered by Rowland Jenkins and the resulting typhus epidemic:
“Near this spot stood the ancient Shire Hall, unhappily famous in History as the Scene in July 1577, of the Black Assize, when a malignant disease known as the Gaol fever caused the death within forty days of the Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer, Sir Robert Bell, the High Sheriff (Sir Robert D’Oyly of Merton) and about three hundred more.
The malady from the stench of the Prisoners developed itself during the Trial of one Rowland Jenkes, a saucy foul-mouthed Bookseller, for scandalous words uttered against the Queen.”