“I resumed the trowel, and finished without interruption the fifth, the sixth, and the seventh tier. The wall was now nearly upon a level with my breast. I again paused, and holding the flambeaux over the mason-work, threw a few feeble rays upon the figure within.”
In 1846, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Cask of Amontillado” delivered to readers a chilling tale of truly sadistic murder. Poe’s piece tells the story of a man recounting to a friend how he had his revenge on a former acquaintance by luring him into the catacombs with the promise of a highly prized cask of wine. The story’s narrator then describes how he chained his enemy to the wall and proceeded to seal him into his tomb with brick and mortar, leaving him to die a miserable death within.
The means of murder that Poe’s narrator described is known as immurement, a terribly cruel form of punishment in which the victim is essentially buried alive and left to suffocate or writhe in agony until eventual starvation and dehydration lead to death.
The cruel practice typically has been carried out by locking the unfortunate soul in some sort of coffin-like box or in other cases, sealing them into a wall or other structure of some kind.
The history of immurement is without question, a black spot on the timeline of humanity and dates back centuries with examples of the practice being found on almost every continent.
Immurement was typically used as a form of capital punishment, in which the accused was found guilty of some crime and a slow death was the justice handed down. The second use of immurement, while just as horrid and cruel yet perhaps even more disturbing, was in human sacrifice, usually to bring good fortune to those doing the sacrificing.
Otherwise, one of the earliest uses of immurement dates back to the Roman Empire, when it was used as punishment for a class of priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins. The Vestals were girls from respected Roman families and considered to be free of mental and physical defects. They had taken a strict vow of celibacy and committed themselves to tending to a sacred fire honoring Vesta, the goddess of home and family.
If a Vestal Virgin broke her vow of celibacy, she was to be punished with death and buried in the city. Spilling the blood of a Vestal was forbidden though and under Roman law, no person was to be buried within the city, which meant that the Romans had to get creative.
After being condemned by the college of pontifices, a Vestal’s executioners would prepare for her a very small vault in the ground, usually containing a couch and small amount of food and water. The Vestal would be led into the vault where she would be left to die.
Punishment of a similar manner was also handed down in the Middle Ages by the Roman Catholic Church to nuns or monks who had broken a vow of chastity or expressed heretical ideas.
Unlike the Virgin Vestals, these shamed nuns and monks were to be sealed in a tomb not to die within mere days, but instead to live out a slightly longer life of complete isolation. Known as “vade in pacem” or “go into peace,” the punished would go without any sort of contact or sight to the outside world, having only food dropped through a small opening.