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The accusation of Martha Corey marked a turning point in the Salem witch trials crisis of 1692 in Massachusetts. Corey was a newly accepted member of the village church and broke the established mold of only social pariahs being accused of practicing witchcraft. Major contributing factors to the case being brought against her were an illegitimate son born to Corey in the 1670s, and her outspoken criticisms of the trials and the judges involved in the convictions. Although Martha espoused her innocence throughout her whole ordeal, she was put to death on September 22, 1692.
Written by Jillian Smith and Eliza Pollack
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring semester 2002, Fall Semester 2006
In 1692, the small town of Salem, Massachusetts was wracked by terror and confusion. By March, accusations and convictions of witches and witchcraft had reached a high point, and it seemed like no one was safe from the madness. In late February, Elizabeth Parris and Abigail Williams had named Tituba, Sarah Goode, and Sarah Osborne. These three women seemed to fit a kind of stereotypical pattern. They were perceived by many as social outcasts, misfits, and were not members of the church. On March 11, 1692, this pattern took a drastically different turn, however. Under the pressure of Reverend Samuel Parris, the two girls accused Goodwife Martha Corey, a new but universally accepted good member of the Salem church; to some, she was even known as the "gospel woman." Citizens of Salem were shocked at this fourth accusation, and while no one questioned either Elizabeth or Abigail on their indictment, eyebrows were certainly raised when Martha Corey was asked to testify in court on March 22, 1692.
Martha Corey's active church participation and religious faith were genuine, but her history was not as pure. Over twenty years earlier, Corey had given birth to an illegitimate son whom she named Benoni. Benoni was thought to be mulatto and was living proof of Corey's indiscriminate past. Because the boy lived with Corey and her husband, Giles, town members were completely aware of her situation, and it is likely that this was one factor that played into the afflicted girls' accusation. After being accused, Martha made a concerted effort to dispel the rumors that she was a witch, and cited her religious fervor as proof that she could never support nor believe in the devil. In her book, In the Devil's Snare, however, author Mary Beth Norton makes the point that Martha's "acceptance into the church, given her personal background and the exclusivity of church membership in Salem Village, must have set tongues wagging. On at least one other occasion in seventeenth-century New England, the admission to church membership of a woman with a checkered sexual past fomented an uproar among her neighbors. The same could well have happened in the case of Martha Corey, causing speculation about the validity of her reputed adherence to Christianity (Norton, page 46)."
A second contributing factor, perhaps even more important than her illegitimate son, was Corey's vehement, and public, denunciations of the witch trials and the judges involved in hearings. From the beginning, Corey was skeptical about even the existence of witches. In an encounter with a member of the Putnam family, Martha stated that she "did not think there were any witches" in New England and believed that she could" open the eyes of the church to the truth about non-existence of the devil himself. Corey was also critical of the afflicted girls themselves. During her trial, she asked that the judges not believe the actions of the girls, and made similar claims throughout the Salem crisis as a whole. This fact combined with her questionable past made her an easy target for the afflicted girls. By accusing her, the Putnams demonstrated that they would willingly attack anyone who openly questioned their motives and authority.
In their book Salem Possessed, Paul Boyer and Stephan Nissenbaum make a third argument for why Martha Corey was accused of witchcraft. By 1692, the Putnam family had fallen on social and economic hardship, and its members were looking for people to blame for their essential fall from grace. Two easy targets of their anger were Mary Veren Putnam and Joseph Putnam, the stepmother and half-brother of Thomas Putnam and his siblings. The ideal revenge would be to accuse both of witchcraft; for various reasons, however, including the perceived social power of Mary and Joseph and their familial ties, the Putnams never brought cases against them. Instead, they focused their attention on less-threatening targets, like Martha Corey. Indeed, Boyer and Nissenbaum believe that the Putnams projected their anger and dissatisfaction with Mary onto Martha: "The accusation of…Corey was a key point along the psychological progression which the Thomas Putnam family, and the entire witchcraft episode, followed in 1692…In turning on [Corey] they betrayed the fact that witchcraft accusations against the powerless, the outcast, or the already victimized were not sufficiently cathartic for them. They were driven to last out at persons of real respectability – persons, in short, who reminded them of the individuals actually responsible (so they believed) for their own reduced fortunes and prospects…Corey was the ideal transition figure: she combined respectability with a touch of deviance. If the Putnams could bring her down, they would be free, not only politically, but psychologically as well, to play out their compulsions on a still larger scale (Boyer and Nissenbaum, page 146-147)."
On March 21, 1692, Corey was forced to testify on her innocence in court. When asked by Judge Hathorne why she "hurt" "these persons," Corey responded, "I never had to do with Witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospell Woman." When urged to confess to her crimes, Corey said that if she was guilty, she would admit it; but she maintained that she was an innocent woman throughout the entirety of the trials. No matter what she said on the stand, Corey realized the futility of her efforts and told Hathorne and the community: "Ye are all against me& I cannot help it." Corey, like the other accused witches, was involved in a battle against the dramatic performances of the afflicted, and determined, young women. It was truly her word against the testimonies of others, telling similar stories to Edward Putnam, who spoke on behalf of Ann Putnam, Jr., saying that Corey "desired to come and see his daughter Ann Putnam: who had charged Martha Cory to her face…but no sooner did Martha Cory come into the house of Thomas Putnam but Ann Putnam fell ill in grievous fits." Martha's sense of desperation could not have proved to be any truer. On September 22 of the same year, Martha Corey was hung to death in Salem. She was one of nineteen men and women killed during the witchcraft crisis.
The accusation and conviction of Martha Corey marked a turning point in the Salem witch crisis. Corey was a well-liked, accepted, and covenanted member of the church who was socially and economically stable. Her past sexual indiscretions, combined with her opposition to the trials and the personal vendettas of the Putnam family, however, all made her a fairly easy target for the afflicted girls. Martha Corey opened the door for anyone to be accused of witchcraft. She removed all of the social boundaries and led the way for over one hundred more men and women to be accused of cavorting with the devil in Massachusetts.
Boyer, Paul and Nissembaum, Stephan. Salem Possessed. Harvard University Press. United States of America. 1974.
Norton, Mary Beth. In the Devil's Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692." Random House, Inc. New York, NY. 2002.
"Salem Witch Trials: Documentary Archive and Transcription Project."