Daily Archives: September 19, 2011

Giles Corey

The long life of Giles Cory, the only victim of the Salem Witch Trials to die as a result of torture, ended on September 19, 1692.  Cory suffered from a rare colonial application of the medieval peine forte et dure (“strong and hard punishment”), in which accused persons who “stood mute”, or refused to enter a plea, were pressed to do so literally:  increasingly-heavy weights or stones were placed on the body until the victim complied (or died).  Cory, whose wife Martha would hang three days later, was generally cantankerous, over eighty years old, and a wealthy landowner who had deeded his property to his sons-in-law weeks before.  He had nothing left to lose  and therefore refused to cooperate with his torturers and is even said to have asked for “more weight”. (The few times I’ve been FORCED to attend the show at the Salem Witch “Museum”, which basically consists of a diorama plus audio thrown together around 1972, I’ve been horrified to hear laughter by the crowd at these words).

The Howard Street Cemetery, near the site of Corey’s torture/death.

Even though Cory’s death by pressing is unique in the American experience, there were several English precedents of the previous century.  The most notorious case involved a Catholic woman from northern England, Margaret Clitherow, who was accused of harboring priests in her household during one of the most fevered moments of the English Reformation.  Clitherow refused to participate in the proceedings against her as she did not want to implicate members of her family, consequently she was subjected to a particularly harrowing process of peine forte et dure that brought about her death (and martyrdom) on Good Friday, 1586 and canonization shortly thereafter.

The Torture/execution of Margaret Clitherow, 1586

There was definitely a judicial reaction to the Clitherow case, and in the seventeenth century pressing was used sparingly and only as a death sentence for convicted murderers like George Strangwayes (1658) and Henry Jones (1672).  So the Corey case is conspicuous in the relatively late use of peine forte et dure as judicial torture.  But then again, everything about the Salem Witch Trials is late from the European perspective.

To me, it seems rather obvious that Cory’s passive resistance to the proceedings of 1692 was motivated by disgust rather than fear of forfeiture of his considerable estate upon conviction:  in July of that year he had already deeded his lands in Salem Farms (now West Peabody) to his sons-in-law William Cleaves and Jonathan Moulton, “being under great troubles and affliction…and knowing not how soon I may depart this life”.

Because of his defiance, Corey has been among the most revered of Salem victims in both literary and historical interpretations of the trials after 1800, including two nineteenth-century plays, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Giles Corey of the Salem Farms (1868) and Mary Wilkins’ Giles Corey, Yeoman (1893). In Arthur Miller’s Crucible, the Giles character is irascible and independent, a characterization that is somewhat supported by the historical evidence.  Like the death of  Margaret Clitherow over a century before, Corey’s horrible death went a long way towards ending the circumstances that produced it.

The Giles Cory Marker on Crystal Lake in West Peabody, Massachusetts, in the midst of  what was previously Corey’s 150-acre property.

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