The Coreys of Salem

Giles and Martha Corey were both executed in 1692 during the Salem Witch Trials. 

The witch panic that swept through the small village of Salem was driven by a small group of girls who claimed they had been “afflicted” by witches. These afflicted girls had enormous power during the Salem witch trials, both accusing their neighbors of witchcraft and then testifying publicly against them. Eventually over forty people in Salem claimed to be under attack by demonic forces, and they accused nearly two hundred people of being witches—at a time when Salem Village had a population of less than six hundred people.

When Martha Corey openly questioned if the afflicted girls were actually ill, she was accused of witchcraft. Martha was arrested. Her husband, Giles, defended her, and went a step further—he accused the afflicted girls of lying about their ailments. Giles, too, was accused of being a witch.

The Coreys spent the summer of 1692 in prison, as their fellow prisoners were questioned, put on trial, and executed. Over fifty people confessed to being witches—and of that group, none were killed. The nineteen people hung for witchcraft in Salem refused to confess and were found guilty at trial. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

Witches were hung in Salem rather than being burned, because under English law witchcraft was considered treason rather than heresy. 

The trials took place in a cloud of hysteria. The afflicted girls cried out that they were being attacked in the courthouse, stunning the judge, the jury, and other spectators. During one early trial, that of Sarah Good, one of the afflicted girls screamed that Good’s ghostly specter was attacking her with a knife. When she was examined for knife wounds in court, bloody gashes were found on her arm. Adding to the spectacle of the trials, a young man jumped up to claim that he had broken his knife the previous day and dropped the piece near the afflicted girl. To many, this was clear evidence that the girl had lied, but Sarah Good was still found guilty and executed.

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

An afflicted girl is "attacked" during the trial. 

The Coreys served as a stark example to others who might have questioned the afflicted girls. When Martha Corey was put on trial, she confidently proclaimed her innocence, but the afflicted girls cried out that the devil was whispering in Corey’s ear, and that a yellow bird was sucking on her hand. The jury sentenced Martha to death. 

Her husband, Giles, watched from prison. When it came time for his trial, he refused to plead guilty or not guilty. As an incentive to plea, the court decided to “press” Corey to speak, using a rare legal punishment to pressure recalcitrant defendants. Outside the jail, the sheriff placed boards on Corey’s chest and stomach. Heavy stones were piled on Giles, but still he refused to speak. 

This torture killed Giles very slowly. For two full days he was pressed under the weight of the stones. When Giles was asked to plead innocent or guilty, he only replied “more weight!”

On the third day, Giles Corey finally died. Three days later, his wife Martha was hung. 

The Coreys stood up against the witch trials, and paid a heavy price. But because Giles refused to enter a plea, his estate stayed in the Corey family instead of passing to the government. 

The hysteria in Salem died down nearly as fast as it began, and within a year of the last execution many of the jurors publicly apologized for the error of believing witches were attacking their community. During the high anxiety of 1692, when Puritans feared their community would crumble, it had been plausible for residents of Salem to believe that the Devil was assaulting their village. The jurors believed God was testing them, and the only response was to exterminate the witches. This dangerous combination of hysteria and righteousness cost many lives, including Giles and Martha Corey. 

(For more, keep an eye out for my novel Salem Mean Girls, which retells the Salem Witch Trials in the style of the movie “Mean Girls.”)