Giles Corey (d. 1692),
It was on this date, September 19, 1692, during the Salem Witch Trials in Massachusetts colony, that sentence was carried out on Giles Corey (or Choree or Cory) that he be pressed to death for witchcraft. Corey was a prosperous farmer and 80 years old he was on his third wife but a church-going member of the community. In April of that year he was accused of witchcraft. This may have been because he had allied with the wrong local family and crustily criticized the witchcraft proceedings.
Jailed from April until September, Corey knew he was finished as soon as he was accused, so his only concern was the preservation of his property. Corey refused trial, for which the penalty was to be pressed to death: without a trial and conviction, his farm could not be forfeit to the colony and would instead be passed to his heirs.
Pressing was one of a vast array of colorful tortures as punishment or to extort confessions invented or improved for the purpose of demonstrating Christian love. Torture and mutilation is still practiced in the Islamic world, but in higher civilizations, after the Enlightenment, torture was abandoned wherever religion was divorced from government.
The Babylonian Hammurabi Code, and the Hebrew Code that was based on it, approved torture under the lex talionis (an eye for an eye), but in Roman law torture was condemned by the Stoic-Epicurean moralists and jurists such as Seneca and Ulpian. Pope Leo I encouraged burning heretics alive in the fifth century, but the use of torture began unofficially in the ironic quarrel with the fourth-century Arians about the divinity of Christ. "Women, especially 'sacred virgins' on either side," says one historian, "had their breasts crushed or scorched, were beaten with thorn-clubs, and were compelled to sit on hot iron plates."*
In the Feudal Age (1200s-1300s) owners of serfs four-fifths of the population inflicted screaming torture, without a whisper from the churches. Torture continued through the so-called Age of Chivalry (1100-1400). As late as 1500 in Rome, says another historian,** castration was still practiced, and the offender was forced to carry his severed testicles through the streets on a pole! If that wasn't enough, how about cutting or burning out the eyes, chopping off hands, feet, ears, breasts (of women) and cutting out or piercing the tongue with a hot iron? It took extraordinary measures to show God's love!
The French Revolution that Christians love to hate abolished official torture the practice was reinstated with the recovery of the Catholic Church in France. Tortue has always been effective in extracting confession; less so for extracting the truth. However, once the churches lost temporal authority, they lost the power to torture opponents and could only argue with them. Civilization thereby advanced.
The advance was too late for Giles Corey: on 19 September 1692, Corey was stripped naked, a board placed on his chest, and then heavy stones piled on top. The pressing lasted for two days, until Corey finally died of suffocation. The magistrate stopped the torture occasionally in order to hear anything Corey might wish to confess. "More weight," was all Giles Corey would say.
The Salem Witch Trials occupied less than one year of American history. Giles Corey is the only person in North American history known to have been legally pressed to death, although there is some question as to whether the punishment was legal at the time. Martha Corey was convicted, too, and hanged the day after her husband died two less witches for the churches to worry about!
* Joseph McCabe, A Rationalist Encyclopedia, article "Torture," 1948. McCabe quotes many sources on the extent of torture used in the Ages of Faith: Edward A. Freeman, History of the Norman Conquest, 6 vols., 1870-5; H. D. Traill: Social England, a Record of the Progress of the People, 2 vols., 1894; Achille Luchaire, Social France in the Time of Philippe August (La Société française au temps de Phillippe-Auguste, 1909), Engl. trans. 1912; Jakob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Engl. trans. 1878; Voltaire, A Treatise on Toleration, 1763; Charles Letourneau, L'évolution juridique des diverses races humaines, 1891.