It was one of the most agonizing ways to die, akin to being buried alive. In many places in the world, it was used for religious purposes and retribution. In others, it was used as the worst punishment possible for the worst of criminals.
According to Joel Stice at All That’s Interesting, the act of being walled to death was an incredibly cruel form of punishment, notably being described by Edgar Allen Poe in The Cask of Amontillado.
In the story, the narrator of the story chains an adversary to a brick wall and leaves the person to die, starve, and suffocate to death. According to Stice, the victim of an immurement would “writhe in agony until eventual starvation and dehydration led to death.”
Being walled to death is now known as immurement.
Immurement was only used as capital punishment and execution-only intended to be used for the worst of crimes but was also used for trivially religious purposes. Stice notes the use of immurement in the Roman Empire when priestesses bound to celibacy broke their vows. These priestesses were known as Vestals, and it was illegal to spill their blood under Roman law.
So, as to not spill their blood, Romans would lead Vestals who sinned into a vault with minimal food and water. Other religious figures bound to celibacy would also similar capital punishment if they broke with the Roman Catholic Church or broke their vow of celibacy. As for how the Vestals were punished, historian Sir William Smith described one Vestal immurement with the following language:
“He delivered her over to the common executioner and his assistants, who led her down, drew up the ladder, and having filled the pit with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, left her to perish deprived of all the tributes of respect usually paid to the spirits of the departed.”
In Latin, the word literally means to be walled from within. The act of immurement also took place in Persia. Author M.E. Hume Griffith, in the early 1900s, attested to someone being walled up alive, a “horrible method of inflicting capital punishment.” Griffith spoke of the immurement in brutal terms:
The victim would usually be put in a half-built pillar, and sometimes, if the executioner wanted to be nice, they would pour cement on the victim to make sure they died quickly. But if there was air coming through the bricks, the victim could be heard screaming for water for days at a time, and if they especially wanted the victim to suffer, the victim would go down headfirst.
The most notorious immurement
Perhaps the most notorious use of immurement was used on Moroccan serial killer, Haji Mohammed Mesfewi. The Times and Democrat, an obscure daily newspaper in South Carolina, reported in 1906 that Mesfewi killed 36 women and was caught by authorities. Originally, authorities planned on Mesfewi being crucified.
However, many foreign officials intervened, so under the Moroccan justice system, Mesfewi actually suffered more. The officials chose to go with immurement to give an appropriate punishment for the letter writer who drugged women and then beheaded them. He then used a dagger to kill the women, according to The Infographics Show on YouTube.
Despite the outcry from the international community, Meswefi was publicly flogged and whipped in the market, with each strike drawing blood. Mesfewi was an old man, so authorities had to go easy on the whipping on a given day. But people always poured vinegar and oil on the wound so he could be whipped the next day as well.
On the day of Mesfewi’s execution, thousands of people gathered. They came to watch him be walled up alive in the city of Marrakech. People planned on camping out and watching the execution for as long as Mesfewi was suffering.
He stayed in a hole six feet high, two feet wide, and two feet deep. As a skinny man, he only got a little air while he was in the hole. Chains kept him erect the entire time. Mesfewi hoped to die while he was being whipped, but being walled to death was even worse torture, with no food or water. He screamed to be killed while he suffered in the wall, while a crowd threw items and screamed at him.
Immurement was one of the most agonizing punishments possible, and it was meant to send a message. The deaths of the Vestals and Mesfewi were meant to inflict the most pain possible — the former I believe to be the product of unjust religious self-righteousness, and the latter meant to inflict pain on an objectively terrible serial killer who killed 36 women.
At the end of the day, we need to question whether any form of capital punishment is righteous. No one who advocates and sends a person to their death doesn’t believe they’re doing the right thing, but that sense of righteousness is dangerous because of the purposes it can be used for.
Being walled to death is absolutely terrifying. But perhaps the more terrifying fact is the schadenfreude of the human condition, where people watch and relish in the pain and death of another human being, no matter the action or sin.
Originally published on CrimeBeat on July 8, 2021.
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