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As Giles Corey lay dying, pounds of stone crushing his chest, his accusers asked the old man one final time if he would plead guilty to the crime of witchcraft.
Instead, Corey, with his final breaths, defiantly replied, “More weight!”
It’s an enduring declaration of the craziness that was Salem in 1692, representative of the brave souls who endured persecution for— as it was later discovered— nothing. But, too bad he never actually said it.
“It’s absolutely factually true they put heavy stones on his chest one by one to force him to enter a plea and (that) he never did and was ultimately crushed to death,” said scholar and Plymouth State University Professor Robin DeRosa.
Corey’s defiant quote “doesn’t emerge until the 19th century, way after it happened,” DeRosa said.
“There’s no real evidence (Corey uttered that phrase) but even people who don’t know anything about Salem will quote you that story about the witch trials.”
Uncovering the Facts
It turns out that much of what people believe to be true about the infamous Massachusetts witch trials either didn’t take place or have been grossly mischaracterized, she said.
“One of things that seems to be the case is that if people tell a story enough times it enters into the public imagination,” DeRosa said. “And there’s a fine line between the imagination and the truth.”
DeRosa, author of the book “The Making of Salem: The Witch Trials in History, Fiction and Tourism,” will be taking the mystery and myth out of this dark period in American history in her talk “Witches, Pop Culture and the Past” at various locations throughout the state for the next few months
One of the arguably most egregious myths about the Salem Witch Trials is that they happened in Salem, Mass. They didn’t.
“In 1692, Salem, Mass., was called Salemtown,” DeRosa said. “But Danvers, Mass., was called Salem Village ... and most of the things that happened at the witch trials happened (there).”
In all, 19 people were executed and hundreds imprisoned during what amounted to a nine- to 12-month witch-hunt.
Though it was shocking at the time, there wasn’t a sense that the scandal would lead to the tantalizing, commercial enterprise it is today.
“(Novelist and short story author) Nathanial Hawthorne (1804-1864) — who ... came way after the Colonial period —started writing about (that earlier era) as this dark period,” DeRosa said. “But if you lived in Salem at the time, you probably didn’t think it was dark at all. You probably just thought it was your town.
“...We like to tell these sort of gothic, dark, mysterious, enticing stories about it, but (these folk tales) are very often not connected to anything in the actual period,” she said.
Then there is Arthur Miller’s classic play, “The Crucible,” in 1955. This story, DeRosa said, is one of the closest accounts to what actually happened, if only because much of the dialogue was taken directly from the original trial transcripts.
However, she argues, the playwright’s treatment of Tituba, the slave who belonged to the Minister Samuel Parrish and was in charge of caring for the first girls in Salem to sling witch accusations, is not fair or entirely accurate. In fact, DeRosa said, though Miller sets her up as a sort of ground zero for witchcraft coming to Salem, there is no historical evidence to back this up.
As for Salem being a theme park of sorts, especially for Halloween-loving tourists, that didn’t come about until the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the town itself started falling on hard times. The mills had closed, DeRosa said, so local business people and officials decided to capitalize on its dubious claim to fame.
“There’s lots of stuff to see (in Salem) related to the history, but mostly a lot of that was manufactured and brought there in order to provide an economic lifeline for the town,” she said. “So, it’s the profit motive that drives some of these historical stories in Salem, not sort of the education or history.”
HISTORY OF HYSTERIA
What may be the most frustrating, and likely what brings about much of the fascination for the topic is that no one really knows is what triggered the witch-hunting hysteria.
One popular theory can be discounted, DeRosa said. The premise, highly publicized in 1960, suggested that the first little girls to start slinging accusations and experiencing fits after coming in contact with supposed witches were actually experiencing ergot poisoning. Ergot is a fungus that grows on rye and the theory goes that the girls ate tainted bread and went kooky. A year later, though, scientists discovered through further testing that ergot poisoning was highly unlikely, DeRosa said.
These days scholars are looking to more political and social unrest for the turmoil. One suggests that the hysteria may have come in part from the fear of warfare between Native American tribes and colonists at the time.
Still another set of scholars, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum, in their book “Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft,” suggested rivalries were at the root of the trouble, with factions taking turns leveling accusations in order to gain political favor, revenge or access to property while targeted land owners were in jail.
“I think we do love the dark and mysterious,” DeRosa said. “We love that stuff. But sometimes it’s troubling how much we love it. People say, ‘Well, this was a significant event in New England history.’ Well, not really ... It really is a tiny, tiny blip.
“I think we are really drawn to it because it’s a magical story; it’s a dark story,” she said. “But I think sometimes we need to remind ourselves it may be more interesting to ask, ‘Why do we like this?,’ rather than it is to think that it was important from the 1690s perspective.”