|People and Topics||Biographical Data|
Ann Putnam, Jr., Marcy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard accused Giles Corey of witchcraft in April of 1692. He pleaded "not guilty" but refused to be tried by the court which, in his view, had already determined his guilt, so he stood mute rather "putting himself on the country." He was sentenced to peine forte et dure, even though it was an illegal punishment, and ended up being torturously crushed to death on (or before) September 18, 1692. One of the major factors which made Giles Corey a prime target was not only his relationship with the rest of the community but also his past encounters with the law, including a prior conviction for murder. His chosen means of resistance and dramatic death reveal a strength of character that playwrights, from Longfellow to Arthur Miller, have found irresistible.
By Heather Snyder
Salem Witch Trials in History and Literature
An Undergraduate Course, University of Virginia
Spring Semester 2001
Born in England about 1611, Giles Corey was one of the six men to be executed during the Salem witch trials of 1692. John Proctor, George Burroughs, George Jacobs Sr., John Willard, and Samuel Wardwell were all hanged after being convicted of witchcraft, while Giles Corey was pressed to death with stones for refusing to "put himself on the country," that is, to allow himself to be put on trial. He emigrated from England to Salem and remained there until 1659 when he relocated to Salem Farms, just south of Salem Village. There he owned an extensive plot of land, which resulted in the appearance of his being a prosperous farmer. His personality, reputation and relationships with others however tainted that picture. Although he had become a full member of the Village church and had close ties with the Porter faction in the Village, his reputation as one who lacked consideration for others in the community and as one who lead a "scandalous life," quite possibly had a significant impact on his being accused as a witch. Because of Corey's previous encounters with the law, there was further suspicion of his guilt during the witch trials. In 1675, Corey pummeled and killed a farm worker named Jacob Goodale. He was found guilty of the murder and ordered to pay a substantial fine.
By the time of the trials, Giles Corey was already 80, and was married to Martha, his third wife. On March 19, 1692, Martha was arrested for witchcraft. Giles, for reasons unknown to others, decided to testify against his wife, but eventually tried to recant his deposition, which lead to greater suspicion of his involvement in witchcraft because of the stigma surrounding perjury. One month later, on April 19, 1692, Giles Corey was accused of witchcraft and there was a warrant out for his arrest. There were two primary accusations, one from Abigail Hobbs who during her own confession to witchcraft named Giles and Martha Corey as fellow witches, and one from Exekiell Chevers and John Putnam, Jr., who filed an accusation on behalf of Ann Putnam, Marcy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard.
After his arrest, Giles Corey remained in jail with his wife until his trial on September 16, 1692. He went to the trial and pleaded "not guilty" but simultaneously refused to "put himself on the court" because of his contempt for the court. Corey was not willing to submit himself to a trial by jury that, he believed, had already determined his guilt. Because the court had accepted the testimony of the same accusers in a trial on September 9, and in all previous trials, Giles understood that there was no chance of being found not guilty and that a conviction would be inevitable. In every previous trial when an accused individual had plead not guilty, not a single person was cleared so Giles preferred to undergo "what Death they would put him to" rather than be found guilty of witchcraft and thus put to death. According to English law, Giles was ruled as "standing mute" because he would not be tried by "God and my country." The Court of Oyer and Terminer strictly adhered to the requirement that a defendant "put himself on the country". Because Giles stood mute, he was given the dreaded sentence of peine forte et dure even though this procedure had been determined to be illegal by the government of Massachusetts. It was illegal for two reasons: there was no law permitting pressing, and it violated the Puritan provisions of the Body of Liberties regarding the end of barbarous punishment. In the entire history of the United States, Giles Corey is the only person ever to be pressed to death by order of a court.
There is a strong local tradition Giles Corey refused trial in order to avoid a conviction that would result in the forfeiture of his property to the government. Under English and Massachusetts law, however, conviction could not result in the forfeiture of an estate. However, the George Corwin, the Sheriff of Essex Country illegally seized the property of some of those arrested for witchcraft. Before his arrest, Corey himself was clearly concerned about his extensive estate, and he wrote a will that deeded his land to his sons-in-law William Cleeves and John Moulton. The laws clearly stated that landowners retained the right to give their land to their heirs rather than forfeit it because of a conviction, and apparently Corey knew it. Thus it does not seem likely that Corey refused to go on trial to save his property.
On or before September 18, 1692, Giles Corey was slowly pressed to death in the field next to the jail. In the literature about Giles Corey's tortuous death, there is reference to his famous last words, "more weight." These words were uttered as a final attempt to expedite his death while also showing that not even imminent death could convince him to go to trial. It is even told that the Sheriff took his cane and pressed Giles' tongue back into his mouth just before he died at the end of the two days of being slowly crushed. On September 18, 1692, Giles Corey was ex-communicated from the Village church so that he would not die as a member of the church. On September 21, 1692, Martha, his wife, was hanged on Gallows Hill. It has been speculated that the publicity surrounding the pressing of Giles may have in fact helped to build public opposition to the witchcraft trials.
In Arthur Miller's, The Crucible, Giles Corey is a prominent character in part because of his unique role in the witch trials. Giles' colorful past, his willingness to be tortured before compromising his own values, and his role in his wife's conviction are the factors which make him such a vibrant character. Although Millers' presentation of Giles Corey in The Crucibleis not purely historical, his place in the witch trials will never be forgotten. Giles Corey did in fact testify against his wife in front of the court, and he seems to have stood mute as an act of dramatic defiance. Henry W. Longfellow's Giles Corey of Salem Farms is another piece of literature that portrays Giles Corey in a strong and powerful manner. In his play, Corey's character is defined by his last conversation with his friend Capt. Richard Gardner. In the play, Giles Corey says: "I will not plead. If I deny, I am condemned already, in courts where ghosts appear as witnesses, and swear men's lives away. If I confess, then I confess to a lie, to buy a life which is not a life, but only death in life. I will not bear false witness against any, Not even against myself, whom I count least...I come! Here is my body; ye may torture it, but the immortal soul ye cannot crush!"
This passage shows why the character of Giles Corey attracts attention not only when examining court documents from 1692 but also the present day literature. Giles Corey will be remembered unambiguously in literature and history because of his act of supreme defiance to the Salem witch trials.
David C. Brown, "The Case of Giles Cory," Essex Institute Historical Collections. Vol. 121, No. 1985: 282-299.