Immurement, also known as immuration or living entombment, is a type of confinement in which a person is kept in an enclosed space with no exits, generally until death.
The term “immurement” comes from the Latin im-, “in,” and murus, “wall,” and translates to “walling in.” This covers situations where individuals have been confined in a small space, such as within a coffin.
The prisoner is left to starve or become dehydrated when employed as a method of execution. This method of execution differs from being buried alive when the victim usually passes away from asphyxiation.
Important instances of immurement as a recognized method of execution (with the intended goal of death from thirst or hunger) are documented. When found guilty of violating their chastity vows, Vestal Virgins in the Roman Empire faced entombment as punishment.
Even into the early 20th century, immurement was a well-established punishment for robbery in Persia. Evidence shows that a form of coffin-style incarceration was practiced in Mongolia as well.
However, singular acts of immurement, as opposed to components of ongoing traditions, have also been reported from many other regions of the world, and some of these noteworthy events are included.
Immurement is also documented as a component of the massacre during war or revolution. As a form of human sacrifice, entombing living people has reportedly also taken place, for instance, as part of elaborate funeral rites in various societies.
Immurement is a common theme in mythology and folklore. Immurement is a common form of capital punishment in folklore. Still, it has numerous stories associated with it when it was used as a form of human sacrifice to strengthen structures.
Skeletal remains have occasionally been discovered behind walls. In secret spaces and numerous occasions, it has been claimed that these bones are proof of such sacrificial rituals or punishments.
Cases of Immurement in History
Immurement has been used throughout human history and has been the subject of various folklore and legends. The history of immurement is also long and bloody, and various continents have their own fair share of violent acts of immurement.
Cases of Immurement in Europe
Legend has it that a young woman was unjustly walled up alive into the Olavinlinna castle wall as a penalty for treason. A ballad was inspired by the rowan tree that grew beside her execution site, whose blossoms were as white as her innocence, and its berries were as scarlet as her blood.
Haapsalu, Kuressaare, Plva, and Visby all have corresponding legends.
As many as three persons may have been imprisoned in tunnels beneath the Grobia Castle, according to Latvian folklore. The castle’s resident daughter of a knight disagreed with her father’s choice of a young nobleman as her future husband. The daughter took a liking to one of the inmates, a lovely young man, and helped him escape. This knight also pillaged the neighborhood and took prisoners to dwell in the tunnels.
She was not as fortunate as she thought because the knight and his prospective son-in-law imprisoned her in one of the tunnels as a punishment. Another nobleman’s daughter is claimed to have been detained in one of the tunnels with a Swedish soldier after she fell in love with him and asked her father to approve their engagement.
Another legend claims that a maid and a servant were imprisoned after an unsuccessful attempt to spy on Germans to learn about their plans for what is now Latvia.
Thucydides discusses the uprising that started in Corfu in 427 BC in great detail in book 3 of his History of the Peloponnesian War. The fifth verse of Book 3, Chapter 81, is as follows:
Death raged in every form, and as is customary in such situations, there was no length to which violence did not reach. Fathers slaughtered their sons, supplicants were dragged from the altar or killed there, and some were locked up in the Dionysus temple and perished there.
In ancient Rome, a class of priestesses known as the Vestal Virgins lived under a rigorous vow of virginity and celibacy. Their primary responsibility was to keep the sacred fire devoted to Vesta, the goddess of the home and the family. If the priestess violated the chaste vow, she was imprisoned alive as follows:
When she was found guilty by the college of pontifices, she was stripped of her vittae and other official symbols, scourged, dressed as a corpse, placed in a closed litter, and carried through the forum with all the rituals of a proper burial to a hill known as the Campus Sceleratus.
This was close to the gate within the city walls. A couch, a lamp, and a table with some food had been previously set up in a small underground vault. The pontifex Maximus opened the litter, led the offender out, and deposited her on the ladder’s steps to the underground cell after lifting his hands to the heavens and saying a silent prayer.
He handed her over to the common executioner and his helpers, who guided her into the pit, drew up the ladder, filled it with earth until the surface was level with the surrounding ground, and then abandoned her to die without receiving any of the respects typically given to the spirits of the deceased.
Only a handful of immurements during the roughly 1,000-year existence of the Vestal Virgins orders are documented in the sources still in existence.
From AD 475 to AD 476, Flavius Basiliscus reigned as emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire. He and his family were detained in a tower or a dry cistern in Cappadocia throughout the winter, where they perished.
According to the historian Procopius, they perished from exposure to the cold and hunger, whereas other sources, like Priscus, only mention death from malnutrition.
Poppo of Treffen, the patriarch of Aquileia (r. 1019–1045), was a powerful secular ruler who deposed Grado in 1044.
Domenico I Contarini, the recently elected Doge of Venice, is said to have kidnapped him, allowed him to be buried up to his neck, and left guards to keep watch over him until he passed away.
The abbot Deocar and 20 monks were imprisoned in the refectory of the monastery of Rhadisch in 1149 by Duke Otto III of Olomouc of the Moravian Pemyslid dynasty, where they starved to death.
