The Ghosts of the Howard Street Cemetery

step back in time and experience the hauntings of this famous cemetery

If you’re up for a graveyard gallivant, you won’t want to miss Howard Street Cemetery. Already visiting? Keep a close eye out for an unmarked grave. Its inhabitant, one of five men executed during the Salem Witch Trials, is thought to haunt the hallowed ground. Stripped naked, strapped to a board, and pressed to death by stone, the sufferer’s last words were “more weight.” Was this a taunt at his executioner, or did he wish to expedite his death? It was September 19, 1672. The method of execution, the “peine forte et dure,” had never before been used in the colony of Massachusetts. It was unmistakably macabre: his tongue had been “prest out his mouth,” yet forced back by the Sheriff’s cane. Giles Corey, the accused, was 81 years-of-age.

Giles Corey

Accused of witchcraft by Marcy Lewis, Giles Corey was put to death by the press. Corey had refused trial, though what drove his defiance is unknown. Some suggest that Corey’s silence was an attempt to protect his property: a conviction meant a property forfeiture, so “standing mute” could salvage his estate. Even if Corey died, his son-in-laws could inherit his home. Yet Massachusetts allowed landowners to retain property rights despite their prosecution; his land was never subject to seizure. So why did Corey suffer the stone?

Farmer or Fiend? Giles Corey Before 1691

As an English-born American man, Giles Corey found fortune in the farmstead. Corey had settled south of Salem Village with his third wife, Martha Corey. They were churchgoers and extensive landowners, two advantages for Salem society.

Yet the image of Corey as the pious patriarch doesn’t match history. Corey had been brought to trial for the murder of Jacob Goodale in 1676. Goodale’s offense? Stolen apples. Goodale died of blood clots from the assault, yet Corey was exempt from the charge of murder. Jacob Goodale had been Corey’s farmhand, and corporal punishment was permitted against indentured servants. John Proctor testified against Corey in trial, but Corey was instead convicted for the use of “unreasonable” force. He was obliged to pay a fine but went otherwise unpunished.

There was more to Corey’s mayhem than murder, however. Twice accused and tried for theft, Corey had a criminal reputation. John Proctor even assumed that Corey had set fire to his house, though there are no records that indicate Corey had an appetite for arson.

Marriage to Martha

Corey’s later marriage to Martha re-established his reputation. By 1691, his past transgressions had been disregarded. Was Giles Corey a changed man? Salem Church thought so. They received Corey by the consent of the congregation, writing that “Giles Corey a man of 80 years of age having been a scandalous person in his former time, and God having in his later time awakened him unto repentance he stood propounded a month, making a confession of such evils as had been observed in him before.”

Trial and Execution

We will never know why Giles Corey chose the rock over the rope, but the rest is history: Corey had testified against Martha seven months before. Although he later withdrew his accusations, Martha went to trial for witchcraft. Yet Martha, unlike Corey, hadn’t carried a criminal reputation. Her prosecution rested on “spectral evidence” – proof provided in dreams or visions of the afflicted witness. There was no basis that Martha practiced black magic. Martha pleaded innocent but was hanged on September 22.

Giles Corey was accused of witchcraft on September 9, thirteen days before. Ann Putnam Jr., Mercy Lewis, and Abigail Williams testified that Corey, like Martha, appeared to them as a phantom; Mercy Lewis likewise claimed that Corey had shapeshifted into a specter in an attempt to force her to sign the Devil’s book. Both accused Corey of assault. Lewis went so far as to say Corey had “continued most dreadfully to hurt [her] by times beating [her] and almost breaking [her] back,” adding that he was a “dreadful wizard.” Abigail Hobbs later named Corey as a witch during her own prosecutions, confessing that she, too, practiced witchcraft.

Corey’s conviction had been strengthened by the “stricken.” “Seized with fits,” or “troubled with pinches,” the “Afflicted Girls” of Salem Village made sure that Corey suffered the stone. Corey? Well, he stood silent.

