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Corey, Marthalocked

(1625–22 September 1692)
  • Robert L. Gale

Corey, Martha (1625–22 September 1692), Salem "witch", was born in England in the late 1620s and subsequently migrated to Massachusetts. Nothing is known of her parents or early life. As Martha Rich, widow, she married Giles Corey (or Cory) in Salem, probably in the 1680s. Giles Corey was a huge, bumbling, eccentric man who owned a hundred or so acres of valuable farmland near Salem. Martha joined the Salem church in 1690; because of the distance from the Corey farm to Salem Town, she attended the Salem Village church, most faithfully. In 1691 her husband joined the church and took his membership very seriously.

In 1692 Salem was convulsed by witchcraft hysteria. In the winter of 1691–1692, Tituba, a slave owned by the Reverend Samuel Parris of Salem Village, inflamed the imaginations of several young girls—including Parris’s daughter Elizabeth (age nine) and her friends Mercy Lewis (a seventeen-year-old orphan servant in the home of Thomas and Ann Putnam), Ann Putnam, Jr. (age twelve), Abigail Williams (Elizabeth Parris’s eleven-year-old cousin), and Elizabeth Hubbard (age seventeen and a servant of her great-aunt, the wife of Dr. William Griggs)—by telling voodoo stories from her native Barbados. Some of the girls soon fell ill and began having fits, crawling about, and contorting their bodies. Griggs, when consulted by a group of ministers including Parris, opined that the girls’ troubles were caused by witchcraft. The girls claimed to be haunted and tortured.

The witch-hunt then began. When Giles Corey expressed a desire to be present at the subsequent hearings, Martha Corey hid his saddle to prevent him from doing so; but he insisted, and the two began to attend the examinations of the first suspects held by a group of magistrates at the meetinghouse. Martha Corey, among a few others, doubted the veracity of the girls who had brought charges, and she unfortunately said so in public, relying on her well-established reputation for piety to keep her out of trouble. When the girls learned of Corey’s skeptical and derogatory remarks, however, Ann Putnam accused her of tormenting them, asserted that she had seen Corey with other witches, and insisted that Corey had often afflicted her. Two respected citizens of the town went to the Corey farm to question Martha on 12 March. At first she was courteous but soon stated in a mocking tone that Ann Putnam and her idle playmates might well have been persuaded by the devil to discommode the whole community. Two days later, she amiably visited the Putnam home, but on seeing her, Ann suffered a fit for which she loudly blamed Corey. Meanwhile, other adults, including John and Elizabeth Proctor, were also indicted for witchcraft. Tituba was jailed, confessed to various witchcraft crimes, implicated others, and thus escaped hanging.

On 21 March Martha Corey was arrested and questioned. The leading magistrate was John Hathorne, novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s great-great-grandfather. To his opening questions, she replied that she had not tormented the girls and did not know who had done so. At this, the afflicted girls cried out that Corey was scratching, biting, and choking them at that moment, and, further, that Corey’s apparition was holding out a book for them to sign. When Corey said that she knew of no such book, one girl asserted that Corey was suckling a yellow bird while holding it between her fingers. When queried, Corey said that she knew of no such bird and stated that she was a “gospel woman.” The girls said she was a “gospel witch.” When Ann Putnam said that she had seen Martha Corey and another “witch” praying to the devil outside the Putnam house, Corey urged Hathorne to regard all of the girls as distracted. When Corey bit her lip to concentrate on formulating an answer, one girl displayed bleeding lips and blamed Corey. When Corey clasped her hands together, the girls said that she was pinching them. When Corey nervously moved her feet, the girls stamped their own feet in pain. A matron in the audience, accusing Corey of causing her pain in the bowels, hit her in the head with a shoe. One girl said that the Black Man was standing beside Corey and was whispering answers to her during the examination. Another girl said that Martha Corey and the devil had signed a ten-year pact, with four years to go. Giles Corey, growing suspicious of his wife, testified that she prayed too fluently to suit him and that he was puzzled when he found her quietly kneeling on their hearth late one night. Thus, he hurt her cause and, to make matters worse, damaged his own reputation by speaking critically of the afflicted girls. Hathorne concluded the hearings against Corey and ordered her confined in the Salem jail, from which she was soon transferred, because of overcrowding there, to the Boston jail.

On 2 June, before the Court of Oyer and Terminer, Ann Putnam, Sr., and another person accused Martha Corey of murder by witchcraft. On 30 June another woman testified that in a vision she had seen Corey commit a double murder by witchcraft. On 5 September a medical panel was ordered to search Corey’s body for marks of the devil’s hand and possibly an extra teat with which she might suckle imps. On 9 September she was condemned to death. On 11 September she was taken to the Salem church and excommunicated. On 22 September, after delivering a brief but eloquent prayer attesting to her innocence, she was hanged on Gallows Hill.

On 18 April a complaint had been filed against Giles Corey. The next day he was arrested, questioned, and jailed. On 5 September his person also was searched by physicians for devil marks. On 7 September, after damning preliminary testimony, he was indicted, chose to stand mute, and could therefore not be legally tried. On 19 September, three days before his wife’s execution, he was placed on his back in a field and was pressed to death by having heavy weights placed on his chest. Alice Parker, accused by the magistrates of witchcraft and hanged on 22 September 1692, may have been one of Giles Corey’s daughters from a previous marriage, and hence Martha Corey’s stepdaughter.

In 1693 Governor Sir William Phips ordered the release of all prisoners, including Tituba, who were being jailed as witches. Parris, when charged by his church, confessed that his accusations had all been groundless and left Salem in 1693. His successor, the Reverend Joseph Green, reconciled factions in the church and succeeded in revoking the excommunication of Martha Corey in 1707 and in 1712 that of Giles Corey, who had also been excommunicated.

Bibliography

The most influential contemporary “intellectual” during the Salem hysteria was Cotton Mather, whose The Wonders of the Invisible World (1693) contains the official report of the 1692 Salem witchcraft trials. Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather (1984), explains Mather’s part in the craze. The following books treat events in Salem at the time and include information on Martha and Giles Corey: W. Elliot Woodward, Records of Salem Witchcraft, Copied from the Original Documents (2 vols., 1864); Samuel G. Drake, Annals of Witchcraft in New England and Elsewhere in the United States, from Their First Settlement (1869); George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706 (1914); Marion L. Starkey, The Devil in Massachusetts: A Modern Inquiry into the Salem Witch Trials (1949); Leo Bonfanti, The Witchcraft Hysteria of 1692 (1971); Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, eds., The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Verbatim Transcripts of the Legal Documents of the Salem Witchcraft Outbreak of 1692 (3 vols., 1977); Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England (1987); and Enders A. Robinson, The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692 (1991). Among the many authors who have written about the Salem witchcraft craze are Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Arthur Miller, John Updike, and John Greenleaf Whittier.