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Giles Corey was one of six men who died during the trials that ran from May through October of 1692. He was the only one tortured; the rest were either hung or died in jail. Implicated by Abigail Hobbs, the Corey’s were brought to Ingersoll’s Tavern to be examined. Giles, who was in his 80’s at the time, had at first encouraged an accusation against his wife, Martha. Later he tried to recant when he realized just how ugly and disturbing the trials had become.
It is also believed he realized that his home, land, and all other wealth were in great danger. The sketchy laws of the time supposedly decreed that anyone found guilty of witchcraft would lose all of their holdings, leaving nothing for those who stood to inherit. Once Giles himself had been accused, he knew that pleading innocent would not only lead to his death, but would most likely lead to conviction anyway. To save his holdings for his family (two sons-in-law) to inherit, Corey refused to plea neither guilty nor innocent. In this strange legal twist his recently land could not be awarded back to the colony after his death, no matter how he died.
Although many speculated that Corey refused to stand for trial and place an appropriate plea because of what would happen to his land, it seems he may have done it out of sheer rebellion. According to some sources, neither Massachusetts law nor English law would insist on such forfeiture—the true danger came from the greedy wrangling of the sheriff himself. It appears that Corey’s less than popular stance in Salem society had caused him to create a will deeding his property to his sons-in-law, William Cleeves and John Moulton, even before his arrest. Perhaps he knew something was coming or perhaps a previous run-in with the law had caused him to grow wary. Regardless, heirs were legally able to retain lands that otherwise would have been forfeit in Massachusetts at the time due to certain criminal dealings.
The solution to Corey’s refusal to submit to the court and offer a plea, as perceived by Sheriff George Corwin, the son of Witch Trials magistrate Jonathan Corwin, was to torture him until he did plea. Corwin had been profiting from the Salem Witch Trials, as it was he who was in charge of confiscating property and dividing it among the leaders of Salem. The court ordered Corey a sentence of “peine forte et dure” even though this torture was illegal in the Massachusetts colony. In all of US history, Giles Corey is the only person who was pressed to death by the order of a court. Sheriff Corwin himself watched as Giles Corey was slowly crushed to death in a field just outside old Salem Jail, a field that is now known as Howard Cemetery.
A board was placed upon the old man’s chest and slowly loaded with more and more heavy fieldstones. According to tradition, it took him two days to die beneath the weighted board.
Folklore has it that Corey repeated, “More weight!” when asked to plea. However, there are also tales that Corey actually cursed Sheriff Corwin and the whole of Salem with his dying breath. Buried in an unmarked grave on Gallows Hill, it seems that this curse may have actually been quite effective.
According to local historian and former sheriff of Essex County, Robert Cahill, each and every sheriff starting with George Corwin to himself had either died in office or was forced into early retirement due to a heart or blood ailment. Corwin died of a heart attack in 1696; Cahill left his post after his own heart attack much more recently.
The curse goes beyond the sheriff’s post, however. Whenever a tragedy befalls Salem, people claim to see Giles Corey’s ghost soon after. Could it be that he makes occasional appearances to savoring the suffering of Salem—and the fruits of his curse? Giles Corey’s spirit was supposedly seen even before his death by accuser Anne Putnam who claimed his spectre visited her, trying to entice her into writing in “the Devil’s book.”

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