• More Weight!|戴啟思
  • 2020-10-10    

 

“More Weight!”-Giles Corey, 1611-1692 (attrib.)



Nearly 350 years ago this week, on September 19, 1692, Giles Corey, a prosperous Massachusetts farmer, died as a consequence of a formal court order but was not executed. Nor did he take his own life to cheat the hangman. He most assuredly did not die of natural causes.



Giles Corey perished because he willed his death to avoid the consequences of a conviction after a criminal trial. He did not fear judicial execution, the penalty for the alleged crime, but he feared the results of a conviction for his family. A conviction would mean that all his property would be forfeited and his children denied their inheritance. He died a painful and slow death so that they could inherit.



Before dealing with how Giles Corey died, it is necessary to set the legal scene.



The law in seventeenth-century New England was English law. Offences tried with a jury were of two kinds. One was a ‘misdemeanour’. The punishment for this kind of crime was imprisonment or a fine, or both. The other was a ‘felony’. Unless a statute prescribed a different penalty, the punishment for felonies was death and the forfeiture to the Crown of all property held by the person convicted.



The trial process in those days required the accused to answer to the charges laid against him or her. A lawyer or other agent could not do this on their behalf.



If you were a young man with little or no property facing a capital charge, the only chance you had of avoiding being sentenced to death was to deny the charges and trust your luck with the members of the jury who might acquit you.



However, the law sometimes had family men with property in its sights. If you were such a kind of defendant, you had to think not only about your neck but the devastating consequences of a conviction on the family.



In many ways, Giles Corey did not have a difficult choice to make. He was not in the prime of life. Corey was 81 years old and had been widowed twice, and had married his third wife, Martha when 79 years old. Corey had five adult children from his first two wives, and they stood to inherit farmland he had acquired in the six decades he had lived in New England after leaving England in his twenties.



Corey must have thought the prospects of acquittal after trial were poor. He had come to the attention of the authorities when seeking to defend his wife against charges of witchcraft. For Corey and his wife lived in Salem which had been convulsed by fantastic allegations of black magic and consorting with the Devil brought by a handful of excited teenage girls who implicated a couple of hundred people.



When it came to Corey’s turn to stand trial, nineteen men and women had been tried, convicted and hanged for witchcraft offences. He must have believed that he had no chance and would die after being found guilty.



As noted above, the law in those days required an accused to answer to the charges. Nowadays, if an accused refuses to plead to the indictment, the court official enters on the record a ‘not guilty’ plea and the trial goes ahead.



In the seventeenth century, because there could be no trial without a plea, a stubborn prisoner who stood mute in the dock was ‘encouraged’ to change his or her mind by being required to undergo an ordeal-peine forte et dure-literally, ‘strong and hard punishment’.



The ‘strong and hard punishment’ meant that the prisoner was stripped of his or her clothes. They were then required to lie down on the floor. A wooden board or door was then placed on their upper body. Court officials then placed rocks or weights upon the board or door. After a time, they would ask the prisoner whether they would return to court and answer to the charges. If the prisoner refused, they would add more weights.



Corey’s torment lasted three days. When asked from time to time whether he would plead to the charges in court, he was supposed to have replied ‘More Weight’ or ‘More Rocks’. Eventually, Corey expired, but he died innocent of the charges against him and his children succeeded to his property.



Corey’s case is famous because he features in Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem Witchcraft trials, ‘The Crucible’.



That play, produced in 1953, is a thinly disguised attack on McCarthyism which was an organized witch hunt against American public figures for having supposed Communist sympathies or beliefs. Corey’s character represents the many victims of Senator McCarthy who refused to testify before Congress for conscience’ sake and who went to prison rather than submit to a degrading public examination about political beliefs which might have implicated family and friends.



Corey’s death is the only recorded instance of peine forte et dure in America. Historical legal records disclose that it was used from time to time in England between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.



One famous case, like occurred in 1586 when Margaret Clitherow, a thirty-year-old native of York, refused to plead to a charge of harbouring a Catholic priest. She submitted to peine forte et dure and died after only about fifteen minutes.



Her death may have been attributable to a token of kindness on the part of one of the men charged with carrying out the ordeal. He slipped a sharp rock under her spine, and the weights-some 900 pounds- had caused it to fracture her spine before they pressed the life out of her. Margaret Clitherow is a saint in the Holy Roman Catholic Church.



An Act of Parliament abolished the ordeal of judicial pressing to death in England in 1772. Although its origins lay in legislation passed in the thirteenth century, it was something of an anomaly. At about the time that it was introduced, England was strengthening the common law and steering away Continental civil law practices, which included the use of torture in the judicial process.



With some notable exceptions, the English common law prided itself on rejecting confessions produced by torturing persons accused of a crime so that even today the prosecution has to prove that a confession was made without compulsion if it is to be used in evidence.



It strikes the legal historian as strange that a court would inflict torture in the form of pressing with weights an obtuse prisoner but would reject a confession from the prisoner if it had been obtained by the same method. Law and logic do not always coincide.