Where Was Giles Corey Pressed to Death?

By Marilynne K. Roach

“About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was pressed to death for standing mute,’ wrote Samuel Sewall on 19 September 1692. Corey had pleaded not guilty to the charge of witchcraft, but he refused to agree that the court (which had found all the defendants tried to date guilty) had a right to try him. The threat of pressing was supposed to frighten the defendant into cooperation, but Corey was more stubborn than expected. He may have thought that if he could not be found guilty his land could not be confiscated from his family.

(However, despite many cases of goods taken to pay fines and jail fees, no land, including Corey’s, was, in fact, confiscated.) 1 This gruesome one-time event has inspired (among other responses) indignation, gallows humor, walking tours, and even a rock persona. 2

However, the spot where Giles Corey’s execution occurred is not found in any contemporary record. Judge Samuel Sewall’s diary entry, written in Boston, names only the town and date—not the specific location.

Nevertheless, a closer reading of the sources and a comparison of various map suggest two possible sites for the event, one that had been staring me in the face from the beginning. Sometimes it takes years to notice the obvious.

It is possible that the torture occurred inside the fenced prison yard. In 1692 the jail was on the west side of Prison Lane, now St. Peter’s Street, just north of where the present Federal Street was built about 1783. 3 But a strong tradition that the public, including children, watched the process, suggests a larger, more public space to carry a stronger warning to potential evil-doers. 4

The earliest reference I have found is a local tradition recorded in 1867 by historian and politician Charles W. Upham. Corey’s terrible death occurred “in an open field near the jail, somewhere between Howard-street Burial Ground and Brown Street.’ Because of this association, Upham added, “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 this 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 he cried.’ 5

In 1868, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his play Giles Corey of the Salem Farms, one of his New-England Tragedies where the pressing scene is set in “A field near the graveyard,’ referred to by the character of Judge Hathorne as “Potter’s Field.’ However, in 1692 the town’s two burying grounds were each a distance from the jail and the Howard Street Cemetery did not yet exist. 6

More from Marilynne Roach

Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of The Accused and Their Ancestors

Six Women of Salem is the first work to use the lives of a select number of representative women as a microcosm to illuminate the larger crisis of the Salem witch trials. By the end of the trials, beyond the twenty who were executed and the five who perished in prison, 207 individuals had been accused, 74 had been “afflicted,” 32 had officially accused their fellow neighbors, and 255 ordinary people had been inexorably drawn into that ruinous and murderous vortex, and this doesn’t include the religious, judicial, and governmental leaders. All this adds up to what the Rev. Cotton Mather called “a desolation of names.”

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But little boys “of the more ignorant class’ were not the last to preserve the tradition. Corey’s ghost was said to appear before impending disasters, and late twentieth-century variants of the story have the dying Corey, despite a lack of oxygen under the circumstances, utter a curse upon Salem and on all Essex County sheriffs. Tales of
the ghost have enlarged and become a staple of present-day tour guide commentaries and paranormal websites that often identify the Howard Street Cemetery itself as the site of Corey’s death. 7

Besides the fact that the ground there is more or less open and relatively flat, this cemetery borders the property of the former Middlesex County Jail, a turreted granite structure now converted to housing and a restaurant. That jail was begun in 1811 and enlarged by 1885, but occupies a different spot than the 1692 jail. 8

The Howard Street Cemetery did not exist until 1801, but any cemetery is assumed to be more conducive to ghosts than an empty lot or, worse yet, a lot with something built on it. Some people have reported strange lights among the graves, and at least one empathetic tour guide professed to becoming short of breath in the vicinity.

