Giles Corey is perhaps the most unusual character in the Salem witch trials of 1692; he certainly is in Arthur Miller's play The Crucible. I had the privilege of playing Giles Corey in a production of The Crucible on 30-31 January and 1-2 February 1997 at Christ Episcopal Church in Blacksburg VA. I spent some time trying to learn about the actual Giles Corey as well as Arthur Miller's version of him. I became so much Giles that I feel a need to create a record of him, perhaps to get back my own life.
Probably the best source for information about the real Giles Corey is the three-volume set of transcripts of the Salem witch trials [Ref. 1, pp. 239-246]. Attention must also be paid to Giles' wife Martha [Ref. 1, pp. 247-266].
On 18 April 1692 Exekiell Chevers and John Putnam, Jr. made a complaint against Giles Corey for witchcraft done on Ann Putnam, Marcy Lewis, Abig'l Williams, Mary Walcot and Eliz. Hubert. A deposition dated 13 April 1692 by Ann Putnam, Jr. stated that she
"saw the Apperishtion of Gilles Cory com and afflect me urging me to writ in his book and so he continewed hurting me...dureing the time of his examination Giles Cory did tortor me a grat many times...severall times sence Giles Cory or his Apperance has most greviously afflected me by beating pinching and almost Choaking me to death urging me to writ in his book...I saw Giles Cory or his Apperance most greviously afflect and torment mary walcott mercy lewes and sarah vibber and I veryly beleveue that Giles Cory is [is] a dreadfull wizzard..." [Ref. 1, p. 241]
Similar depositions were given by Mercy Lewis, Sarah Bibber, Mary Warren, Elizabeth Woodwell, Mary Walcott, Elizabeth Hubbard and Benjamin Gould. Susannah Sheldon's testified that
"the Spectre of Giles Corey Murdered his first wife & would have murdered this to if she had not been a Witch..." [Ref. 1, p. 244]
Another line of damning testimony was that Giles Corey participated in "the sacriment" at a gathering of witches. John DeRich testified that.
"gils Cory...told me that he wanted som platers for he was gowen to afeast...he took the platers and cared them a way being gown a bout half a oure with them...". A deposition by Elizabeth Booth stated "there appeared to us a grate number of wicthes as neare as we could tell about fifty thirteen of which we knew:who did Receive the sacriment in our right amongst whicth we saw Giles Cory who brought to us bread and wine urging us to pertake thereof: but because we Refused he did most greviously afflect and torment us: and we beleve in our hearts that Giles Cory is a wizzard..." [Ref. 1, p. 245]
Thomas Putnam wrote a letter to Judge Samuel Sewall in which he brought up an old case against Giles Corey:
"...my daughter Ann...there appeared unto her (she said) a man in a Winding Sheet; who told her that Giles Cory had Murdered him, by Pressing him to Death with his Feet; but that the Devil there appeared unto him, and Covenented with him, and promised him, He should not be Hanged....For all people now Remember very well, (and the Records of the Court also mention it,) That about Seventeen Years ago, Giles Cory kept a man in his House, that was almost a Natural Fool: which Man Dy'd suddenly. A Jury was Impannel'd upon him, among whom was Dr. Zorobbabel Endicot; who found the man bruised to Death, and having clodders of Blood about his Heart. The Jury, whereof several are yet alive, brought in the man Murdered; but as if some Enchantment had hindred the Prosecution of the Matter, the Court Proceeded not against Giles Cory, tho' it cost him a great deal of Money to get off." [Ref. 1, p. 246]
Giles testified against his wife Martha. Since this testimony probably tells more about Giles than it does about Martha, I include it here.
"The evidence of Giles Choree testifieth & saith that Last satturday in the Evening. sitting by the fire my wife asked me to go to bed. I told I would go to prayr. & when I went to prayer I could nott utter my desires w'th any sense, not open my mouth to speake My wife did perceive itt & came towards. me & said she was coming to me. After this in alittle space I did according to my measure attend the duty.
Sometime last weake I fetcht an ox well out the woods, about noone, & he laying down in the yard I went to raise him to yoake him butt he could not rise butt dragd his hinder parts as if he had been hiptshott, butt after did rise.
I had a Catt somtimes last weeke strangly taken on the suddain & did make me think she would have died presently, #[butt] my wife bid me knock her in the head. butt I did not. & since she is well.
Another time going to duties I was interrupted for aspace, butt affterward I was helpt according to my poore measure.
My wife hath ben wont to sitt up after I went to bed, & I have perceived her to kneel down to the harth. as if she were at prayr, but heard nothing.
