Monday, September 19, 1692. About noon, at Salem, Giles Corey was press’d to death for standing mute; much pains was used with him two days, one after another, by the Court and Capt. Gardner of Nantucket, who had been of his acquaintance: but all in vain.
–Diary of Salem witch trials judge Samuel Sewall
Pressing to death — peine forte et dure — was a brutal procedure that wasn’t technically a method of execution: courts used it to extract a plea from a defendant, since the law of the time (altered in the 18th century) would not allow criminal proceedings to get underway without one.
Procedure: stake a fellow down and start piling crushing weight on his chest for hours or days until he agrees to enter a plea and start the trial.
For the sufficiently obstinate prisoner, it was a manner of exiting the world quite a bit more unpleasant than hanging. But it came with one significant advantage: since one died without a capital conviction, one could pass on one’s property rather than having it confiscated by the state. For Giles Corey, that was worth two days of agony.
PROCTOR: And Giles?
ELIZABETH: You have not heard of it?
PROCTOR:* I hear nothin’, where I am kept.
ELIZABETH: Giles is dead.
(He looks at her incredulously.)
PROCTOR: When were he hanged?
ELIZABETH (quietly, factually): He were not hanged. He would not answer aye or nay to his indictment; for if he denied the charge they’d hang him surely, and auction out his property. So he stand mute, and died Christian under the law. And so his sons will have his farm. It is the law, for he could not be condemned a wizard without he answer the indictment, aye or nay.
PROCTOR: Then how does he die?
ELIZABETH (gently): They press him, John.
ELIZABETH: Great stones they lay upon his chest until he please aye or nay. (With a tender smile for the old man.) They say he give them but two words. ‘More weight,’ he says. And died.
PROCTOR (numbed — a thread to weave into his agony): ‘More weight’.
ELIZABETH: Aye. It were a fearsome man, Giles Corey.
Hard core, that Giles Corey.
Giles Cory pleaded not guilty to his indictment, but would not put himself on Tryal by the Jury (they having cleared none upon tryal) and knowing there would be the same witnesses against him, rather chose to undergo what death they would put him to. In pressing his tongue being forced out of his mouth, the Sheriff with his Cane forced it in again, when he was dying. He was the first in New England that was ever prest to death. (Source)
* Arthur Miller availed himself some dramatic license in The Crucible; among the more trifling was that the historical John Proctor was actually hanged a month before Giles Corey’s death.