Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Curse of Giles Corey

Giles Corey was a successful farmer from Salem village when he was suddenly accused of witchcraft during the Salem Witch Trials in 1692. The 80-year-old farmer was never convicted because he died a slow, agonizing death while being tortured by Sheriff Corwin. During the torture, Giles shouted ”Damn you! I curse you and Salem” at the sheriff before dying.

Illustration of The Trial of Giles Corey from 1878
Corey was tortured because he refused to enter a plea for his trial. He 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. Knowing he would probably die anyway, if not in jail than on the gallows, Corey was determined to avoid a convicted before his death so his estate would pass down to his grown children instead of being claimed by the crown.

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. 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.

Although the procedure 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 three days in September of 1692:

Depiction of Sheriff Corwin Torturing Giles Corey
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!”

Locals 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 and 18 other people were hanged for witchcraft before it spread and destroyed much of the town.

Howard Street Cemetery
Four years after Corey's death, Sheriff Corwin died suddenly of a heart attack at just 30 years old. The 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.

Giles Corey's Marker at the Salem Witch Trials Memorial


"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

"Cursed in New England; Stories of Damned Yankees”; Joseph A. Citro; Jeff White; 2004; The Legend of the Old Salem Jail; Tony Bertuca

Mass.Gov; Essex County Sheriff's Department; History

Mysterious Journeys; Salem Witch Trials; Kwin Mosby

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