March: 24'th 1691/2" [Ref. 1, p. 259]
Giles Corey's son-in-law, John Moulton, husband of Elizabeth Corey, presented a document to the General Court on 13 September 1710:
"...in the yere 1692 some time in march our honerd father and mother Giles Corey & Martha his wife ware acused for soposed wich Craft and imprisoned and ware Removed from on prison to another as from Salem to ipswich & from ipswitch to boston and from boston to Salem againe and soe remained in Close imprisonment about four months...our father was put to soe Cruell and painfull a death as being prest to death our mother was put to death also though in another way." [Ref. 1, pp. 985-986]
The best overall reference I have found to the Salem witch trials is Hansen's book Witchcraft at Salem [Ref. 2]. On p. 63:
"Giles Corey had been very ready to testify against his wife, Martha, and to speak against her out of court as well as in: he had told several people that he knew things that would 'do his wife's business.' Now he was admirably, if belatedly, protesting her innocence as well as his own. But he did it stupidly; he denied having said things which witnesses had heard him say, and thus was several times caught lying. Since lying was a serious matter in Puritan Massachusetts and perjury is a serious matter in any age, Giles Corey must have made a very bad impression." [Ref. 2, p. 63]
Hanson gives a detailed account of Giles' death:
"But the most dramatic protest of all was made by Giles Corey. Giles Corey had not been an altogether admirable man. He was quarrelsome, and one long-standing quarrel with John Procter had ended in the courts. He was violent as well, and it was said that he had beaten to death a former hired hand. He had thought his wife a witch, and freely said so, both in and out of court. But when Giles Corey was indicted he did something nobody else had dared to do. He stood mute, refusing to answer to his indictment. And under both English and New English law a man who refused to answer could not be tried. He could, however, be tortured-be subjected to 'peine forte et dure'-until he either answered or died. Accordingly Giles Corey was pressed: placed upon the ground with gradually increased weight piled on him. It took him two days to die....Calef adds the brutal detail that 'in pressing, his tongue being pressed out of his mouth, the sheriff with his cane forced it in again when he was dying.' Why he would chose to undergo so terrible a death has been the subject of much debate among nineteenth-century historians, some of whom guessed that he was trying to preserve his property for his heirs.... According to Calef: 'Giles Corey pleaded "not guilty' to his indictment, but would not put himself upon trial by the jury (they having cleared none upon trial), and knowing there would be the same witnesses against him rather chose to undergo what death they would put him to.' Giles Corey, then, was pressed to death because he would not agree to be tried by the Special Court of Oyer and Terminer. His death was a protest-the most dramatic protest of all-against the methods of the court" [Ref. 2, pp. 153-4]
In summary, Giles Corey apparently was a sometimes violent, often quarrelsome, loose-tongued man, who was probably not well liked by his neighbors. He was pressed to death on 19 September 1692 [Ref. 3]
Martha Corey is prominently mentioned in the transcripts of the Salem witch trials [Ref. 1, pp.247-266]
Martha Corey was charged on 19 March 1692:
"There being Complaint this day made before us, By Edward putnam and Henery Keney Yeoman both of Salem Village, Against Martha Cory the wife of Giles Cory of Salem farmes for suspition of haveing Comitted sundry acts of Witchcraft and thereby donne much hurt and injury unto the Bodys of Ann Putnam the wife of Thomas Putnam of Salem Village Yeoman And Anna Puttam the daugtter of s'd Thomas putnam and Marcy Lewis Single woman Liveing in s'd Putnams famyly; also abigail Williams one of mr parris his family and elizabeth Hubert Doctor Grigs his maid." [Ref. 1, p. 247]
Judge John Hathorne examined Martha Corey on 21 March 1692. The interrogation is recorded in Ref. 1, pp. 248-254. Some of the more interesting lines of dialogue are:
"Mr Hathorne. You are now in the hands of Authority tell me now why you hurt these persons
Martha Kory. I do not.
Pray give me leave to goe to prayer
This request was made sundry times
We do not send for you to go to prayer But tell me why you hurt these?
I am an innocent person: I never had to do with Witchcraft since I was born. I am a Gospel Woman" [Ref. 1, p. 248]
"Do you not see how these afflicted do charge you
We must not beleive distracted persons
Who do you improve to hurt them
I improved none
Did not you say our eyes were blinded you would open them
Yes to accuse the innocent" [Ref. 1, p. 250]
?You charge these children with distraction: it is a note of distraction when persons vary in a minute, but these fix upon you, this is not the manner of distraction-
When all are against me w't can I help it
Now tell me the truth will you, why did you say that the Magistrates & Ministers eyes are blinded you would open them
She laught & denyed it." [Ref. 1, p. 251]
"It was noted w'n she bit her lip severall of the afflicted were bitten
When she was urged upon it that she bit her lip saith she what harm is there in it." [Ref. 1, p. 253]
"What do you say to all these thing that are apparent
If you will all go hang me how can I help it.
