In this ongoing series, we explore the role of the Masshole throughout history.
The Salem Witch Trials edition were one of the most Masshole periods of American history - one which reshaped judicial process because dreams were briefly considered legally admissible evidence.
The Witch Trials were more about real estate than they were about witchcraft. Because an accuser could lay claim to the accused's land and property (sort of a spooky version of civil forfeiture), there was a financial incentive to make accusations. And it was a reminder that the civic figures - many of the judges, ministers, and sheriffs - that could have stopped the trials had a financial motive to keep them going. (That said, we wonder if the Witch Trials were the origin of the word "wicked" in the New England lexicon).
Crazy preacher encourages "spectral evidence" in court.
An influential Puritan minister who was a vocal advocate of the Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather (1663-1728) advised that "spectral evidence" was admissible in court proceedings. In other words, dreams and visions counted as evidence. This false testimony became a fulcrum for the trials, and dozens of people had their property seized and were sentenced to death as a result.
(And poor judgment aside, the family did have great names. Cotton's father was Increase Mather, and we're really trying to work Marshall Mather into this somehow).
Ergots - but no catchers - in the rye.
In February of 1692, the witchcraft hysteria began when two teenage girls in the household of minister Samuel Parris began experiencing strange symptoms.
His daughter, Elizabeth Parris (1682-1760) "... [began hiding] under furniture, complained of fever, barked like a dog, and screamed and cried out of pain ... her body convulsed into [unhuman] positions." Perhaps jealous of the attention, her cousin Abigail Williams complained of similar symptoms shortly after. The minister called in physician William Griggs and minister John Hale for a diagnosis. Both agreed that Elizabeth and Abigail were suffering from witchcraft. Which tells you a lot about some expert witnesses.
Contemporary historians ascribe different reasons for the behavior which launched the trials - including asthma, epilepsy, or even boredom. Others suggest that there was ergot fungus in the area's rye, which could have caused hallucinations. Elizabeth and Abigail - along with Mercy Lewis - made a significant number of accusations launching the witch trials. Massholes in a very bad way.
One colonial-era Mean Girl made 70% of witchcraft accusations.
One of the most vocal and consistent accusers during the Salem Witch Trials was 19 year old Mercy Lewis (b.1674). She invoked spectral evidence against Giles Corey (1611-1692), a prosperous landowner in today's Peabody: “I saw the Apparition of Giles Corey come and afflict me ... I veryly believe in my heart that Giles Corey is a dreadful wizard ... he or his appearance has come and most greviously tormented me.” Basically, she had a dream where Giles Corey was in it.
Mercy Lewis was sort of a Teen Mom of the colonial era, except without the self-control and good judgment. Although her name lends itself to an emo band, and we dig her spelling of "verily". Anyhow, Giles Corey was having none of this witchcraft nonsense. He refused to plead innocent or guilty, and was sentenced to be pressed to death under heavy rocks. Like most real estate owners/developers, he chose to taunt his accusers even as he was being slowly killed. Whenever they asked for a plea of innocence or guilt, he just asked for more rocks: “More weight.” Cold AF, Giles Corey out-massholed them all. (Steely Dan...vers).
Witch Trial executioner gets out-massholed.
George Corwin (1666-1696) was the High Sheriff of Essex County during the witch trials. He signed arrest warrants for those accused of witchcraft, and seized private property (remember, the trials were all about real estate; the witchcraft was just a pretext to take someone's land) and oversaw the execution of those “found guilty.”
Corwin oversaw the execution (murder, really) of Giles Corey. In a delightful postscript to this asshole's life: Corwin died at the age of 30, but his burial was delayed by a Salem resident, Phillip English, who was falsely accused of being a wizard (cue Black Sabbath) and had his property seized. Mr. English put a lien on Corwin’s corpse, delaying the burial until he had been reimbursed for his seized property - while Corwin's corpse rotted. Philip English used his Masshole powers for good, not evil.