Giles Corey and his wife Martha were already outsiders in the farming village of Salem, Massachusetts when they were accused of witchcraft. They subsequently faced a torturous fate.
Giles Corey was a prosperous farmer with a bit of a dark past. An upright and proud man, he had a few times escaped the punishments of the leaders of Salem, Mass. His relationship with the community was strained and the people of Salem might have wanted revenge, thus the Salem Witch Trials became the perfect cover for getting away with his and his wife, unconventional Martha Corey’s, murder.
Rather than fight for his honor in a court which he felt had already damned him, the proud Corey stood quiet on trial as a witch, a decision which led to a torturous sentence of being crushed to death.
Indeed, the cursed fate of Giles Corey also shows that men, not just women, suffered at the Salem Witch Trials.
Prosperity In The New World And An Unpunished Murder
Giles Corey, a well-to-do farmer, hailed from Northampton, England where he was born in 1621. Sometime after his first marriage to a woman named Margaret, Corey made the three-month journey to America. He settled in Salem town for a while where the couple had a daughter, Deliverance, on August 5, 1658. In 1659, the small family moved to Salem Village to become farmers.
On the outskirts of town, Giles Corey became a prosperous farmer. Farming was important back then, not only as a source of food for individuals but also for storing crops during harsh winters. As such, Corey became an important figure in the community.
Shortly after becoming a farmer, however, Margaret died. Corey married again to Mary Brite in 1664. The two settled into a peaceful farming and church-going life for the next 12 years.
Then, one fateful event forever changed the fortunes of the Coreys.
One day in 1675, Corey discovered that his farmhand, Jacob Goodale, had stolen apples from his storage area. Incensed, the farmer pummeled his farmhand to death with a stick. Corey maintained his worker fell and broke his arm. Authorities disagreed.
Fellow well-to-do farmer in the town, John Proctor, testified in court that he had overheard Corey confess to having beaten Goodale to death. The testimony was enough to convict the farmer but instead of jail time for this church-going, integral man in the community, town leaders agreed to a fine to make amends for Goodale’s death.
But some town leaders disagreed with this assessment and loathed the notion that Corey had just bought his way out of imprisonment. It didn’t help that Corey had twice before this instance been accused and tried for theft. His prodigal past without punishment riled the establishment of Salem as members of the community began to become ever more suspicious of Corey and to think him a man prone to violence who took the law into his own hands.
This would be the farmer’s undoing in 1692 at the height of the witch trial hysteria.
Porters Versus Putnams
Before the Salem Witch Trials, the town and village divided itself into two main factions. The Putnam faction, led by the affluent and well-respected Putnam family, supported traditional agricultural activities and the village minister, Samuel Parris. The Porter faction, led by the Porter family, touted a more mercantile and industrious way of life in Salem Town.
The Porters were more forward-thinking and more liberal. They also wanted closer associations with Salem Village and strongly opposed minister Parris. By some accounts, it is believed that this divisive hatred festering between these two factions led directly to the Salem Witch Trials in 1692.
Unfortunately for Giles Corey, the suspect farmer aligned himself with the less conventional Porter faction. When he escaped conviction for his murder in 1676, the Putnam faction was convinced that he had bribed his way to freedom. Indeed, the vengeful Putnams would come calling on Corey soon enough.
Accusations Against Martha And Giles Corey
Corey’s second wife died in 1684 and six years later, he married yet a third time this time to Martha Panon. She was a widow as well and so the coupling worked was amicable as Martha helped to keep Corey on the straight and narrow. Despite his murder conviction in 1676, Martha and Giles Corey became full members of the church in 1691.
Church records read that:
“Giles Corey a man of 80 years of age having been a scandalous person in his former time, and God having in his later time awakened him unto repentance he stood propounded a month, making a confession of such evils as had been observed in him before. He was received into the Church with consent of the brethren.”
It seemed the churchgoing section of the community at least was ready to believe that in his old age and with his new wife, Corey was a changed man and could live out his final days in peace. Indeed, even when John Proctor’s house burned down and he accused Corey, little was done to follow up on that claim.
But then in February and March of 1692, the pre-trial examinations of the Salem witches began. Martha and Giles Corey were among the first community members to observe the examinations and Martha, an intelligent and experienced woman, immediately began to doubt the validity of the accusations.
She and Giles attended enough examinations for her to realize that some members of the Putnams in their paranoia and vengeance would seek to discredit Giles based on his previous convictions. As such, Martha hid her husband’s riding saddle so he couldn’t attend any more pre-trials.
Of course, persuading her husband not to attend the trials suggested to many in Salem that Martha was engaged in witchcraft. Even though her precaution made sense, the Putnam faction’s hysteria looked for any excuse to accuse innocent people. It didn’t help that Martha had something of a “checkered sexual past” with an illegitimate son to prove it.
Some of the girls in the Putnam faction began mimicking Martha’s movements and gestures. This led them to say the elderly lady was bewitching them and controlling them and Martha was officially accused of witchcraft and arrested on March 21, 1692.