Were you to serve the Devil ten years tell how many
She laught" [Ref. 1, p. 253]
"That Martha Corey's skepticism was held against her is clear evidence that by this time the magistrates' attitudes had hardened into those of the witch hunter. Only a witch hunter believes that anyone skeptical of witchcraft must undoubtedly be a witch." [Ref. 2, p. 42]
In summary, Martha Corey was openly skeptical about the existence of witches and even laughed at the court. She was hanged on 22 September 1692 [Ref. 3].
There is no hint in The Crucible that Giles Corey might have killed his hired hand in the past, except perhaps Rev. Hale's line to John Proctor and Giles Corey "Were there murder done perhaps, and never brought to light?" at the end of Act II. There is an indication that he has a violent streak when he attacks Thomas Putnam in Act III. The Crucible does not intimate that Giles testified against his wife; he merely got her in trouble with his loose talk about her reading "strange" books. The play depicts a closer relationship between Giles Corey and John Proctor than probably existed. The play flatly states that Giles stood mute to save his land for his sons, but Hansen [Ref. 2] thinks that the evidence indicates that Giles was mainly protesting the actions of the court.
Martha Corey never physically appears in the play; only her voice is heard off stage at the beginning of Act III. (She does appear several times in the movie, most prominently when she laughs at the courts proceedings and walks out.)
My favorite lines for Giles Corey for each act are [Ref. 4]:
- Act One, p. 164: Mister Hale...I have always wanted to ask a learned man--What signifies the readin' of strange books?
- Act Two, p. 197: And yet silent, Minister? It is fraud, you know it is fraud! What keeps you, man!
- Act Three, p. 211: I will not give you no name. I mentioned my wife's name once and I'll burn in hell long enough for that. I stand mute.
Arthur Miller is the screenwriter. As I suppose is normal when a play is converted into a movie, the supporting characters are cut back and emphasis is put on the starring characters. For example, Giles Corey has sixty lines in the play, but only thirty-two lines in the movie script. Of my three favorite Giles Corey lines in the play given above, only the first is in the movie script. However, he is shown being pressed ("More weight!"). [Ref. 5]
Two plays have been written about Giles Corey:
"If I deny, I am condemned already, In courts where ghosts appear as witnesses, And swear men's lives away. If I confess, Then I confess a lie, to buy a life Which is not life, but only death in life. I will not bear false witness against any, Not even against myself, whom I count least."
"I pray you, do not urge me to do that You would not do yourself. I have already The bitter taste of death upon my lips; I feel the pressure of the heavy weight That will crush out my life within this hour; But if a word could save me, and that word Were not the Truth; nay, if it did but swerve A hair's-breadth from the Truth, I would not say it."
"He be verily an old man, he be over eighty years old, but there be somewhat of the first of him left. He hath never had much power of speech; his words have been rough, and not given to pleasing. He hath been a rude man, an unlettered man, and a sinner. He hath brawled and blasphemed with the worst of them in his day. He hath given blow for blow, and I trow the other man's cheek smarted sorer than old Giles's. Now he be a man of the covenant, but he be still stiff with his old ways, and hath no nimbleness to shunt a blow. Old Giles Corey hath no fine wisdom to save his life, and no grace of tongue, but he hath power to die as he will, and no man hath greater."
Giles Corey is a wonderful character in The Crucible. His character contains humor, playfulness, naiveté, sentimentality, remorse, anger, and violence. He is regarded by many as the "comic relief" in an otherwise grim story. The audience loves him in almost every production of The Crucible. I cannot remember having so much fun with anything I have ever done in public compared to playing the part of Giles Corey in The Crucible.
Nicholas Hytner, the director of the movie, in the introduction to the screenplay [Ref. 5] states that most of the extras in the cast claimed to be descended from Giles Corey. I have even run across a person in Blacksburg, Virginia who claimed to be descended from Giles. He is the kind of character we would all like to have in our family tree.
(My wife, Jeanne Howard Roper (who played Rebecca Nurse), is a ninth-great-granddaughter of both Zerubbabel Endicott [mentioned above] and William Hathorne, father of Judge John Hathorne of the Salem witch trials.)