22 October 2012

Executed: Immurement

by Heather Domin

Ah, October, my favorite month. I figure if you're gonna go creepy, might as well go as creepy as possible, right? So today we're taking a look at a particularly chilling form of historical execution: immurement, in which the condemned person was built up inside a room, cave, wall, or some other small area, and left to die. Unlike live burial, where the victim suffocates quickly, immurement doomed its sufferers to a long, slow,  painful death from starvation and dehydration. Good times!

Immurement was used as capital punishment by many societies including the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and others. In ancient Rome, Vestal Virgins who broke their vow of chastity were immured in caves or catacombs as punishment for their lustful ways. In the early days of Christianity several saints were said to have been martyred via immurement, including St. Oran of Iona, who was entombed not once, but twice! (Apparently he was only mostly dead.)

The Julio-Claudians were alarmingly fond of this method of execution. According to the historian Cassius Dio, Antonia Minor, widow of Drusus the Elder, locked her adulterous daughter Livilla in a room until she starved to death as punishment for conspiring to murder her uncle Tiberius. The family of Livilla’s brother Germanicus fared even worse: his widow Agrippina the Elder, daughter Julia Livia, and son Drusus Caesar were all executed, likely by immurement in prison, at the hands of Tiberius. (Moral of the story: don’t get on Tiberius’ bad side.)

Patricia Quinn as the doomed Livilla in I, Claudius

The two most famous cases of immurement happened a few centuries later. When Richard II of England was deposed in 1399, he was held prisoner in Pontefract Castle until his death only a few months later; rumors soon circulated that he’d been shut up in a room and starved to death so his body would show no marks of violence. (One wonders how an emaciated corpse would attract no suspicion.) In 1610 Elizabeth Báthory, the infamous serial killer known as "The Blood Countess", was sentenced for her crimes to a form of prolonged immurement, walled inside the tower of her castle with only a tiny slot left open for food and water. She survived for four years before succumbing to her fate.

Pontefract Castle, where Richard II met his untimely end
Immurement as a form of human sacrifice appears in the folklore of many cultures. Hungarian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Russian, German, Finnish, and Greek legends give accounts of women and children entombed within the walls of bridges and castles as offerings for successful construction; similar "foundation sacrifices" occur in Hebrew, British, and Scandinavian legends, though these victims may have been killed prior to burial. (Either way, I don't recommend looking up "foundation sacrifice" if you intend to get any sleep tonight.)

Elizabeth Bathory, the "Blood Countess"
The terrifying nature of immurement has also made it popular in fiction. In the ancient Greek play Antigone, the title character is sentenced to immurement for defying her uncle the king, though she hangs herself rather than face slow starvation. Immurement is the murder weapon of choice in Oscar Wilde's The Canterville Ghost, and Edgar Allan Poe used it several times, most famously in The Cask of Amontillado. In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, the villain Injun Joe meets his demise via accidental immurement in a cave. In the Gothic soap opera Dark Shadows several characters suffer immurement, including Barnabas Collins, who is sealed up in the family tomb as an eternal punishment since, being a vampire, he cannot die. Harsh.

Compared to other historical methods of execution, immurement falls pretty low on the scale of spectacle and gore; nobody's going to bring a picnic lunch to watch someone get bricked up in a wall. The torture of immurement was inflicted not by weapons, but by time. This was a form of death for people society wanted to forget. So the next time you visit a medieval castle or walk over an ancient bridge, step lightly – you never know what (or who) you might be walking on. Sweet dreams everyone!

Heather Domin is the author of The Soldier of Raetia, set in Augustan Rome; and Allegiance, set in 1922 Dublin. She is currently preparing for self-immurement to participate in this year's NaNoWriMo, where her only sustenance will be caffeine, Oreos, and pictures of Tom Hiddleston.