Story of Giles Corey

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Drawing of the death of Giles Corey (Sept. 19, 1692) by being pressed with heavy stones. Credit: Wikimedia

Giles Corey was killed during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. These trials were a series of events that have since become renowned for their gory, shameful, and unjustified proceedings. In the strict and ultra-religious Puritan society of the new American colonies, citizens viewed witchcraft in Massachusetts as something utterly profane and inexcusable.

They believed witches to be followers of Satan, and the idea of witches living in the area caused mass hysteria and societal breakdown, despite being entirely based on lies and fear.

What Sparked the Salem Witch Trials

Trouble started within the village of Salem when the two daughters of minister Samuel Parris began having fits of convulsions and screaming. The cause was diagnosed as bewitchment and blamed on Tituba, a slave woman brought from Barbados who was working in the household.

Other young girls in the village began to exhibit the same symptoms, and more people were consequently accused of witchcraft and dealing with the Devil, and so began various investigations, hearings, convictions, and even executions of these supposed “witches.”

Several of these accused “witches” themselves accused others in an attempt to lessen the punishment thrust upon them. Paranoid frenzy spread like wildfire as more girls joined in on the accusations, finding ludicrous ways to show evidence, such as claiming specters of the accused visited them at night, forcing them to sign the Devil’s book.

Sorcery and Satan worship were not seen to be bound by gender, and so either a man, woman, boy, or girl could be a witch. Giles Corey was one such village citizen who was unfortunate enough to get caught up in the unjust consequences of the delirium.

Who was Giles Corey

Giles Corey was born in 1611 in England. He immigrated to Salem, where he lived until 1659, at which point he bought a large piece of farmland in Salem Farms, just outside of Salem Village. He did not get on well with some of his fellow villagers, clashing with because he was considered to have lived a “scandalous” life.

He did, in fact, have a few run-ins with the law, proving him to be not such an upstanding citizen. He was accused of stealing twice, and in 1675 he pummeled a farmworker named Jacob Goodell to death for stealing apples, though he claimed Jacob had fallen from a horse.

Depiction of the Salem Witch Trials

He was put on trial, found guilty, and ordered to pay a substantial fee in place of imprisonment. From all this, he earned a horrible reputation, causing villagers to sometimes blame him for other crimes, like when John Proctor’s house burned down. This most likely helped to contribute to his being accused as a witch.

He married a woman named Martha, who was devoted to the church, and he then, at the age of 80, applied to be a member of the church as well. He was asked to repent for his sins for a month and was then accepted back to the brethren. After marrying Martha, Giles never committed another crime, and the village saw Martha as an impetus for change in his life.

Witchcraft Accusations

It, therefore, speaks to the amount of fearful panic and deranged paranoia running rampant that Martha of all people was accused of witchcraft. When giving testimony in court, she was so calm about her denial of it that the judges mistook her demeanor for evil intentions.

Martha incriminated herself further when she tried to go to Ann Putnam’s house, where Ann and her mother acted as if Martha was torturing them. Moreover, the village girls began to mimic Martha’s movements as if she was controlling them, cementing her guilt in the eyes of the jury.

Giles defended his wife and was then swiftly accused of witchcraft as a result. The fact that he was a stubborn man who very likely expressed skepticism and criticism of the whole situation might have also made him seem guilty. There was no substantial evidence against him, other than his previous murder conviction.

He was alleged to have been at a witches’ sacrament, torturing girls. Giles was arrested and put in jail with his wife, then left there for five months awaiting trial.

The Trial and Sentence

At his trial on September 16, 1962, he attended only to plead “not guilty” and then, being a proud man, refused to put himself fully on the court to be judged by a jury, as he knew they had already decided on his definite guilt. He was ruled as a “standing mute” because he denied being tried, and was thus sentenced to death.

Drawing of the death of Giles Corey (Sept. 19, 1692) by being pressed with heavy stones

He was given the atrocious death sentence by way of peine forte et dure, which meant having heavier and heavier stones placed on your body until you were crushed to death. This practice was actually determined to be illegal in the colony by the governor of Massachusetts because there was no law permitting it, and it went against the Puritan code that disallowed “barbarous punishment.”

Nevertheless, his sentence was carried out. He was placed in a pit in the field next to the jail where all his neighbors could see. They positioned a large board across his body and heavy stones set on top. He is famously known for continuing to utter the words, “more weight,” in an attempt to seem obstinant and quicken his death.

Over the course of two days, his request was granted with more and more weight, until finally he was pressed to death at the age of 81 on September 19, 1692. Until this day, he is the only person in the history of the United States to be given a court-ordered death sentence via pressing.

The Effect of His Death

Memorial marker in the Salem cemetery for Giles Corey

Giles Corey’s tale led to him being perceived as a martyr willing to die for what was right, or at least as someone who fought against the ridiculousness of what was happening in his society.

At the time, his death influenced others to see the light about the unfairness of trials, seeing as the way he acted during his punishment did not reflect someone who was indeed guilty of being a witch. To this day, he is viewed as one of the faces who stood up against the immoral and unwarranted proceedings.

By the end of the events, 25 people had been killed – 19 by hanging. Martha, Giles’ wife, was hung to death on September 22, only three days after her husband died, and was buried along with him and all of the other convicted people on the part of town that became known as “Gallows Hill.”

1 COMMENT

  1. You had me back in my teens, studying The Crucible. What a crazy time – but have we really changed? Thanks for the article.

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