The Curse of Giles Corey

Giles Corey was a successful farmer from Salem village who was accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Born in Northampton, England, in 1621, Corey immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony sometime after he married his first wife, Margaret. Corey first lived in Salem town but then moved to Salem farms in 1659 and became a farmer. His wife died shortly after and he married a London immigrant, Mary Brite, on April 11, 1664. After Mary died in 1684, Corey married a widow named Martha Panon in 1690.

Corey was considered by many to be a violent man after he was charged with beating his farmhand, Jacob Goodale, to death with a stick in 1676. He stood trial, during which John Proctor testified that he heard Corey admit he had beaten Goodale, but in the end Corey was only fined for his actions. Many locals, especially Thomas Putnam, suspected Corey had paid money to win his freedom. This death forever tainted Corey’s reputation in Salem and later came back to haunt him during his witchcraft trial.

Trial_Of_Giles_Corey_Illustration_by_Charles_Reinhardt_1878

The “Trial of Giles Corey” illustration by Charles Reinhardt, circa 1878

Corey’s troubles during the witchcraft hysteria started after his wife Martha was arrested on charges of witchcraft in March of 1692. Corey actually testified against his wife on March 24th, although it is not clear why. During his testimony against Martha, he spoke of the sudden illness of his ox and pet cat and described how his wife would stay up late at night and kneel by the fireplace as if in prayer but he never heard her recite any prayers.

An arrest warrant was issued for Giles Corey himself on April 18th, 1692, after Ann Putnam, Mercy Lewis, Abigail Williams, Mary Walcott and Elizabeth Hubbard accused him of practicing witchcraft against them.

During Corey’s examination on April 19th, Judge John Hathorne and Judge Jonathan Corwin repeatedly accused him of lying and tied his hands to prevent him from practicing witchcraft in the courtroom, according to court records written by Reverend Samuel Parris:

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 any thing but a black hog.
Magistrate: You said that you were stopped once in prayer; what
stopped you?
Corey: I cannot tell; my wife came towards me and found fault
with me for saying living to God and dying to sin.

After untying one his hands, the afflicted girls began having fits, according to Parris’ records:

One of his hands was let go, and several were afflicted.
He held his head on one side, and then the heads of several of the afflicted were held on one side. He drew in
his cheeks, and the cheeks of some of the afflicted were sucked in.

Despite his arrest and examination, Giles Corey’s trial never moved forward and he was never convicted because he died while being tortured by Sheriff Corwin that September. The torture was the result of his refusal to enter a plea for his trial. Corey had taken advantage of a widely used legal tactic known as “standing mute” and refused to enter a plea so his case could not continue.

English law at the time ordered any prisoner who stood mute to be tortured in an attempt to force a plea out of the prisoner, a tactic known as “peine forte et dure” which translates to “until he either answered or died.” The exact torture procedure consisted of stripping the prisoner naked, laying him on the ground and placing a board with heavy stones on top of him. The weight was slowly increased over the course of several days until the prisoner yielded.

Mary Walcott accusing Giles Corey illustration by John W. Ehninger published in The Complete Poetical Works  of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow circa 1902 - 300 x 234

Illustration of Mary Walcott accusing Giles Corey of witchcraft, by John W. Ehninger, published in “The Complete Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow,” circa 1902

The idea to torture Corey may also been inspired by a letter Thomas Putnam sent to Judge Samuel Sewall reminding him of the murder Corey was involved in years before:

“The last night my daughter Ann was grievously tormented by witches, threatning that she should be pressed to death, before Giles Cory. But thro’ the goodness of a gracious God, she had at last a little respite. Whereupon there appeared unto her (she said) a man in a winding sheet; who told her that Giles Cory had murdered him, by pressing him to death with his feet; but that the Devil there appeared unto him, and covenanted with him, and promised him, He should not be hanged. The apparition said, God hardened his heart, that he should not hearken to the advice of the court, and so die an easy death; because as it said, “It must be done to him as he has done to me.” The apparition also said, That Giles Cory was carried to the court for this, and that the jury had found the murder, and that her father knew the man, and the thing was done before she was born. Now Sir, this is not a little strange to us; that no body should remember these things, all the while that Giles Cory was in prison, and so often before the court. For all people now remember very well, (and the records of the court also mention it,) That about seventeen years ago, Giles Cory kept a man in his house, that was almost a natural fool: which man died suddenly. A jury was impannel’d upon him, among whom was Dr. Zorobbabel Endicot; who found the man bruised to death, and having clodders of blood about his heart. The Jury, whereof several are yet alive, brought in the man murdered; but as if some enchantment had hindred the prosecution of the matter, the court proceeded not against Giles Cory, tho’ it cost him a great deal of money to get off.”

Knowing he would probably die anyway, if not in jail then on the gallows, many historians believe Corey refused to enter a plea because was determined to avoid a conviction before his death so his estate would pass down to his grown children instead of being claimed by local authorities. Yet, according to the book “The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide,” Corey had already taken precautions to block local authorities from seizing his land:

“There is a widely circulated belief that Giles Corey refused to cooperate with the court specifically to ensure that his substantial estate would not be confiscated by the court. In actuality, it appears that his course of action only guaranteed that he would never have the stigma of a guilty verdict attached to his name, since his case would never be tried in a court of law. However, he wisely took the preliminary precaution to deed all his land into the possession of his sons-in-law, William Cheeves and John Moulton, in the event that Sheriff Corwin attempted to seize the Corey estate illegally, as he had done with the property of several other victims.”

