Historical Immurement: People Who Were Bricked Up Or Buried Alive

September 17, 2022 People's Tonight 16417 views

Cheryl Adams Richkoff

Immurement Did Not Necessarily Mean Death – Unless They Forgot About Leaving You There
Photo: Antoine Wiertz / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Coffin1Many cases involving immurement were doled out to intentionally serve as very slow death penalties. However, immurement could also be a temporary condition which was used in one of two ways: as a form of punishment or by choice for a given length of time. The medieval Christian church used temporary immurement as a method to punish sinners, particularly those who committed sins of the flesh. Such individuals were locked away deep in a monastery or bricked up inside of rooms with a tiny opening for food and water for months or even years.

Centuries later, this type of immurement was still being used, but as a form of punishment. A good example comes from the unfortunate end of James Hepburn, third husband of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was accused of treason. After fleeing Scotland, he was apprehended in Denmark where he was imprisoned beneath Dragsholm Castle. He was put in a hole that was not large enough for him to stand in and subsisted off of food scraps in total darkness.

Danish authorities more or less forgot about Hepburn, and he remained in his hole for five years. When he was finally found, he acted like a feral animal. Hepburn did not use language, but instead only grunted and paced back and forth. He died shortly after.

Some cases of immurement had willing participants. Christian monks and nuns participated in immurement as a spiritual experience. They would choose the method, location, and length of time involved.

The Perfect Punishment For Lustful Vestal Virgins
Photo: Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

AncientAncient Roman religion was taken seriously by its leaders, practitioners, and even the secular government. As with most societies, there was also an ongoing concern over the chastity of women and how a woman’s natural lust was overwhelming and thus, had to be controlled. Vestal Virgins, or female temple priestesses of the goddess Vesta, were held to a particularly high standard of conduct. All took a solemn vow of chastity.

However, the priestesses were human and sometimes faltered. This was not a problem unless their lustful activities were discovered. On such occasions, a guilty priestess received capital punishment. This most often took the form of permanent immurement.

The Vestal Virgin would be stripped, beaten, dressed in the clothing of a corpse, and then placed in a catacomb or cave. Typically, she would be locked or bricked away with a small supply of food, water,

Holy Women Liked Being Bricked Up With Little Boys Or Girls
Photo: Vinzenz Katzler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ancient1These immurements were pitched as a type of religious ritual, but they were more a case of “misery loves company.” An adult holy woman, such as Julian of Norwich, would sometimes request to be bricked in for a time (decades were not unusual) with a young child under the age of 10. Such children could be orphans, but often were “gifts” from their parents to the Church. The idea was that the child would serve as a symbol of innocence and purity as well as a companion to the willingly immured.

The nun and her “companion” would receive food through a small slit in the bricked up wall, but they would never, ever go outside the enclosed chamber.

Clerics Who Molested Boys Were Starved To Death In A Suspended Coffin
Photo: Johann Amos Comenius / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ancient2In 1409, four Christian clerics in Augsburg, Bavaria, were found guilty of pederasty, or sexual conduct with young boys. Pederasty was not only considered immoral but also illegal.

The church in Augsburg locked the guilty men into wooden coffins, suspended them with ropes from high inside a tower, and left them to starve. They were then buried under the gallows.

Bodies Trapped In A Wall For Entertainment Purposes

Jazzar Pasha was a notorious 18th-century governor of Lebanon and Palestine. He was known for committing unspeakable cruelties to anyone who angered him.

At some point during his rule, he decided to build a new wall around the city of Beirut. And not just any wall – he wanted a structure that was strong, decorative, and entertaining. To that end, he captured a great many Greek Christians and had them essentially built into the wall.

King Richard II Of England Was Bricked Up
Photo: Anonymous / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ancient3King Richard II of England ruled during the age in which Geoffrey Chaucer wrote his famous Canterbury Tales. It was a time of chivalry and Richard’s court was considered one of beauty and fashion. He was so interested in beauty, art, and culture that he lost track of political situations in his country.

Richard was deposed by a powerful rival. Having lost his crown, he was sent off to a castle where he presumably starved to death. Apparently, his murderers felt immurement was the best method to rid themselves of the former king since starvation would not show any marks or damage to the body.

Slaves And Family Members Were Sacrificially Immured
Photo: Hajor / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Ancient4The burial of a great Mongol Khan included the ritual killings of more than 100 members of his family, followed by his interment and the immurement of several favorite slaves.

He kindly remembered to request that the enslaved people be buried with several vessels of drink.

People Were Immured Into Building Foundations As A Good Luck Charm

When you’ve created something you’re proud of, you want to make sure it has the good luck to last forever. Such was the thinking of those who immured people – including children – in the foundations of a building. Especially under the cornerstone. It was a good luck charm sort of thing.

There was a Serbian tradition where a building project may not progress until the wife of one of the owners of the new building was immured into the foundation. The Magyars tell a similar tale of the building of the city of Deva, in which the compassion of the landowning spirit was derived by sacrificing the wife of one of the men who built the structure.

Writers Have Used Fictional Immurement To Enhance Stories
Photo: Byam Shaw / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Ancient5It’s well known that the human mind and creativity are boundless, so it’s no surprise that writers have used fictional examples of immurement to make their stories more exciting and frightening. The Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles is one of the first to use immurement in fiction. His heroine, Antigone, and her lover are imprisoned in a cave with the opening bricked shut. They eventually killed themselves, so their immurement was tragic but brief.

Dante certainly could not resist using immurement in his Divine Comedy. In Inferno’s ninth circle, the father of the Italian language has one of his greatest enemies and his two sons immured in a tower. British Romantic author Walter Scott delights in the immurement of an unchaste nun in his poem, “Marmion.” He writes, “And now the blind old abbot rose, To speak the chapter’s doom. On those the wall was to enclose, Alive, within the tomb.”

Edgar Allan Poe relies on immurement several times in his work, including the immurement of a protagonist’s enemy beneath the floor of a palazzo. In Poe’s “The Black Cat,” the narrator’s pet cat accidentally suffers immurement but is discovered and rescued. The cat’s rescue leads to the discovery of the body of the narrator’s wife since the cat was walled in with it after the murder.

Infants Were Abandoned And Immured

In some cases, immurement was the cause of death for infants. Bricking up or enclosing a wall or entrance wasn’t even necessary since little babies are unable to attempt escape. But why would anyone immure a newborn? Some answers include: poverty, fear, and shame.

Very poor families could not afford another mouth to feed, so infants were left wherever they would not be found. In ancient Rome, for example, it was not terribly frowned upon to kill babies as a form of birth control, since they were not considered to be completely human. Other infants might be killed because their mothers – sex workers or victims of rape – were ashamed of them.

Whatever the reason, babies were abandoned in catacombs, cloisters, cisterns, and cells. They were left to die, their only crime: existence.

Young Maidens Were Lowered Into Cisterns As A Human Sacrifice
Photo: Diego Delso / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

Ancient6The Festival of the Sun is the most important religious celebration in Ancient Inca culture. It was a major event during ancient times that lasted for nine days and was filled with colorful dances and processions as well as animal sacrifices to thank the gods for a good harvest. Music was played and the people shared food.

Following the arrival of the Catholic Spaniards in the 16th century, the festival was banned for many years. While the Spaniards were determined to convert the Inca people to Catholicism by whatever means necessary, perhaps one of their reasons for banning the festival was the tradition of human sacrifice by immurement. After performing certain ceremonial duties, a number of young maidens, around 12 years of age, were lowered into a waterless cistern and sealed within it.

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