Giles Corey married three times, the last time when he was pushing eighty years old. When his second wife died in Salem Village, Massachusetts, he married a third time, to a lady by the name of Martha, who had two grown boys.
Martha was swept up in the Salem witch craze of 1692, and when she was imprisoned that winter, he asked to join her in jail. Which was quite a thing to offer, as conditions in the jail were incredibly harsh. The sheriff turned down his request, but what he refused, the gaggle of girls hurling accusations right and left were happy to accommodate.
According to one of the accusers, nineteen year old Mercy Lewis “I saw the Apparition of Giles Corey come and afflict me urging me to write in his book and so he continued most dreadfully to hurt me by times beating me & almost breaking my back tell the day of his examination being the 19th of April and then also during the time of his examination he did affect and tortor me most greviously: and also several times sense urging me vehemently to write in his book and I veryly believe in my heart that Giles Corey is a dreadful wizard for sense he had been in prison he or his appearance has come and most greviously tormented me.”
Giles Corey found himself accused of being a diabolical warlock of the highest order, and it wasn’t long before he found himself chained in the Salem dungeon as well.
A wizard Giles was not. Diabolical is another matter. By a cruel twist of fate, the easiest way to survive accusations of witchcraft was to plead guilty, and manage somehow to live through your imprisonment. Pleading innocent was the fastest route to the gallows. Giles chose neither and refused to plead.
A conviction of witchcraft meant, in addition to the possibility of swinging, forfeiture of property. Giles wanted his property to go to his step-sons at his death. According to legend, Giles was a stubborn man.
Refusal to plead left you open to “peine forte et dure”, a particularly gruesome form of torture. A pit was dug adjacent to the jail, and Giles was led there, stripped naked and forced to lie in the pit. A wooden door was laid across his body. Then six strong men took heavy rocks and laid them upon the door. As time went on, more weight was added, with the desired effect that to avoid being crushed to death, the accused would enter a plea.
Giles refused, instead egging them on with cries of “more weight.” Which might have been less of a taunt, and more of an attempt to speed up the process, knowing full well that if he survived this he’d probably still end up on the gallows. For two days he held on, twice receiving bread and water to keep his strength up. For to fall asleep or pass out meant you would die quickly of asphyxiation. Eventually the weight was so unbearable that Giles’ tongue protruded from his mouth. The sheriff, finding the scene appalling, pushed the elderly man’s tongue back in with the tip of his cane.
According to legend, near the end, Giles erupted with “damn you sheriff! I curse you and Salem!” Finally, with a cry of “more weight,” Giles gave up and died without ever entering a plea. And his land went to Martha’s sons. Martha was hung a short time later on Gallow’s Hill.
The Salem dungeon was torn down to make room for a new jail in 1812, which today is being refurbished as condominiums. Part of the site is now where the New England Telephone building stands. Behind the city jail lies the Howard Street Burying Ground, which would have originally been just a field, and the location where Giles was believed to have been crushed to death.
According to Nathanial Hawthorne, a Salem resident for parts of his life, and who wrote somewhat extensively on the town, “at stated period, the ghost of Giles Corey the wizard appeared on the spot where he suffered, as the precursor of some calamity that was impending over the community, which the wizard came to announce.” One would assume, after his treatment in Salem, announce rather gleefully. The ghost was spotted in 1914 shortly before the great fire of Salem, which started on Gallow’s Hill and destroyed a third of the city.
It has been said that Giles’ curse toward the sheriff has been effected as well. Some have waken to a strange presence in their bedroom, with a suffocating weight on their chest. An unusually high number have died from heart attacks or been taken from office due to heart problems.
It’s long been thought that the Howard Street Burying Ground is haunted, as well as the new city jail. According to Doug Antreassian, founded of Mass. Hysteria, who offers haunted hearse tours of Salem, “There have been innumerable sightings of ghosts in the old jail, many of them ongoing … Several individuals have seen lights in the abandoned building. Unearthly screams are sometimes heard from within the actual granite walls.”
In any place of justice that old, the possibilities of spirits must be very strong. The history of law enforcement, and jail conditions in the 19th century were particularly brutal. And who knows what spirit or spirits it is that walks among the ancient tombstones there. Perhaps it’s Giles, still smarting from the brutality and horror of a death, so primitive it’s hard to imagine.
Howard Street is narrow, lined with 19th century homes, and the darkness seeps out from the burial ground, giving a chilling atmosphere. I stood there for some time, thinking of Giles, thinking of all the unfortunates who once lay in chains in the dungeon which stood just beyond. I saw nothing but darkness and the silhouettes of tombstones. No spirits, no screams wafting in the winter night. But though Salem is bright and lively, this neighborhood still feels somber, and somewhat discarded and lost. Perhaps the curse of the man whom Salem could not break is working still.
Gothic Travel Rating: Like most graveyards, Salem’s Howard Street Burying Ground is more intense at night. Interesting in the daylight certainly, but like many urban burying grounds, it’s too noisy, particularly as it is located at the conflux of two of Salem’s major traffic arteries. Ah, but at night it’s a different story. Running the length across from the entrance is the old Salem jail, a sprawling complex reputed to be quite haunted itself. Of course, you’re not allowed inside the graveyard in the evening, but even from the fence it’s a startling site. Visit after the town has quieted down, ponder the fate of poor Mr. Corey, watch for the lights flickering in the old jail, walk the perimeter and you’re at the location of the original jail, where the victim’s of the Salem witch hunt were interred, and spent their remaining days before setting off for the gallows. It takes some imagination, but for me it’s one of the best places in Salem to feel the torturous weight of the past.