A Long, Rich History
If you know anything of the case of serial killer Elizabeth Bathory, The Blood Countess of 1610, who believed the blood of local virgins would keep her young forever, you already know about Immurement, or the practice of sealing an individual up in a wall or other confined space for a prolonged period of time. Bathory was sealed inside a tower in her castle and left with only a tiny opening for food. Likely very flat food. Bathory lasted four years in her prison, but some sentenced to immurement lasted far longer. Some didn’t last long at all.
Immurement can also be found in literature. Edgar Allan Poe used immurement as a form of punishment several times, but most famously in The Cask of Amontillado. Villain Injun Joe meets an accidental and untimely end in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he is immured in a cave. Oscar Wilde wielded immurement like a club in The Canterville Ghost and several characters in the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows, specifically Barnabas Collins (Collins is a vampire and cannot die so his punishment is eternal), suffer immurement.
Cultural folklore is rife with tales of people being bricked up inside bridges and behind the walls of ancient castles. It was popular to offer a “foundation sacrifice” to ensure the longevity of the structure and to bring good luck to those who would reside within it. In particular, Greek, British, Scandinavian, German, and many other cultures participated in the practice. If it’s any consolation, the sacrifices were likely put to death prior to being immured, though we can’t be sure.
Misery Loves Company
Immurement sounds like cruel and unusual punishment, but there were actually people who elected to be immured, particularly the devout of several religions including monks, nuns, and priests. In some cases, these devout souls would be bricked up along with a small child, a symbol of innocence and purity. It was not uncommon for nuns to be bricked up for a decade or more with a child companion, generally an orphan but sometimes willingly given by their parents, who was a “gift” to the Catholic church. Both individuals would receive food through a small slot and would never emerge from the chamber. There are no records of a child surviving immurement.
In the 4th century A.D., a nun named Alexandria was immured for ten years. Saint Jerome wrote of one devout follower who spent his entire life living in a cistern and surviving on only five figs a day.
As much as immurement could be used as a faith strengthening practice, it was also used in the religious community as a punishment. Priests who were found to have committed pederasty were sealed in a coffin and suspended inside a tower until they starved. in 1409, four clerics in Bavaria were subjected to this form of immurement as church officials felt the usual punishment, immolation, was too merciful.
In the 18th century, the governor of Lebanon, Jazzar Pasha, decided to build a wall, something both decorative and entertaining, around the city of Beirut. Pasha, known to be a cruel and vengeful man, captured a large number of Greek Christians and ordered that they be built into the structure. Their heads protruded from one side, allowing Pasha to watch as they suffered and starved to death.
In 1906, a cobbler from Marrakesh was convicted of murdering 36 women and walled up for his crimes. His screams were heard for two days after his immurement. On the third day, he fell silent.
According to Henry Charles Lea, an American historian, civic reformer, and political activist, “The cruelty of the monastic system of imprisonment known as in pace, or vade in pacem, was such that those subjected to it speedily died in all the agonies of despair. In 1350 the Archbishop of Toulouse appealed to King John to interfere for its mitigation, and he issued an Ordinance that the superior of the convent should twice a month visit and console the prisoner, who, moreover, should have the right twice a month to ask for the company of one of the monks. Even this slender innovation provoked the bitterest resistance of the Dominicans and Franciscans, who appealed to Pope Clement VI., but in vain.”
Sir Walter Scott, a Scottish historical novelist, playwright and poet, notes in a remark to his poem Marmion (1808): “It is well known, that the religious, who broke their vows of chastity, were subjected to the same penalty as the Roman Vestals in a similar case. A small niche, sufficient to enclose their bodies, was made in the massive wall of the convent ; a slender pittance of food and water was deposited in it and the awful words Vade in pace, were the signal for immuring the criminal. It is not likely that, in latter times, this punishment was often resorted to; but, among the ruins of the abbey of Coldingham were some years ago discovered the remains of a female skeleton which, from the shape of the niche, and the position of the figure seemed to be that of an immured nun.”
In Ancient Egypt, it was often the practice to entomb a deceased King or Queen along with those who served them in life and any pets they wanted to bring with them into the afterlife. In some cases, the living sacrifices were drugged prior to being immured with their master. In the 14th century, a mongol khan was immured with his servants, wives, and “several vessels of drink.” In others, as was the case of the widows of a great chief in Africa, legs would be broken prior to being immured.
In an effort to ensure a fruitful harvest, during The Festival of the Sun, the Ancient Incas would sacrifice animals and hold celebrations lasting nine days in an effort to thank the gods for providing their bounty. When Christian Spaniards arrived in the 16th century, they attempted to convert the Incas to Catholicism. This was likely due in part to the custom of immuring young women (aged 12 or younger) inside a water-less cistern as a form of sacrifice to the gods.
Why would anyone immure a newborn, you ask? Cases of child immurement were often due to an inability to provide for the infant or in order to hide the shame a child might bring to their parents. Often, these children were the offspring of nuns who had become lustful or who had been raped by monks or priests. Children might also be immured if they came from poverty stricken families. In most cases, the children were left in abandoned places and not actually entombed as they were unable to attempt escape.
Immurement On Television
You’ve likely seen the episode of The Simpsons (Last Exit to Springfield) where Mr. Burns relates the story of a worker in his grandfather’s power plant is found with atoms in his pockets. As he is dragged away, Burns discusses labor unions and Japan’s economical and industrial prominence. He then remarks “If only we’d listened to that young man instead of walling him up in the abandoned coke oven.”
On the HBO TV series OZ, a preacher (Luke Perry) is walled up by some inmates. He is later found by prison officials.
In a 1984 episode of Thomas the Tank Engine, Percy is immured in a tunnel for refusing to leave during a rain storm. I think it had something to do with being afraid he’d ruin his paint job. You’ll have to trust me on that one.
On the HBO TV series Game of Thrones, Doreah and Xaro Xhoan Daxos are sealed in an empty vault in Daxos’ villa, after betraying Daenerys and attempting to steal her dragons.
Here’s the Rub…
There was definitely a trick to surviving this particular method of torture. Obviously, rationing what little food and water you were given and finding something to keep yourself from going batty were givens, but your fate really relied on your keeper and whether or not the people on the outside would continue to care for you. If they forgot about you completely, you were doomed to spend the remainder of your short life entombed with only the spiders and cobwebs to keep you company. Unless you were a nun who was immured with a kid. Then the two of you could play Parcheesi or whatever until the food and water ran out.
What do you think about the practice of immurement? Did it have practical applications? Was it just a way to punish and murder people? Chat us up in the comments below. =)
Until next time!
Your Fellow Haunt Head,
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