Peine Forte et Dure: Giles & Martha Corey

Giles Corey was born in England sometime in the summer of 1611, as parish records indicate that he was baptized on August 16, 1611. Data indicates that he may have moved to the colony as early as 1640 with his first wife, who bore him four daughters.

They originally settled in Salem Town, which was an "urban" and liberal seaport, before moving to Salem Village, which was backwoods and conservative, in order to farm.

His second wife bore him a son.

Giles's third wife, married in 1690, was Martha.

Martha had her scandals. She had given birth to an illegitimate son, Ben, in 1677, and he was of mixed race. She then married, and had a legitimate son named Thomas Rich.

Martha's past, however, did not trouble Giles, who was approaching 80 and had committed transgressions of his own. Specifically, he had been tried for the murder of his farmhand, Jacob Goodale (sometimes spelled Goodell or Goodall), in 1675. Giles allegedly beat the hell out of Jacob with a stick when he caught him stealing apples. Giles claimed Jacob had fallen from a horse or cart and broken his arm.

Giles eventually sent Jacob for medical treatment over a week later, but it was too little, too late. Since it was totes legal to use corporal punishment with indentured servants, Giles was accused of unreasonable force instead of outright murder and was found guilty.

So he paid a fine, and that was that.

Giles was also known for petty larceny and random acts of vandalism; the Proctors even suspected Giles for starting a fire to their property.

And I bet you thought Puritans were boring.

But back to the trials: Giles Corey was accused in the latter part of the debacle, after his own wife had been tried for witchcraft.

Illustration of Martha Corey's trial by John W. Ehninger. Originally published in "The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow," 1902.


Dear reader, you may sometimes see stories that Giles actually participated in Martha's condemnation of witchcraft due to the damning fact that she seemed to read a whole lot, but that particular detail is thanks to Arthur Miller's character in The Crucible.

In reality, Martha was a pious and devoted woman who was unabashed about her disbelief in the girls' accusations. She made it clear that she didn't believe witches existed, period.

Which, of course, solicited accusations of witchcraft against her.

During Martha's trial, in which she pleaded innocence with unnerving calmness, the girls performed their typical histrionics. A tall and ominous man was whispering in Martha's ear, they said. A yellow bird--i.e., her familiar, which was gifted to her by Satan as an emissary--was suckling from the flesh between her fingertips, they said.

Illustration of Martha Corey as she's accused of harnessing "a flock of yellow birds." By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Additionally, before Martha's arrest, one of the most vocal accusers, Ann Putnam, Jr., had claimed Martha's spectre was tormenting her.

So the magistrates asked her what clothes Martha was wearing, and then went to go see for themselves, to confirm that Martha's clothes matched the girl's description. But Ann found herself conveniently blinded by Martha's evil hand, and thus could neither confirm nor deny Martha's wardrobe choices.

Unsurprisingly, Martha was found guilty and sent to jail, although she was later temporarily transferred to Boston due to overcrowding.

Giles, good guy that he was, had actually testified against his wife on March 24, 1692.

He declared that he'd found his ox "hipped" (id est, lame) in the yard and he was unable to yoke him, and that their cat seemed dead and Martha told him to knock it in the head, but he didn't, and it was somehow "presently" well.

Plus, he had seen Martha kneeling at the hearth as if in prayer, but didn't actually hear her praying.

She was, clearly, a witch.

But once Giles was accused himself of being a wizard, he refused to enter any more evidence against Martha.

Moreover, he refused to enter a plea, and because of this, trial could not proceed.

Historians still differ in their opinions about why Giles "stood mute," as was the widely used legal term for Giles's strategy. Some insist that Giles would not enter a plea because he knew that, if he did please and was invariably found guilty, that his expansive property and his prosperous holdings would be forfeited to authorities. By his refusal to plead himself neither innocent nor guilty, Giles's property would be passed on according to his final will and testament.

Some further believe that he was primarily accused to facilitate this very seizure; this hypothesis is supported by the fact that Sheriff Corwin extorted money from Giles's children. His daughter filed for damages in 1710.

Others believe that the interpretation of the law preserved a convicted person's right to pass his estate to his selected heirs, and moreover, that Giles had previously deeded his land away in anticipation of this issue. So "standing mute," it's argued, was the ultimate protest to preserve his name.

Engraving of Giles Corey's trial by C.S. Reinhardt. Originally published in "A Popular History of the United States," Vol. II, 1878.


And so, Giles Corey was crushed to death.

Because Giles refused to enter his plea, Sheriff George Corwin, assigned by the Court of Oyer and Terminer, decided to enact Peine Forte Et Dure to "press" a confession out of the old man.

But pressing was more involved than just putting jagged rocks on top of someone.

On September 17, 1692, in accordance with Corwin's orders, Giles was stripped naked and dragged through a field beside the jail. There, they had dug a shallow pit and put a wooden board on top of it. They forced Giles down, put another plank on top of him, and then began piling weight on, rock by dreadful rock.

And he said not a word.

By all accounts, Giles did not even cry out. For two days, he endured this medieval torture without speaking, and without reprieve. Law mandated that he was only given three pieces of the "worst bread" and three servings of water, alternating by day until a confession was forthcoming.

And until then: rock. By. Rock.

Illustration of the pressing of Giles Corey. Originally published in "Witchcraft Illustrated," 1892.


By September 19, Giles's eyes were bulging from their sockets, and his tongue was stuck outside of his mouth. Accounts indicate that Sheriff Corwin, during one of his attempts to solicit confession, stuck Giles's tongue back in with the tip of his cane.

Corwin tried three times to eke a plea out of Giles, reportedly even standing on top of the pressing stones. But Giles only deigned to beg, "More rocks." (It's most often reported as "More weight." But that may have also been extrapolated from Miller's The Crucible.)

It's told that with his dying breath, Giles Corey cursed Sheriff Corwin and the whole of Salem.

By Howard W. Pyle for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 1893.


Accounts of anyone being subjected to Peine Forte Et Dure are unusual, and singular to Giles Corey on the American continent.

Martha Corey was hanged at Proctor's Ledge three days later on September 22, 1692.

A memorial, which consists of inscribed benches for each of the executed, bears both their names.

Memorial to Giles Corey.


Giles Corey's gruesome execution, along with the noose-side recitation of the Lord's Prayer by Reverend George Burroughs, is rumored to have incited doubt in Salem's hysterical residents about the validity of the witch trials.

Giles's curse was said to plague all Salem sheriffs with heart and/or sanguine diseases until they moved the Sheriff Department out of town in the early 1990s.

The curse began with George Corwin himself, who suffered a fatal heart attack at only 30 years old in 1696. It was less than four years after Giles's execution.

And in 1978, Salem Sheriff Robert Cahill suffered his own sanguine conditions, including heart attack and stroke. He looked back through department records to find that each of his predecessors had, too.

Giles Corey's apparition was reportedly witnessed the night before the devastating Salem fire of 1914. Legend persists that to see his ghost is a harbinger of misfortune in Salem.

* Note: The Salem Witch Trials are relentlessly associated with Halloween, which I have not and do not agree with... Just because the word "witch" is used does not change the fact that it was a horrific travesty of justice. Salem itself, however, appears to have no such qualms. And because Halloween always draws attention to the trials, this is easily the best time to present a history lesson and memorial.

So there's the why of it.

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