May 10, 2015

The Ballad of Giles Corey: It's Complicated...

Last year when I was writing my book Legends and Lore of the North Shore I stumbled on something called the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Various sources called it a nineteenth century ballad. I included it in my book.

Giles Corey was a Wizard strong, 
A stubborn wretch was he;
And fitt was he to hang on high
Upon the Locust-Tree.

So when before the magistrates
For triall he did come
He would no confession make
But was compleatlie dumb...

They got them then a heavy beam.
They laid it on his breast;
They loaded it with heavy stones,
And hard upon him prest.

"More weight!" now said this wretched man;
"More weight!" again he cried;
And he did no confession make,
But wickedly he dyed.

One thing that's interesting about this ballad is that it assumes Giles Corey really was a wizard. This is kind of shocking, since as most Massachusetts school children learn Giles Corey was really an elderly farmer who refused to enter a plea to the crime of witchcraft during the Salem trials. Corey had a significant amount of property, and he knew that if he was found guilty the sheriff would seize all his land and goods. Corey hoped that by not speaking when interrogated he could save his estate for his children. The sheriff was determined to get a plea, and piled stones on Corey's chest in an effort to get him to speak. Corey's only words: "More weight!" Corey died without entering a plea, and his children got his estate. Corey was a martyr to political injustice.

I was curious to learn more about the "Ballad of Giles Corey." Why did its composer portray him as an evil wizard? Was there even a composer, or was it a folk song? I finally found the complete version of the ballad in Samuel G. Drake's 1866 book The Witchcraft Delusion in New England. Drake claims the ballad appeared in a newspaper 15 years earlier. The full and original title is "Giles Corey and Goodwyfe Corey. A Ballad of 1692."

Seeing the full title, I can understand better why Corey is portrayed as a wizard. It seems like the author was trying to portray the worldview of Salem circa 1692 (including ye quainte olde tyme spellings).  The ballad appeared anonymously, but Drake seems to think it was written by John Greenleaf Whittier. I can't find any evidence for that myself, but Whittier did like to play up the supernatural in his folk tales and poetry. Whittier experts, chime in!

The field where Giles Corey died is now the Howard Street Cemetery in Salem.

The original ballad gives equal time to Giles Corey's wife Martha, who was accused before Giles was and was ultimately hanged for witchcraft. Like so many women accused of witchcraft she was loud and argumentative.

This Goody Corey was a Witch
The People did believe
Afflicting of the Godly Ones
Did make them Sadlie greave

Giles Corey is usually portrayed as an innocent and brave man, so most accounts of his death leave out the inconvenient fact that he too believed his wife was a witch. He even testified that she had bewitched some of their animals. Only after he himself was arrested did he seem to understand that the trials were a farce. Hopefully he felt some regrets about testifying against her.

Stories about Giles Corey also usually leave out the fact that he was extremely violent, and beat one of his own indentured servants to death in 1676. The man had stolen some apples. The law allowed for the beating of indentured servants so Corey was not charged with murder, but was instead fined. Corey was generally a "very quarrelsome and contentious bad neighbor" according to neighbor Robert Moulton. For example, Giles Corey himself had stolen apples from a neighbor's orchard, and was later accused of sabotaging a neighbor's mill and setting another neighbor's house on fire. In short, he was bad news. You can see why his neighbors might want to get rid of him...

Corey was violent, a bad husband, and a bad neighbor. But he was still innocent of practicing witchcraft.

He was so unpopular the of Salem were willing to overlook that he was killed without even going to trial. Technically he wasn't even officially executed; he just died during questioning, which makes his story even more relevant to today. Just because he was an unpleasant and nasty man doesn't mean his death was right. Life is never black and white, and good and evil adhere to situations, not to people. Hopefully our justice system has improved in the last three hundred years.

4 comments:

Robert Mathiesen said...

This ballad was printed in the _Bulletin of the Essex Institute_, vol. 2, no. 8 (August, 1870), pp. 113-115, with the following footnote:

This ballad was "handed in for preservation" to the _Salem Observer_, and appeared in the issue of April 13, 1850. It has since been extensively copied in other publications, and is inserted here as appropriate in connection with the subject of debate at the Feld Meeting at West Peabody. The prefect correpondence with the style of that period has caused it to be considered a veritable production of the Witchcraft times ; and a copy of it which appeared some years since in a western paper, was headed "An amusing relic of Puritanism, written during the Witchcraft Mania in Salem." It was written by Fitch Poole, Esq., of Peabody. -- Editors.

Fitch Poole (1803-1873) was the first Librarian of the Peabody Institute Library at Salem.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Fitch Poole was also the author of "Giles Corey's Dream, A Ballad of 1692," which was printed in the volume _Centennial Celebration at Danvers, Mass., JUne 16, 1852._

(In the previous comment, I meant to type "Field Meeting at West Peabody.")

Peter Muise said...

Hi Robert,

Thanks for the erudite answer! It looks like John Greenleaf Whittier is off the hook. Do you think Fitch Poole intended this as a hoax, or did it just achieve a life of its own?

Robert Mathiesen said...

To judge by the publications I cited, he meant it as an exercise in mimicking the style of a bygone era. Fitch Poole is not much remembered now outside of Danvers and Salem, but he was a prominent newspaperman, antiquarian and librarian back in the day. The newspaper that he edited and published was originally called _The Wizard_ (1859-1868), so he may have felt a particular sympathy for old Giles Corey.

The confusison about authorship was simply a slip on the part of another antiquarian. Samuel Gardner Drake, who lived in Boston. Drake published the poem on the basis of an old clipping that he had from the newspaper _The Salem Observer_ (1850), where (I suppose) it was not attributed to any particular author. From Drake's reprint it took on a life of its own, I think.