“Monday, Sept. 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Cory was press’d to death for standing Mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain,” thus reads Judge Samuel Sewall’s terse account of one of the most gruesome incidents in early American history, one that continues to horrify yet fascinate. Who was Giles Cory? Why was he accused of witchcraft? And how did he come to such a horrible fate?
Giles Cory was a prosperous farmer who lived in the part of Salem Village that is in present-day Peabody, Massachusetts. In 1685, the elderly twice–widowed Giles married Martha Pennoyer Rich, a widow who was about 9 years his junior. In April 1692, both Martha and Giles were arrested for suspicion of witchcraft. During the Salem witchcraft outbreak very few church members were accused–that is Puritan saints who believed that God had spoken to them and promised them salvation. Yet the Corys were both church members, and ironically, it seems likely that their membership may have led to their accusation.
Prior to her first marriage, Martha Cory had given birth to a bastard mulatto son, who now lived in the Cory household. This checkered past must have raised eyebrows if not objections when she applied to become a member of the Salem Village church on 27 April 1690. Unlike Salem Town and other congregations who had relaxed the church membership process and also accepted the Halfway Covenant, Reverend Samuel Parris and his Salem Village church maintained the traditional high standard. An applicant for church membership had to stand before the congregation and publicly confess their sins, and provide a testimony of their personal religious experience. It was a daunting task, even for the most devout. Yet, Martha Cory was up to the task, and was proud of her status. When later questioned for witchcraft, she proclaimed “I am an innocent person: I never had to do with Witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospel Woman.”
Martha wanted her husband Giles to join her as a church member. In seventeenth-century New England, everyone went to the meetinghouse to attend worship. A church was not a building, rather the term referred to the core group of the congregation who were “saints” accepted into full church membership, with eligibility to receive the sacraments of communion, as well as baptism for their children. Once Reverend Samuel Parris was ordained in 1689, Salem Village formed a church and began to accept members, including Martha Corey.
Why then, did her husband Giles become a member of the neighboring church in Salem Town, on 26 April 1691? A meetinghouse two and a half miles further away from home than Salem Village, where his wife was a member in Salem Village? The most likely answer is that Giles knew could not meet the strict requirements of Salem Village, so instead applied at the Salem Town church.
With the active encouragement of its minister, John Higginson, in 1666 Salem Town church changed their requirements for membership from public confession to the candidate’s good behavior for a month, along with a private confession of faith to the minister. The first person to be accepted under these new rules was Bartholomew Gedney. He would soon be joined by John Hathorn and Jonathan Corwin. All three would be judges of the Court of Oyer and Terminer that conducted the witch trials in 1692.
Presumably Giles had to seek this less strict church because of his checkered past. His admission to the Salem Town church even noted that he had “been a scandalous person in his former time, but Got having in his later time awakened him into Repentence.” Now, however, this once “scandalous person” had beaten the system. Not pure enough to become a Salem Village saint, his membership in the Salem Town church still gave him the right to receive communion at Salem Village. Surely some devout Salem Villagers must have felt their church was defiled to have the Corys present at the Lord’s Supper. It is not surprising they were early targets of accusation in 1692.
Although Giles may have reformed, people still remembered his scandalous behavior in the 1670s, when his neighbor John Proctor accused Giles of setting fire to Proctor’s house, and another man accused Cory of tearing down his fence and stealing wood, hay, and carpentry tools. Worse, in a fit of anger Giles Cory used a stick to severely beat his hired hand Jacob Goodell, an act which led to the man’s death several days later. The court fined Cory though some thought he had gotten away with murder.
In 1692 one of the afflicted said “Giles Cory or his apparition” beat them, and Mary Warren specified that Cory hit her with his staff. While Giles was being pressed to death, Thomas Putnam Jr. wrote to Judge Samuel Sewall to inform him of the well-remembered death of Goodell. Interestingly, Deodat Lawson noted that “an Ancient Woman, named Goodall,” was among the large group of women who claimed to be afflicted by Martha Cory. Was this Jacob’s mother or aunt striking back at the Corys for their mistreatment?
We now know who Giles Cory was and why people might accuse him of witchcraft. This man had a scandalous and violent past. He had gained a bad reputation as well as enemies. Some Salem Village Puritan saints must have felt that this underserving sinner had beaten the system, and they were reminded of it every time Giles sat among them to receive communion. Surely he was a symbol of Satan’s attack on the Salem Village church.
Feature Image: Photo courtesy of Emerson W. Baker.