Giles Corey - Pressed To Death

Pressed To Death

According to the law at the time, a person who refused to plead could not be tried. To avoid persons cheating justice, the legal remedy for refusing to plead was "peine forte et dure". In this process the prisoner is stripped naked, with a heavy board laid on his body. Then rocks or boulders are laid on the plank of wood. This was the process of being pressed.

... remanded to the prison from whence he came and put into a low dark chamber, and there be laid on his back on the bare floor, naked, unless when decency forbids; that there be placed upon his body as great a weight as he could bear, and more, that he hath no sustenance, save only on the first day, three morsels of the worst bread, and the second day three draughts of standing water, that should be alternately his daily diet till he died, or, till he answered.

As a result of his refusal to plead, on September 17, Sheriff George Corwin led Corey to a pit in the open field beside the jail and in accordance with the above process, before the Court and witnesses, stripped Giles of his clothing, laid him on the ground in the pit, and placed boards on his chest. Six men then lifted heavy stones, placing them one by one, on his stomach and chest. Giles Corey did not cry out, let alone make a plea.

After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, "More weight." More and more rocks were piled on him, and the Sheriff from time to time would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey's bulging eyes. Robert Calef, who was a witness along with other townsfolk, later said, "In the pressing, Giles Corey's tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again."

Three mouthfuls of bread and water were fed to the old man during his many hours of pain. Finally, Giles Corey cried out "More weight!" and died. Supposedly, just before his death, he cursed Sheriff Corwin and the entire town of Salem.

Samuel Sewall's diary states, under date of Monday, September 19, 1692:

About noon at Salem, Giles Cory was pressed to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the court and Captain Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance, but all in vain.

It is unusual for persons to refuse to plead, and extremely rare to find reports of persons who have been able to endure this painful form of death in silence. Since Corey refused to plead, he died in full possession of his estate, which would otherwise have been forfeited to the government. It passed on to his two sons-in-law, in accordance to his will.

The pressing of Giles Corey is unique in New England. It is similar to the case, in England, of Margaret Clitherow, who was arrested on March 10, 1586 for the crime of harboring priests, hearing Mass, and secretly being of the Catholic faith.

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