Adding More Weight to the Myth of Giles Corey

The Burying Point | Salem, MA | Photo by Robert Linsdell:

The Burying Point | Salem, MA | Photo by Robert Linsdell:

I’ve spent most of my adult life harboring a quiet but fervent mancrush on a farmer from 1600s Salem, Massachusetts. As of today I think I’m finally over it.

In varying degrees of sensationalism, all of the Salem museums dedicated to the witch hysteria of 1692 tell a similar story about Giles Corey. He and his wife were among those accused of witchcraft, with Corey’s wife Martha found guilty and hanged and Corey refusing to enter a plea on his own behalf. In an attempt to convince him to do so, the court of Salem had Corey (who was 80 years old at the time) placed under a wooden board upon which large stones were added one at a time. With the addition of each new stone Corey was repeatedly asked to enter a plea to the charges against him. His response: “More weight.” Corey’s body eventually succumbed to the pressure and he died.

Conveyed in these terms, Corey’s legendary defiance was exactly the kind of thing 22-year-old me liked to exalt. In the midst of ill-reasoned, anti-intellectual patriotism that seemed to permeate parts of American culture throughout the last decade, Corey’s pithy retort while under assault from a similar wave of madness read like an entire Daily Show rant delivered in two righteous words.

From the moment I heard his tale all the way up to today, I considered myself president of a hypothetical Giles Corey fan club and wasted no opportunity to share with others the story of my favorite colonial-era badass.

Infatuation often obscures the truth. Faced with suspicions that might contradict our favorable assessment of someone, we find ways to bend or diminish these details.

Today, we scoff at the notion that Mark McGwire acquired the enhanced girth and home run-hitting prowess that marked the later days of his baseball career via natural means, but in 1998 to assume otherwise was heresy, especially in my hometown of St. Louis. We may have assumed that Barry Bonds was juicing, because he was considered a jerk and it fit our profile of him. But we liked Mark McGwire. By default, we keep our heroes innocent.

Which brings us back to Corey. Was he a warlock, as charged? Probably not. But was he a hero? Lacking much detail or background about him beyond what Salem tells its tourists, I had no reason to assume otherwise. So I didn’t. My idealized vision of Corey lacked context, and I liked it that way.

But infatuation can’t sustain itself forever, and when you look for fuel you may find something else. They don’t talk about what Giles Corey did to Jacob Goodale at the Salem museums, but the story is out there.

In 1676, at the age of 65, Corey was brought to trial in Essex and accused of beating one of his indentured farm workers, Jacob Goodale, son of Robert Goodale and Catherine Kilham Goodale originally from Dennington, Suffolk, England, to death. Jacob’s brother was Isaac Goodale. Corey had severely beaten Goodale with a stick after Jacob was allegedly caught stealing apples from Corey’s brother-in-law, and though Corey eventually sent him to receive medical attention 10 days later, Goodale died shortly thereafter….
Since corporal punishment was permitted against indentured servants, Corey was exempt from the charge of murder, and instead charged with using “unreasonable” force. Numerous witnesses and eyewitnesses testified against Corey, as well as the local coroner, and he was found guilty and fined.
-Wikipedia / Records of the Essex Quarterly Courts, Vol. 6, pp.190–1.

I still champion Corey's resistance to the injustices perpetrated in Salem, but it's hard to call a murderer my hero. 

This piece was originally crafted for and published at Medium