Protest, Punishment, and the “Peine Forte et Dure”

Corey’s silence came at a price: English law ordered that those who “stood mute” during trial plead or be punished. The penalty? The “peine forte et dure.” French for “strong and harsh punishment,” the “peine forte et dure” required that the victim be pressed until they entered a plea into the prosecution. The victim’s bare chest would be bound with a board, then burdened by rock or stone. If they refused to plead, they would be crushed until death. Corey wouldn’t budge, and instead sneered at the Sheriff, asking that he add “more weight.” The Sheriff obliged; Corey was pressed until he perished. Giles and Martha Corey were the only couple put to death in the 1692 persecutions. As ordered by Judge Jonathan Corwin, Corey was buried in an unmarked grave.

The Excommunication of Giles Corey

Corey was excommunicated the day before his death. If not for witchcraft, then for suicide: Salem Church decided that the “peine forte et dure” was a form of self-slaughter. Why not plead? It couldn’t save his body, but it could save his soul.

Phantom Pains

Did Corey’s murder of Goodale provoke his 1692 proceedings? Ann Putnam Jr. had referenced Corey’s crimes in her testimony, claiming that a man in a “winding sheet” had “told her that Giles Cory had murdered him, by pressing him to death with his feet.” The phantom even demanded, “It must be done to him as he has done to me.” Ann added that Corey had avoided the earlier conviction by making a pact with the Devil: “The Devil there appeared unto him, and covenanted with him, and promised him, He should not be hanged.” Was this a prediction of Corey’s persecution? Was the pressing penance for the death of Jacob Goodale?

The Curse of Corey

Some say that Giles Corey cursed Salem Village during his execution. Corey allegedly shouted towards Salem’s Sheriff, “Damn You! I curse you and Salem!” The Sheriffs of Salem have since died or resigned for cardiac complications. Local legend attributed the Great Salem Fire of 1914 to Corey’s curse, as well as the early retirement of Sheriff Robert Cahill. Cahill had been afflicted with a myriad of maladies, though his doctor was unable to determine their cause.

Others say that you can still see Corey’s apparition appear to the skeptics and unsuspecting. Does Corey seek retribution – or revenge?

Aftermath and Martyrdom

The execution of Giles Corey is now thought to be a turning-point in Salem’s Witch Trials. The brutality that Corey bore was unprecedented in Salem village. His “pressing” may have forced Salem townsfolk to rethink the 1692 “Witch Hysteria.” The publicity of his prosecution likewise scandalized Salem.

Corey is now considered a martyr for his protest of the “Peine Forte et Dure.” Corey’s “contempt of court” came at the cost of his life. Although his intentions are unknown, his firmness and fortitude demand remembrance. Corey’s ex-communication was rescinded in 1712, though Salem had restored his civil rights the year before. Salem Church conceded that whereas, on Sept. 18, 1692, it was considered by church, that our brother Giles Corey, accused of and indicted for the sin of witchcraft, and that he obstinately refused to plead, and so threw himself on certain dearth. It was agreed by the vote of the church that he should be excommunicated for it; and accordingly, he was excommunicated. Yet the church, having now testimony in his behalf, that, before his death, he did bitterly repent of his obstinate refusal to plead in defence of his life, do consent that the sentence of his excommunication be erased and blotted out.

Corey’s name had been cleared of conviction, washed of witchcraft. Corey, though dead, was canonized.

Arthur Crucible later commemorated Corey in The Crucible. Longfellow, too, memorialized Corey’s courage, capturing the candor of Salem’s tragic tale:

I will not plead
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.

Graveyard Ghosts

As Salem’s fourth oldest burying ground, Howard Street Cemetery is home to 1,100 headstones. The two-and-half-acre graveyard was once reserved for “strangers,” though later entombed ship captains, servicemen, and Salem socialites. Captain William Browne, commander of the Crowninshield's Brutus, was interred in Howard Street Cemetery; Browne had suffered a shipwreck off Cape Cod, yet was returned to Salem. Marine painter George Ropes was also interred in Howard Street Cemetery.

Do their shadows consort with Salem’s saints and sinners? Does Giles Corey keep company with other spirits of the dead?

Visiting the Howard Street Cemetery

If your curiosity has been caught, check out Howard Street Cemetery! Located at 29 Howard Street, the cemetery is open from dawn until dusk. If you’re looking for Giles Corey, though, you’ll only find his phantom. Be sure to check out the Salem Witch Trials Memorial for Corey’s monument, though!

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