Scholars speculate that the real reason girls of Salem Village accused Martha of witchcraft was because she changed Giles. Rather than being a violent murderer, Martha convinced her husband to become a god-fearing member of the church for the first time in his life.
The farmer himself testified against his wife. He was caught up in the hysteria as well, but he may not have wanted to get into trouble with the Putnam faction. He said that his cat and ox suddenly fell ill, that he had seen his wife knelt silently by fire as if in prayer, and that it was Martha’s witchcraft to blame.
Less than a month later, Martha’s husband joined her in jail as an accused. Ann Putnam (Jr.), Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott, and Elizabeth Hubbard, all members of the Putnam faction and all young girls, accused Giles Corey of witchcraft.
The Trial Of Giles Corey
Giles Corey’s trial began on April 19, 1692. Rev. Samuel Parris kept the official written records of the trials. Judge Jonathan Corwin accused Corey of perjury and ordered Corey’s hands to be tied behind his back to prevent him from practicing witchcraft in court.
As if putting on a well-rehearsed play, the Putnams may have been taught to mimic Corey’s movements.
From the official written records:
“All the afflicted were seized now with fits, and troubled with pinches. Then the court ordered his hands to be tied.
Magistrate: What, is it not enough to act witchcraft at other times, but must you do it now in the face of authority?
Corey: I am a poor creature, and cannot help it.
Upon the motion of his head again, they had their heads and necks afflicted.
Magistrate: Why do you tell such wicked lies against witnesses, that heard you speak after this manner, this very morning?
Corey: I never saw anything but a black hog.”
At his own pre-trial examination, the judge tried to bring up Corey’s accusations against Martha regarding the cat and the ox. Corey refused to bring up that testimony, instead “standing mute.”
Thomas Gould testified that Corey said “he knew enough against his wife to do her business,” and the court wanted to know just what that meant. But Corey maintained his innocence, pled guilty, and refused to answer any questions regarding his prior testimony against his wife.
Indeed, Corey so refused to speak during his trial that the trial never came to an end. He would not be convicted because Corey would later be killed while being tortured by Sheriff Corwin that coming September.
Crushed To Death
Corey and his wife languished in prison for months awaiting a full trial in September. By the time the court got around to the Coreys, a dozen witnesses prepared to testify against him. Corey had enough of this absurdity. He knew his fate was sealed, no matter what he said, so he continued to say nothing.
He deeded his farming land to his two sons-in-law and then he put on a brave face for what came next. Corey pleaded not guilty to witchcraft in September 1692 but he refused to stand trial. He knew the judge would rule against him anyway because of the witnesses.
Corey’s only goal was to prevent the state from taking his land. That way, his sons-in-law would at least be left alone to prosper. The penalty for standing mute was torture. A judge ordered “peine forte et dure” — a method of torture by which heavier and heavier stones are stacked upon the chest of the accused until they either plea or die.
Corey would never plead guilty. He knew death was his only option now.
Authorities stripped Corey naked and forced him to lay down on the ground. A board was placed on top of him. Then, gradually, large stone weights were added to the board. This happened over the course of two to three days. When the stones started to crush Corey’s body, he cried, “More weight! More weight!” He wanted death to come quickly.
Spectators were either horrified or entranced by this horrific way to die. Robert Calef, who witnessed Corey’s torture, said that “[Corey’s] tongue being prest out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his cane forced it in again when he was dying.”
In other words, the man inflicting this torture amusedly poked Corey’s tongue back into his mouth.
Corey’s death, though painful, was not in vain. His two sons-in-law inherited his land and after Corey’s execution, the people of Salem began to doubt the usefulness of a witch hunt. The gory death led historians to label Corey a martyr. His refusal to plead guilty, according to historians, “gave back fortitude and courage rather than spite and bewilderment.”
The people of Salem would eventually come to their senses, but not before they could hang Corey’s wife Martha to death on September 22, 1692.
Men included in the death toll were John Proctor (the man who testified against Corey at his murder trial), George Burroughs, John Willard, and George Jacobs Sr. Despite the name “witch” in the Salem Witch Trials, men were just as susceptible to the paranoia spawned by the Putnam-Porter feud.
The Curse Of Corey Giles
Modern lore claims Corey’s spirit is not at rest. Witnesses say his ghostly apparition haunts Howard Street Cemetery in present-day Salem at night. Legend has it that the white ghost appears right before something bad happens.
In 1914, Corey’s ghost appeared right before the Great Salem Fire. In 1978, he materialized before local sheriff Robert Cahill suffered a rare blood disorder, heart attack, and stroke in the same year. Cahill stated that the two previous sheriffs died of blood disorders or heart-related ailments while in office.
It was the sheriff of Salem who tortured Corey to death. Cahill believes the curse was broken in 1991 when the sheriff’s office moved to Middleton instead of Salem. Perhaps then the spirit of Giles Corey can finally rest after 300 years.
For more on the Salem Witch Trials, check out the story of 12-year-old Abigail Williams and how she started the hysteria. Or, take a look at these facts that dispel common misconceptions about the trials.