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Wednesday, February 27, 2019

February 27, 2019: The Salem Witch Trials: Giles and Martha Corey

[On March 1st, 1692, authorities in Salem, MA questioned Sarah Good, Sarah Osborne, and the slave known as Tituba over allegations of witchcraft, the first event in what would become the Salem Witch Trials. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Salem Witch Trials contexts and legacies.]
On the danger of looking too closely at our historical heroes, and a potential middle ground.
One of the first Salem Witch Trials figures about whom I learned was Giles Corey, an elderly man and the only one of the 20 executed “witches” who died by “pressing” rather than hanging. As both those hyperlinked articles note, the 80 year-old Corey refused to enter a plea of either guilty or innocent before the court, maintaining his silence throughout the fatal pressing (which was apparently employed in an attempt to draw such a plea out of him one way or the other); indeed, the story went that the only words he spoke as more and more rocks were piled upon him were “More weight.” To a young AmericanStudier (and I learned about Corey for the first time at some point in high school, so it was indeed quite early in my AmericanStudies career and perspective), that was one of the most badass and inspiring historical moments I had ever encountered (also a horrific one, to be sure, but nonetheless a badass and inspiring response to such horrors), and Corey became one of my historical heroes as a result.
And then I learned more. Most relevantly, I learned that before Corey was accused of witchcraft, his third wife Martha was—and that, as that hyperlinked article traces at length, Giles not only refused to corroborate Martha’s story in a way that might help her avoid conviction, but in fact testified against her at her trial, more or less assuring that she would be found guilty. I understand full well that marriages can be unhappy and far from the romantic ideal, and I also understand motivations of self-preservation and survival, especially in times like the witch trials era—but at best (and I do mean at best), Giles’s actions toward Martha utterly destroy any image of him as courageous or heroic. Moreover, further investigation into Giles revealed that he had beaten to death one of his farmhands, Jacob Goodale, some fifteen years earlier, in 1675; he was found guilty of the murder but punished with only a fine. Clearly this was a man with a history of violence and ugliness, and one whose mistreatment of his third wife (and while he did not himself accuse her of witchcraft, I can think of no kinder word than mistreatment for his behavior once she was accused) was simply a final brutal act in an undignified life.
But it wasn’t his final act overall, of course. That was refusing to play by the witch trials’ court’s rigged rules, refusing to give in to their barbaric torture, dying on his own stubborn terms rather than their nonsensical and awful ones. Those actions could be linked to his violence toward others, I suppose, but they’re also certainly a form of personal bravery in the face of violence. Is it possible to highlight and even celebrate that final act, while also remembering that Giles Corey participated actively in systems of communal violence and patriarchal oppression at their most extreme? That’s not unlike the questions I asked about Nathan Bedford Forrest’s end-of-life transformations in a footnote to this post, and there I called those shifts “far too little and too late.” Corey didn’t reach the depths of bigotry, brutality, and pure badness that Forrest did, but in a more personal and small way he seems to have been much the same type of man. But he was also a victim of the Witch Trials, and a victim whose final acts of stubborn bravery do help illuminate the true depravity of that period. So I believe it is worth remembering and even celebrating those final acts, but only in a much more accurate context than those with which I initially remembered and celebrated Giles Corey.
Next Witch Trials context tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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