Jul 10, 2015

Salem Witch Trial hysteria and the courageous stance of Giles Corey



 
In Spring of 1692, a group of young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts accused others in their village of practicing witchcraft, unleashing a hysteria that caused the deaths of at least 24 people. Most of the deaths were caused by hanging, or occurred in prison, but the case of Giles Corey, who was accused of colluding with the devil, was different. Giles refused to submit to the lunacy of the Salem show trials, and knowing that making a plea would result in his estate and possessions being forfeited to the government instead of being passed on to his children, he declined to plead either guilty or not guilty. Giles was subsequently subjected to the brutal practice of ‘pressing’ in an attempt to force a plea out of him. He died during the process, but in full possession of his estate, which was passed on to his two sons-in-law, in accordance with his will.

The events that led to the Salem Witch trials began with two young girls – nine-year-old Elizabeth Parris, and 11-year-old Abigail Williams. In January of 1692, Parris and Williams began having fits the involved uncontrollable outbursts of screaming and violent contortions. A local doctor diagnosed the girls with “bewitchment,” and soon other young girls in the area began exhibiting the same symptoms. The girls accused three women of bewitching them – Parris’ Caribbean slave, Tituba, Sarah Good, and Sarah Osborn. The accused were brought to trial. Tituba confessed to practicing witchcraft, preserving her own life. Accusations continued, and some of the accused began pointing fingers at others, in an effort to spare their own lives. The hysteria spread rapidly throughout the town.

During the trials, the young accusers would be present in the court room, writhing and screaming in supposed pain. Specific accusations included seeing the accused transform into animals, the accused coming to their bedside to torture them, suckling a yellow bird between their fingers, and asking them to sign the devil’s book. 

The Salem Witch trials were gripped by hysteria. "The witch no. 1" lithograph by Joseph E. Baker, ca. 1837-1914. (Wikimedia Commons)

While many accused witches died by hanging, or while in jail, Giles Corey’s death was different. Corey was a prosperous farmer in Salem. He was married three times, to wives Margaret, Mary, and Martha. During the Salem witch trials, Corey and his wife Martha were accused of witchcraft. Accuser Mercy Lewis testified that the apparition of Corey appeared before her, asking her to sign the devil’s book. Corey sat in prison for five months, awaiting trial.

Giles Corey at the Salem Witch Trials. Illustration accompanying “Giles Cory, Yeoman,” a play by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, Volume LXXXVI, 1893. (Wikimedia Commons)

In September 1692, Corey went to trial. Almost a dozen witnesses came forward stating they had seen Corey serving bread and wine at a witches’ sacrament. Knowing that he would be convicted and executed, as had occurred to all those before him, Corey refused to plea to the charges. By avoiding trial and execution, Corey would be able to preserve his farm for his two sons-in-law. If he had been accused and executed, his estate and possessions would have become property of the state upon his death.



"Trial of Giles Corey" engraving by C. (Charles) S. Reinhardt, 1878. (Wikimedia Commons)

At the time, the consequence for refusing to stand trial was a practice known as pressing. The accused would be stripped naked, and placed upon the ground with boards across his chest. Heavy stones would be placed upon the boards, one at a time, causing agonizing pain as their organs were crushed and their body was pressed into the ground. Pressing was a public event, to be witnessed by family and neighbors. It would ultimately lead to one of two outcomes: either the individual would give in under the pain and pressure and make a plea, most likely resulting in a conviction and subsequent death by hanging, or he would refuse to plead and would die by pressing.

While the heavy stones were placed upon Giles Corey’s chest, he did not yell out in pain, nor did he give in to his tormentors requests. Instead, he is famously known for shouting out “more weight!”, every time he was asked to make a plea. It is clear that his intention was to die by pressing, in the hopes of saving his wife, and preserving his farm and possessions for the sake of his children. Around noon on September 19, 1692, Corey died from pressing. 


"Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death", illustrator unknown, 1892. (Wikimedia Commons)

The witch trials of Salem, which became a highly influential event in U.S. history, have been used in political rhetoric and popular literature to highlight the dangers of isolationism, religious extremism, false accusations, and breakdowns in due process. 


Memorial marker in the Salem cemetery for Giles Corey. (Wikimedia Commons)

Featured image: The Salem Witch Trials: "Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692" by Thomkins H. Matteson. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sources:




By M R Reese
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