Giles Cory has the dubious distinction of being the only person in American history to be pressed to death by a court of law. It is one of the episodes in the Salem witch trials that has captured the American imagination. In a previous post, we have explored why Cory was accused of witchcraft. Yet we know very few details of his death event, and there is much confusion over why he suffered this horrible fate.
Contrary to popular notions, Cory was not pressed to death for failing to make a plea when he was charged with witchcraft. The court records confirm that he pleaded not guilty when first brought to trial on 9 September 1692. However, when asked the customary question of whether he would accept a trial “by the country” (that is, by a jury of his peers), Cory refused to speak. This brought his trial to a halt, and Giles was remanded to the Salem jail. Despite efforts of family and friends to get him to reply to the court, he refused.
So, around noon on Monday, 19 September 1692, Cory was pressed to death, as the court literally tried to press an answer out of him. It was a medieval English legal custom but unique in the annals of American jurisprudence. We do not know exactly how or where he was pressed to death, or how long the ordeal lasted. Given that the previous day was the Sabbath, presumably the ordeal began on the morning of the 19th, and Cory lasted perhaps 3-4 hours before he died.
Lacking any description, and not having any other pressings to draw parallels from, we can assume that rocks were gradually piled upon the supine Cory. It is possible he was first covered with boards or an old door to more evenly distribute the weight, and to keep them from falling off the body of the octogenarian.
Presumably Cory was pressed to death somewhere near the Salem jail. Salem witch trials expert Marilynne Roach has recently suggested the most likely location was directly behind the jail, on a vacant lot then owned by Thomas Putnam. The parcel is on the east side of present-day Washington Street in Salem, across the street from the 1841 Essex County court house. Putnam, whose wife, daughter and serving girl were all afflicted, was a leading accuser in 1692. Furthermore, the day before Giles’ pressing, Putnam had written Judge Samuel Sewall to remind him of Cory’s role in the death of Jacob Goodell back in 1675.
The only real detail we have of his pressing was written in 1700 by Robert Calef, a Bostonian who was a loud critic of the witch trials. He wrote “In pressing his Tongue being prest out of his Mouth, the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying. He was the first in New-England, that was ever prest to Death.” We have no way of confirming the accuracy of this statement. We do know that Essex County Sheriff George Corwin was a controversial figure due to his role in the trials, including his seizure of personal property of many of the accused.
Indeed, some people have wrongly suggested that Corwin’s seizures explain why Cory remained mute. In England in the seventeenth century, it was legal for sheriffs to seize the personal possessions of people charged with a felony (never was it legal for a sheriff to seize any real estate). And, due to a series of circumstances, such a law was also in effect in Massachusetts in 1692. However, Cory did plead not guilty, and Corwin did seize some of his personal possessions. So, there was no need for Cory to remain mute to try to protect his assets for his heirs. The government had already seized everything they could. There would seem to be no reason for Cory’s actions, except the hope that he might slow the court in their effort to try and convict him. But surely once the pressing began, he must have known that this tactic had failed. Yet, he continued with the ordeal to his death.
The most logical explanation for his behavior is a simple one. Giles Cory was a tough, difficult old man, who refused to give the court the satisfaction of convicting him of witchcraft. Supposedly his last words were “more weight.” While this tradition cannot be confirmed, it certainly is the sort of sentiment one might expect from Cory. By the time Giles was pressed to death, the Court of Oyer and Terminer had tried 28 people, including his own wife Martha Cory. All 28 had pleaded not guilty, yet all were found guilty, and all were sentenced to death. Cory knew the outcome of the trial, and decided to challenge the court and its proceedings in the only way he could.
The court saw this as a direct challenge to its authority, and as legal historian David Konig has pointed out, “no one who behaved defiantly or impudently toward the court escaped with his or her life.” So pressing Cory to death was a choice made to reinforce their authority, as can be seen by a different decision made by a Massachusetts court two years earlier.
In 1690, the Court of Assistants ignored pirate William Coward when he stood mute and refused to make a plea—his way of arguing that the Massachusetts court did not have jurisdiction on the high seas. Despite the lack of a plea, his trial still took place before the assistants the following day. Coward was convicted of piracy and soon hanged for his crime. Future Salem witchcraft judges Corwin, Hathorne, Richards, and Sewall were among the assistants who tried Coward, so they certainly knew this precedent and ignored it.
The court did not have to perform this gruesome and ultimately fatal torture to continue with Cory’s trial. Rather, they wanted to make an example of Giles for challenging the court of Oyer and Terminer. A stubborn man faced a cruel court, thus creating a storied American tragedy.
Image Credit: Photo courtesy of Emerson W. Baker.