“I always stand here and my chest feels tight,’ said the guide in a YouTube video as he addressed a group standing in Howard Street. 9

What Upham actually wrote in 1867 was that the site was “somewhere between Howard-street Burial Ground and Brown Street.’ 10

An 1851 map of Salem shows an open area between the south border of the cemetery and the back yards along Brown Street—roughly behind the Second Baptist Church (now the Roman Catholic Saint John the Baptist Church). 11

Fortunately, antiquarian and lawyer Sidney Perley mapped this area and the rest of Salem at the turn of the twentieth century for a series of articles in his Essex Antiquarian to show land ownership from the founding to 1700. Perley indicated a line of small lots across the street from the jail, some with houses on them and some open land, possibly pastures.

Merchant John Ward’s gabled home, built in 1684, was closest to the jail. With its end to the street, it occupied a goodsized plot made up of smaller lots Ward had purchased over the years. (The Ward House, rescued and restored, is now in the garden behind the Phillips Library, part of the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection.) 12

None of the land on the east side of Prison Lane was publicly owned. While the court may have requested or commandeered use of an open lot, it seems unlikely they would have conducted the pressing in someone’s door yard. In 1692, there were three lots on that side of the lane without houses. John Cromwell owned a small strip just north of the Ward property, 13 while William Jameson of Charlestown owned a larger area further toward the North River. 14 The lot just south of Ward’s property (one he would later purchase) belonged to Salem saddler Richard Pytharg, and this land lay across the street from the jail. 15

East of these smaller parcels, and reached by a path (now Bridge Street) along the shore of the North River before landfill narrowed the stream, two larger strips of acreage occupied the site of the present Howard Street Cemetery. One belonged to Joseph Miles and the other to soap-boiler Stephen Hackett. 16

In 1692 each contained a house with ample land behind it, but to get to either of these from the jail would mean conveying both prisoner and pressing equipment around by the shore or cutting across various lots and fences. Howard Street did not exist in 1692.

From these observations I deduce that the Pytharg lot (just north of the church of Saint John the Baptist) is the most likely spot east of the prison, being both convenient to the jail and close to the area that Upham’s ignorant boys assumed was the spot. The area is now largely a parking lot.

But the answer was not necessarily across the street from the jail. The fact that Perley depicted the two sides of the lane on two different maps in two different articles prolonged my confusion. Finally, while looking yet again at the map showing the west side of Prison Lane I saw an obvious answer. Two open lots bordered the jail property in 1692. The larger space to the south (the present municipal parking lot) belonged to merchant William Browne. 17

The other—north of the jail on the side toward the river—belonged to Lt. Thomas Putnam. 18 Putnam’s name was right there on Perley’s map, as big as life—but I had overlooked it, fixated on the lands across the street. Would Thomas Putnam have minded the court using his land for such a purpose?

Given that his wife, Ann (Carr), and his daughter, Ann, Jr., were both vigorous accusers of so many suspects that summer, and he himself so involved recording testimony against the suspect for the court, one can imagine him volunteering the use of the field as part of his civic duty. Thomas wrote a letter to Judge Samuel Sewall shortly before the pressing to describe Corey’s latest spectral attacks on the Putnam family.

“The Last Night my Daughter Ann, was grievously Tormented by Witches, Threatning that she should be Pressed to Death, before Giles Cory.’ During a lull “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 [i.e. Corey], and Covenanted with him, and promised him, He should not be Hanged.’

“It must be done to him as he has done to me,’ the ghost declared. Therefore Corey would be pressed to death since, being so hard-hearted, he refused to enter a plea and so “Dy an easy Death’—meaning hanging, which is easy only as compared to pressing. By relating his daughter’s “vision,’ Putnam introduced an old case into the proceedings and acted surprised that no one had previously mentioned the death of Jacob Goodale, Corey’s hired hand, which had occurred seventeen years prior. Corey had savagely beaten the victim, considered to be “almost a Natural Fool,’ shortly before the man died. However, other impatient neighbors and even relatives had thrashed the man also, so Corey’s actions could not be proven to be murder. To Putnam, it was “as if some Enchantment had hindred the Prosecution of the Matter,’ and Corey’s heavy fine seemed more like a bribe. 19

Thomas Putnam’s lot was conveniently open and bordered the jail yard. By comparing Perley’s maps, Sanborn Insurance maps, Salem street atlases, current Salem assessor’s maps, and aerial views of the neighborhood, I found that both Putnam’s lot and the prison yard appear to have occupied the area now underneath the former telephone company office building, now housing condos at 1 to 11 Federal Street.

