Attacking Martha Corey

Martha Corey (also spelled Cory) was eighty-one years old and the third wife of Giles Corey, a wealthy landowner whose property straddled the line between Salem Village and Salem Town. Though a faithful church member, she was known for being opinionated. She had also created a ripple of controversy early in her adult life by giving birth to an illegitimate mulatto (of mixed racial descent) child. These factors combined against Martha Corey when, on March 19, Edward Putnam, a member of the powerful Putnam family, and Ezekiel Cheever, the court reporter, came to her home and accused her of practicing witchcraft. Prior to their visit Corey's primary accuser, Ann Putnam, Jr, claimed that she had been temporarily blinded and could not describe the clothing Corey was wearing when the old woman had supposedly bewitched her. Edward Putnam and Cheever confronted Corey with evidence that she had afflicted Ann and other girls. Although Corey denied accusations of witchcraft, she tried to outsmart the men by saying, "But does she tell you what I have on?"— implying that Ann might be accusing the wrong person. Corey's accusers took this statement as a sign that she not only knew they could not answer the question but she was also playing a trick on them—that she was, in fact, a witch. Edward Putnam and Cheever immediately arrested Corey on charges of committing injuries against Ann and other girls—Mercy Lewis, Elizabeth Hubbard, and Abigail Williams. Another "injured" person on the list was Ann Putnam, Sr., who had also testified against Corey and another elderly church member, Rebecca Nurse (see The Testimony Ann Putnam, Sr. against Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse in the primary sources section).

Since the warrant was issued on a Saturday, Corey had one more chance to give her side of the story. Local law made Saturday and Sunday sacred days of prayer on which no person could be arrested. Corey attended church for the last time on Sunday, March 20. During the service a special sermon was delivered by a visiting minister, Deodat Lawson, who had come to town to investigate the situation. Having recently lost his wife and daughter to illness, Lawson was overcome with grief and therefore ready to blame their deaths on witchcraft. He thus devoted his day-long sermon to the need to resist the forces of evil through religious faith. Throughout the day the girls put on a spectacular show of fits and accusations, claiming to see specters (ghostly images) of Corey all over the church in various tormenting poses. At one point, as noted in A Village Possessed, Abigail Williams interrupted the sermon by screaming out, "Look where Goodwife Corey sits on the beam suckling [nursing] her yellow bird between her fingers!" Ann Putnam, Jr. then ran up to Lawson and echoed Abigail's accusation. She claimed she saw a yellow bird with Corey's face sitting on Lawson's hat as it hung on the wall in the pulpit.

These antics ruined Corey's opportunity to gain support from her fellow villagers. The event also ushered in another vital aspect of the witch-hunts—spectral evidence—which would eventually ruin the lives of several people. While spectral evidence was not a new phenomenon, it was becoming the main source of proof against people accused of witchcraft. Consequently, anyone could claim to see another person's image committing some foul act. Spectral evidence turned into a powerful weapon that could be used against any member of the community, regardless of status. Thus, since the girls had a monopoly on attention, they could effectively bring down anyone they chose to accuse simply by lapsing into convulsions and conjuring up specters. Even people such as the well-loved and respected Martha Corey could not fight their accusations.

During Corey's court trial on March 21 both spectral evidence and the clothing coincidence were used against her. Corey tried to defend herself by explaining that a friend, who was present in the Putnam home when Ann Putnam, Jr., supposedly went blind, had rushed to tell her about the accusations. Corey said her friend's warning was the reason she had known to ask whether or not Ann could describe her clothing. When the court questioned Corey's friend, however, he denied ever telling her such a thing. Giles Corey also could not recall his wife being visited by the friend, thus reinforcing the conclusion that she was a liar. During the trial the girls reacted to any sign of nervous tension exhibited by Martha Corey. When she wrung her hands or twitched they threw themselves into massive fits, stopping only to exclaim that they saw a man whispering into Corey's ear whenever she was being questioned. Corey was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, yet she maintained her innocence. (See The Testimony of Ann Putnam, Sr. against Martha Corey and Rebecca Nurse in the primary sources section.)

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