Although “peine forte et dure” had never been used in the colonies before, according to Charles Wentworth Upham’s book “Salem Witchcraft,” published in 1867, Sheriff Corwin used this method to torture Giles Corey in an empty field somewhere between the Howard Street Burying Ground and Brown street for two or three days in September of 1692:

“It is said that Corey urged the executioners to increase the weight which was crushing him, that he told them it was of no use to expect him to yield, that there could be but one way of ending the matter, and that they might as well pile on the rocks. Calef says, that, as his body yielded to the pressure, his tongue protruded from his mouth, and an official forced it back with his cane. Some persons now living remember a popular superstition, lingering in the minds of some of the more ignorant class, that Corey’s ghost haunted the grounds where his barbarous deed was done; and that boys, as they sported in the vicinity, were in the habit of singing a ditty beginning thus: ‘More weight! More weight! Giles Corey cried!’”

Giles Corey's Punishment and Awful Death Illustration published in Witchcraft Illustrated by Henrietta D. Kimball in 1892

“Giles Corey’s Punishment and Awful Death” Illustration published in “Witchcraft Illustrated” by Henrietta D. Kimball in 1892

During his torture, on September 18, Giles Corey was excommunicated from the church on equivocal grounds. The church documents argued that he was either guilty of witchcraft or of suicide due to his choice to endure lethal torture rather than enter a plea. Either way he was considered a sinner and was cast out of the church, just as his wife had been on September 11, according to the book “The Salem Story: Reading the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.”

After being tortured for days, Corey finally died on September 19th. Many historians consider his death an act of protest, according to the book “Witchcraft at Salem”:

“…because he would not agree to be tried by the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer. His death was a protest – the most dramatic protest of all – against the methods of the court.”

Due to the gruesome and very public nature of Corey’s protest, it is said to have caused many Salem residents at the time to rethink the witch trials.

It has long been rumored that Corey placed a curse on Salem and its sheriff during his torture by shouting “Damn you! I curse you and Salem!” at the sheriff before he died. Four years after Corey’s death, Sheriff Corwin died suddenly of a heart attack at just 30 years old. Local legend suggests that Corey not only cursed Corwin but every Salem sheriff since 1692. In the 1970s, after Salem Sheriff Robert E. Cahill was forced to retire early due to a stroke, heart attack and rare blood condition, he looked into the history of the sheriff’s office, as described in the book “Cursed in New England”:

“About 300 year later, in 1978, Robert Cahill – while in office – suffered a rare blood disease, a heart attack and a stroke. Doctors could not find the cause of his afflictions. He was forced to retire as sheriff of Essex County and as Master and Keeper of the jail. Today he lives in Florida. Mr. Cahill notes that the sheriff before him also contracted a serious blood ailment while in office; it forced him to retire. He, in turn, had inherited the post from his father after the elder man died of a heart attack…while serving as sheriff. The previous sheriff had suffered heart problems as well. ‘So have all the others, as far back as I could trace,’ he says. ‘And the two men who have followed me have had an awful lot of [legal] trouble.’”

Cahill believes that when the sheriff’s office was moved from Salem to the new prison in Middleton in 1991, it broke the curse and spared the future sheriffs. Since the move, no sheriffs have been diagnosed with any heart conditions or blood ailments.

Locals also believe Corey’s ghost still haunts the area around the Howard street cemetery, as it is now known, and that his ghost is often seen before and after a terrible event happens in the town. One such occasion happened shortly before the Great Salem Fire of 1914 when witnesses saw a ghostly figure of an old man floating through the cemetery. The fire actually started near Gallows hill where Corey’s wife, Martha, and 18 other people were hanged for witchcraft before it spread and destroyed much of the town.

In 1953, Giles Corey was featured as a major character in Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible, in which he is depicted as a violent, quarrelsome man. The play doesn’t mention that Corey testified against his wife but does state that he got her in trouble with the law when he mentioned some “strange” books she had. The play also hints at the murder Corey committed years before and states it was “never brought to light.”

Two other plays were also written exclusively about Giles Corey during the 19th century. One of them is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1868 play titled, Giles Corey of Salem Farms, and the other is Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s 1893 play titled, Giles Corey, Yeoman. Both plays depict Corey as a tough old man willing to sacrifice his life in protest against the unfair actions of the court.

Salem_Witch_Trials_Howard_Street_Cemetery_2012_Photographed_by_Rebecca_Brooks

The Howard Street Cemetery

Salem_Witch_Trials_Memorial_Giles_Corey

Giles Corey’s marker at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial

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Sources:
“Historical Sketch of Salem, 1626-1879”; Charles Stuart Osgood; Henry Morrill Batchelder; 1879
“Haunted Salem”; Rosemary Ellen Guiley; 2011
“Salem Witchcraft”; Charles Wentworth Upham; 1876
“Witchcraft at Salem”; Chadwick Hansen; 1969
“Cursed in New England; Stories of Damned Yankees”; Joseph A. Citro; Jeff White; 2004
“Wonders of the Invisible World”; Cotton Mather; 1693
Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692; Bernard Rosenthal; 1993
“The Salem Witch Trials: A Reference Guide”; K. David Goss: 2008
Mysterious Journeys; Salem Witch Trials; Kwin Mosby: http://www.travelchannel.com/Places_Trips/Travel_Ideas/Haunted_Travels/Salem_Witch_Trials
University of Virginia: The Salem Witchcraft Papers: Case File for Giles Corey: http://salem.lib.virginia.edu/texts/tei/BoySal1R?div_id=n37
Corrections.com; The Legend of the Old Salem Jail; Tony Bertuca: http://www.corrections.com/articles/5268
Mass.Gov; Essex County Sheriff’s Department; History: http://www.mass.gov/?pageID=sessexterminal&L=2&L0=Home&L1=Facilities&sid=Sessex&b=terminalcontent&f=history&csid=Sessex


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