Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Salem Witch Trials

Giles Corey

Drawing of Giles Corey
Drawing of Giles Corey

Before his wife was imprisoned as a witch, Giles Corey wanted to travel from his farm to Salem village to watch the spectacle. Martha, who was every bit as feisty as her 80-year-old husband, later testified that she hid his saddle, but that Giles ended up going anyway.

A long-time opponent of Thomas Putnam, whose wife and daughter were both apparently possessed, Corey wanted to attend the examinations of Tituba, Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne not because he believed them to be witches, but because he was already an outspoken critic of the entire affliction and its consequences.

Corey was one of the few people who stood up in the early days of the hunt and advised that perhaps a sharp spanking would rid the afflicted girls of their demons.

Corey and Putnam were foes going back to the days of George Bayleys service as minister in Salem village and had not seen eye-to-eye since. So it was no surprise to those who had already seen through the adults who participated in the witch-hunt that Putnam would swear out a complaint against his long-time rival.

With his wife already in prison, Giles Corey was brought before the magistrates to face the charges of the Putnam family that he had bewitched them at various times in the past.

The examination in April had been perfunctory. Ann Putnam testified to the usual requests of Coreys shape demanding she sign his book and when she refused, pinching and piercing tortured her. Then, 19-year-old Mercy Lewis claimed the same affliction and Sarah Bibber testified that she saw Giles afflicting Lewis, Putnam, and Mary Wallcott. Faced with this overwhelming evidence, Giles Corey was taken to join his wife in irons. They would languish in the jail for five miserable months awaiting the arrival of Governor Phipps and the creation of the Court of Oyer and Terminer.

By the time his case was called for trial, Corey had a good idea of what was in store for him and he wanted no part of it. He was unwilling to plead guilty and throw himself on the mercy of the court and he well understood that fighting was not going to do any good. He had seen Bridget Bishop hanged in early June and the others who went in mid-July and in mid-August to the same fate. He knew as he was brought for a grand jury examination on September 8, 1692 that he would not live to see October.

Standing before the judges, Corey took the only way out he knew. He refused to enter a plea. Under English law, no man could be tried without uttering a plea, so the court was helpless to proceed. Corey knew this would not save his life, for the judges would keep at him until he entered a plea. But he also knew that by keeping his mouth shut, his estate would not be forfeited to the colony after his death. He had already signed over his farm to his sons-in-law, but that would not keep the government from seizing it after they hanged him. If he died in prison without pleading, they could not touch his property.

Deputy Governor William Stoughton, the chief magistrate of the court, had no plans to let Corey languish in prison. One way or another, he thought, Corey would plead. A week after Corey stood mute in his court, Stoughton had the old man brought before him and asked once again for a plea. Corey stood mute.

You leave us with no alternative, Giles Corey, Stoughton said. The Court orders you subjected to peine forte et dure until such time that you see fit to enter a plea to the charges against you.

The constables standing behind Corey had to grab the old man before he hit the ground, as his knees gave way when he heard the order of the court.

Members of the congregation were as surprised as Corey to hear what Stoughton had ordered. Peine forte et dure, or pressing to force a plea was illegal and had been for some time. However, no one dared stand up to Stoughton.

Pressing involves placing heavy stones atop a prone victims chest, making it impossible to breathe. If the victim is fortunate, the ribcage will collapse and death will be quick, if not, slow suffocation waits. The stones are not added all at once, but a few at a time, giving the victim plenty of time to think about recanting his stance.

A few days later, in the yard of the Ipswich prison, Giles Corey was stripped naked and laid on a wide board on the ground. Another wide board was placed on top of him and large rocks and bricks were added until he was gasping for breath. A jailer knelt down near his head and turned his ear toward Coreys head. He shook his head and stood up.

Continue, Stoughton said, without emotion.

More weight was added and a groan erupted from beneath the pile.

Stop, Stoughton said. He waved to the jailer, who again knelt next to Coreys head. Stoughton could see Coreys lips moving and was delighted that the old man had seen fit to change his mind. The jailer looked at Coreys face for a moment. The old mans eyes were closed, his nostrils were flaring and his mouth was wide open as if trying to catch every bit of air possible.

Then the jailer stood.

Is he ready to enter a plea, constable? Stoughton asked.

No, milord, the man answered.

Then what was he saying?

He said More weight milord, the constable said.

Stoughton looked angry. Then let him have it, he said.

They added more weight on top of the pile until Corey made a sound like a loud, rattling gasp. Stoughton waved the prisoners adding the stone away. He himself bent down next to Corey.

Think of your soul, man, he said to the old man. Enter a plea and let God be merciful.

But it was too late for Giles Corey. If in fact he was a wizard, the only judge he would face would be his God.

Sign outside site of courthouse where witch trials were held
Sign outside site of
courthouse where witch
trials were held

 

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