So the scene of Giles Corey’s tragic death may be across St. Peter’s Street from the condos, or (my choice) it may lie underneath that building—a heavy burden indeed. In either case it is highly unlikely to involve the Howard Street Cemetery.

Although this conclusion is still speculative, the moral of my search reminds me not to trust received “facts’ blindly, not to trust spectral evidence (from tradition or tour guide alike), and not to gloss over the obvious when it is (embarrassingly) right under my nose.


Notes

1 Samuel Sewall, The Diary of Samuel Sewall, 1674–1729, M. Halsey Thomas, ed., 2 vols.(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973),19 September 1692; David C. Brown, “The Case of Giles Corey,’ Essex Institute Historical Collections 121 (1985):282–299.

2 gilescoreysstonedsoul.com.

3 Sidney Perley, “Salem in 1700. NO. 14,’ The Essex Antiquarian 8 (1904): 20, 23, 30.

4 Glade Ian Nelson, “Mary (Burroughs) (Homer)(Hall) Tiffany,’ The American Genealogist 48(1972):145-146, note 20.

5 Charles W. Upham, Salem Witchcraft (1867;repr., Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 2000), 546.

6 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The New-England Tragedies (Boston: Ticknor and Fields,1868), Act V, Scene IV, 178.

7 Rebecca Beatrice Brooks, “The Curse of Giles Corey’ in “History of Massachusetts’ at historyofmassachusetts.org/the-curse-of-giles-corey;“A Warlock’s Curse? The Ghosts of Salem’s Howard Street Burying Ground’ in “A Gothic Curiosity Cabinet’ at gothichorrorstories.com/behind-urban-legends/a-warlockscurse-the-ghosts-of-salems-howard-streetburying-ground (which rates the location at four crypts).

8 Bryant F. Tolles, Jr., and Carolyn K. Tolles, Architecture in Salem: An Illustrated Guide (Salem: Essex Institute with the cooperation ofHistoric Salem, Incorporated, 1983), 114–115.

9 Patricia Reed, “Ghost of Giles Corey,’ youtube.com/watch?v=YRFVraFwJ3Q.

10 Upham, 546. (Italics added.)

11 H[enry] McIntyre, “Map of the City of Salem, Mass.: from an actual survey,’ 1851. Harvard Map Collection, at: ids.lib.harvard.edu/ids/view/37863197?buttons=y; Tolles, 114.

12 Sidney Perley, “Part of Salem in 1700. NO. 15,’ Essex Antiquarian 8 (1904): 67–73; Barbara M.and Gerald W. R. Ward, The John Ward House (Salem: Essex Institute, 1976), 6–7.

13 Perley, “Part of Salem, NO. 15,’ 70.

14 Ibid., 68.

15 Ibid., 71.

16 Ibid., 73–74.

17 Perley, “Part of Salem, NO. 14,’ 29–30.

18 Ibid., 30; also the map by William W. K. Freeman, “Part of Salem in 1700,’ based on the maps of Sidney Perley, originally part of James Duncan Phillips, Salem in the Seventeenth Century (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company,1933). Seeing the whole area together and inproportion clarified the locations.

19 Thomas Putnam in Cotton Mather, The Wonders of the Invisible World (Boston: Sam.Phillips, 1693 [actually 1692]), excerpted in George Lincoln Burr, Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706 (New York:Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1914), 250; Essex County, Records of the Quarterly Court of Essex County, Massachusetts, George Francis Dow, ed., 9 vols. (Salem: The Essex Institute,1911–1975), vol. 6:190–191.