Biography of Martha Corey, Last Woman Hung in the Salem Witch Trials

Martha Corey and her accusers
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Martha Corey (c. 1618–September 22, 1692) was a woman in her seventies living in Salem, Massachusetts when she was hanged as a witch. She was one of the last women to be executed for this "crime" and was featured prominently in playwright Arthur Miller's allegorical drama about the McCarthy era called "The Crucible."

Fast Facts: Martha Corey

  • Known For: One of the last people hanged as a witch in the 1692 Salem witch trials
  • Born: c. 1618
  • Parents: Unknown
  • Died: Sept. 22, 1692
  • Education: Unknown
  • Spouse(s): Henry Rich (m. 1684), Giles Corey (m. 1690)
  • Children: Ben-Oni, illegitimate mixed-race son; Thomas Rich

Early Life

Martha Panon Corey, (whose name was spelled Martha Corree, Martha Cory, Martha Kory, Goodie Corie, Mattha Corie) was born about 1618 (various sources list anywhere from 1611 to 1620). Little is known about her life outside the records of the trials, and the information is confusing at best.

The dates given for Martha Corey in the historical records do not make much sense. She is said to have given birth to an illegitimate mixed-race ("mulatto") son named Ben-Oni in 1677. If so—she would have been in her late 50s—the father was more likely a Native American than an African, though the evidence is scant either way. She also claimed to have married a man named Henry Rich in about 1684—in her mid-60s—and they had at least one son, Thomas. After he died on April 27, 1690, Martha married the Salem village farmer and watchman Giles Corey: she was his third wife.

Some records say that Benoni was born while she was married to Rich. For 10 years, she lived apart from her husband and son Thomas as she raised Benoni. Sometimes called Ben, he lived with Martha and Giles Corey.

Both Martha and Giles were members of the church by 1692, and Martha at least had a reputation for regular attendance, though their bickering was widely known.

The Salem Witch Trials

In March 1692, Giles Corey insisted on attending one of the examinations at Nathaniel Ingersoll's tavern. Martha Corey, who had expressed skepticism about the existence of witches and even the devil to neighbors, tried to stop him, and Giles told others about the incident. On March 12, Ann Putnam Jr. reported that she had seen Martha's specter. Two deacons of the church, Edward Putnam and Ezekiel Cheever, informed Martha of the report. On March 19, a warrant was issued for Martha's arrest, claiming she had injured Ann Putnam Sr., Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, and Elizabeth Hubbard. She was to be brought on Monday, March 21 to Nathaniel Ingersoll's tavern at noon.

During the Sunday worship service at Salem Village Church, Abigail Williams interrupted the visiting minister, Rev. Deodat Lawson, claiming she saw Martha Corey's spirit separate from her body and sit on a beam, holding a yellow bird. She claimed that the bird flew to Rev. Lawson's hat, where he had hung it. Martha said nothing in response.

Martha Corey was arrested by the constable, Joseph Herrick, and examined the next day. Others were now claiming to be afflicted by Martha. There were so many spectators that the examination was moved to the church building instead. Magistrates John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin questioned her. She maintained her innocence, stating, "I never had to do with Witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospel-Woman." She was accused of having a familiar, a bird. At one point in the interrogation, she was asked: "Do not you see these children and women are rational and sober as their neighbors when your hands are fastened?" The record shows that the bystanders were then "seized with fitts." When she bit her lip, the afflicted girls were "in an uproar."

Timeline of the Accusations

On April 14, Mercy Lewis claimed that Giles Corey had appeared to her as a specter and forced her to sign the devil's book. Giles Corey, who defended his wife's innocence, was arrested on April 18 by George Herrick, the same day Bridget Bishop, Abigail Hobbs, and Mary Warren were arrested. Abigail Hobbs and Mercy Lewis named Giles Corey as a witch during the examination the next day before magistrates Jonathan Corwin and John Hathorne.

Her husband, who defended her innocence, was arrested himself on April 18. He refused to plead either guilty or innocent to the charges.

Martha Corey maintained her innocence and accused the girls of lying. She stated her disbelief in witchcraft. But the display by the accusers of her supposed control of their movements convinced the judges of her guilt.

On May 25, Martha Cory was transferred to Boston's jail, along with Rebecca Nurse, Dorcas Good (misnamed as Dorothy), Sarah Cloyce, and John and Elizabeth Proctor.

On May 31, Martha Corey was mentioned by Abigail Williams in a deposition as "disquieting" her "divers" times, including three specific dates in March and three in April, through Martha's apparition or specter.

Martha Corey was tried and found guilty by the Court of Oyer and Terminer on September 9. She was sentenced to death by hanging, along with Martha Corey, Mary Eastey, Alice Parker, Ann Pudeator, Dorcas Hoar, and Mary Bradbury.

The next day, Salem Village church voted to excommunicate Martha Corey, and Rev. Parris and other church representatives brought her the news in prison. Martha would not join them in prayer ​and instead told them off.

Giles Corey was pressed to death on September 17–19, a method of torture intended to force an accused person to enter a plea, which he refused to do. It did result, however, in his sons-in-law inheriting his property.

Martha Corey was among those hanged on Gallows Hill on September 22, 1692. It was the last group of people executed for witchcraft before the end of the Salem witch trials episode.

Martha Corey After the Trials

On February 14, 1703, Salem Village church proposed revoking the excommunication of Martha Corey; a majority supported it but there were six or seven dissenters. The entry at the time implied that the motion failed but a later entry, with more details of the resolution, implied that it had passed.

In 1711, the Massachusetts legislature passed an act reversing the attainder—restoring full rights—to many who had been convicted in the 1692 witch trials. Giles Corey and Martha Corey were included in the list.

Martha Corey in 'The Crucible'

Arthur Miller's version of Martha Corey, based loosely on the real Martha Corey, has her accused by her husband of being a witch for her reading habits.

Sources

  • Brooks, Rebecca Beatrice. "The Witchcraft Trial of Martha Corey." History of Massachusetts Blog, August 31, 2015.
  • Burrage, Henry Sweetser, Albert Roscoe Stubbs. "Cleaves." Genealogical and Family History of the State of Maine, Volume 1. New York: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, 1909. 94–99.
  • DuBois, Constance Goddard. "Martha Corey: A Tale of the Salem Witchcraft." Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Company, 1890.
  • Miller, Arthur. "The Crucible." New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
  • Roach, Marilynne K. "The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege." Lanham, Massachusetts: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2002.
  • Rosenthal, Bernard. "Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.