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The Salem Witch trials were gripped by hysteria

SCIENCE & TECH: Salem Witch Trial Hysteria and the Courageous Stance of Giles Corey

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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.

During the famed Salem Witch Trials, Giles Corey refused to submit to the lunacy of the Salem show trials. 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, a technique used 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 Salem Witch Trials are an example of mass hysteria. “The witch no. 1” lithograph by Joseph E. Baker, ca. 1837 to 1914. (Public domain)

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, with some of the accused pointing fingers at others in order to spare their own lives. The hysteria spread rapidly throughout the town.

Giles Corey at the Salem Witch Trials

Giles Corey at the Salem Witch Trials in an illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1893. (Public domain)

The Story of Giles Corey and the Salem Witch Trials

During the trials, the young accusers were reportedly 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.

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.

Trial of Giles Corey

“Trial of Giles Corey” engraving by C. (Charles) S. Reinhardt, 1878. (Public domain)

In September 1692, Corey faced trial during the infamous Salem Witch Trials. Nearly a dozen witnesses emerged, claiming to have seen him participating in a witches’ sacrament, where he allegedly served bread and wine. Recognizing the grim fate that awaited those accused, as many had been convicted and executed before him, Corey made a defiant decision. Rather than pleading to the charges and meeting an almost certain execution, he chose to stand silent in the face of the accusations.

This strategic move by Corey aimed not only to protect himself but also to secure the future of his farm for his two sons-in-law. By avoiding trial and subsequent execution, Corey could ensure that his estate and possessions would not fall into the hands of the state upon his death, as was the fate of those who were condemned during the Salem Witch Trials.

Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death

“Giles Corey’s Punishment and Awful Death”, an illustrator from 1892. (Public domain)

Giles Corey’s Punishment and Awful Death

At the time, the consequence for refusing to stand trial was a practice known as pressing. In what basically amounted to an awful form of torture, 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 to the torturous pain 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.

Memorial marker in the Salem cemetery for Giles Corey. (Tim Evanson / CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

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, 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.

The Salem Witch Trials, which have become a highly influential event within United States 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.

Top image: The Salem Witch Trials: “Trial of George Jacobs, August 5, 1692” by Thomkins H. Matteson. Source: Public domain

By M R Reese

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