A Brief History
On September 19, 1692, Giles Corey, age 81, became a footnote in the history of America by becoming the first and only man to be “pressed” to death during legal proceedings. Caught up in the infamous Salem Witch Trials, Corey and his wife, Martha, were accused of witchcraft when one of the other accused witches, Abigail Hobbs, named the old couple as warlock and witch.
As you may already know, witches convicted during the Salem Witch trials were put to death by hanging, as was Martha Corey, and not by burning as the popular myth holds. What you may not know is that under English Common Law a person that refused to plead guilty or not guilty could not be tried. Obviously, the court would not just throw in the towel at that point, and a procedure known as peine forte et dure was implemented, a form of torture continued until either the accused entered a plea or died.
Why would anyone subject themselves to torture? Mostly because a convicted person forfeited all his property and his heirs would receive nothing to inherit, as the government would seize the estate. By refusing to plead and dying under torture instead, the accused would protect his heirs.
The method of pressing used to implement this policy was to tie the naked prisoner down on the ground, laying on his or her back, placing a board on the person’s chest and abdomen and adding stones or iron weights, gradually increasing the weight, suffocating the victim slowly. This process was expected to take at least a day or two, giving the accused a full opportunity to experience tremendous discomfort and force a plea. Instructions for the process included giving the victim bread and water the first day, and just “foul” water after that.
Giles Corey, despite his great age endured the punishment for two days before he finally died, calling for “more weight” every time he was asked to plead. Corey’s character appears in the Arthur Miller play, The Crucible, as well as other stories about the Salem Witch Trials.
Pressing, or peine forte et dure, was finally abolished in Great Britain in 1772, and the last known case of it being used happened in 1741. At first, the law was changed for the court to take no plea as a “guilty” plea, but later it was changed to assume the accused was pleading “not guilty.”
As shocking as such barbaric activity employed by people of the Renaissance/Enlightenment era may seem to us, bear in mind that a considerable number of today’s Americans believe torture of prisoners is justified, and to some extent has been practiced by the US in the 21st Century.
Question for students (and subscribers): Do you believe torture is ever justified? Under what circumstances? Let us know what you think in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please watch:
Hytner, Nicholas, dir. Crucible, The. 20th Century Fox, 2011. DVD.
Salem Witch Trials (History Channel). Lionsgate, 2005. DVD.