This was done because one monk fondled Queen Duranna while she spent the night there. Some claim that Otto III’s confiscation of the monastery’s wealth served as the immurement’s justification.
An immured skeleton, a table, a book, and a candlestick were discovered in the Thornton Abbey remains in Lincolnshire, hidden behind a wall. According to some, he was imprisoned for a crime he had done and is thought to be the fourteenth abbot.
Varied social status groups may have different punishments for men guilty of paederasty (homosexual relations with boys).
In Augsburg, two individuals were burned alive in 1409 and 1532 for their crimes, but four clergymen who had committed the same crime in 1409 received a very different punishment. They were starved to death after being placed inside a wooden box hung up in the Perlachturm rather than burned alive.
Guillaume Agassa, director of the Lestang Leper Asylum, was sentenced in 1322 to life imprisonment in shackles after admitting in an Inquisition Court to an alleged conspiracy involving lepers, the Jewry, the King of Granada, and the Sultan of Babylon.
Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed, a Hungarian countess, was imprisoned in a group of chambers in 1610 for the deaths of several girls—some estimates put the number of victims as high as several hundred—though the precise number is unknown. She is known as the “Blood Countess.”
She is frequently likened to Vlad III, the Impaler of Wallachia, in mythology due to her reputation as the most prolific female serial killer in history. She was allowed to remain imprisoned for four years until she passed away; nevertheless, she did not starve to death because her rooms were stocked with food.
The asceticism practiced by anchorites, who often permitted themselves to be immured and lived on very little food, is a particularly extreme form of abstinence within Christianity. For instance, a nun named Alexandra imprisoned herself in a tomb for ten years in the fourth century AD.
The tomb had a tiny opening that allowed her to receive inadequate sustenance. According to legend, one of Saint Jerome’s (c. 340–420) followers lived his entire life in a cistern and only ate five figs a day.
There was a form of forced seclusion in the Catholic monastic order for nuns or monks who had broken their vows of chastity or professed heretical beliefs. According to Henry Charles Lea, the tradition appears to have been one of total, utter seclusion from other people, but that food was provided:
In the case of Jeanne, widow of B. de la Tour, a nun from Lespenasse, who had engaged in acts of both Catharan and Waldensian heresy and had falsified her confession in 1246, the sentence was confinement in a separate cell within her convent, where no one was to enter or see her.
Where her food was pushed in through an opening left for the purpose—in fact, the living tomb known as the “in pace.”
Lea notes the following in the footnote that follows this passage:
The pace or vade in pace, the monastic system of imprisonment, was so brutal that those subjected to it quickly perished in all the anguish of hopelessness. In 1350, the Archbishop of Toulouse pleaded with King John to intervene to lessen the situation.
He issued an Ordonnance requiring the convent’s superior to visit and console the prisoner twice a month, granting him the right to request the companionship of a monk once a month. The Dominicans and Franciscans, who pleaded with Pope Clement VI, opposed even this slight reform.
Although the vade-in-pace tradition appears to be one of imprisonment where the person was intended to starve to death, it is not. Sir Walter Scott, an antiquarian himself, observes the following in a comment to his epic poem Marmion (1808):
It is commonly known that religious people who violated their chastity vows they suffered the same punishment as the Roman Vestals in a scenario comparable to their own.
In the thick wall of the convent, a little niche large enough to contain their bodies was cut; a meager ration of food and water was placed inside, and the horrifying words Vade in pace served as a signal to immure the offender.
It is unlikely that this punishment was frequently used in earlier times, but some time ago, remains of a female skeleton that appeared to be that of an imprisoned nun were found among Coldingham Abbey’s ruins. This was based on the niche’s design and the corpse’s location.
Francesca Medioli notes in her essay “Dimensions of the Cloister” that the tradition of imprisoning nuns or monks for chastity violations has a lengthy history:
In 1662, Sister Antonia Margherita Limera was tried in Lodi for having a man spend a few days in her cell and entertaining him; she was punished for being walled in alive and forced to survive on a diet of bread and water.
Sister Vincenza Intanti of the convent of San Salvatore in Ariano and the cleric Domenico Cagianella were both found guilty of sexual contact and enclosure breach in the same year.
Cases of Immurement in Asia
Some burials in the ancient Sumerian city of Ur (dating back to 2500 BC) depict the burial of companions beside the main deceased individual. According to Gerda Lerner’s description of one such tomb on page 60 of her book The Creation of Patriarchy:
A drinking cup was found next to each victim, indicating that the human sacrifices were likely first drugged or poisoned. The pit was subsequently sealed off and filled with soil.
One of the many reasons the Neo-Assyrian Empire is infamous for its violent repression methods is that some of its emperors boasted about the vengeance they exacted by detailing how they dealt with their opponents.
Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned from 883 to 859 BC, created the following memorial, which features immurement:
In front of the city’s main gate, I built a wall. I skinned the chiefs and flayed them before covering this wall. Some were impaled along the wall, while others were walled alive in the stonework. They were flayed in front of me, and I covered the wall with their skins. I gathered their heads, fashioned them into crowns, and pierced their carcasses into garlands. My body blossoms on the wreckage, and I find fulfillment in my gluttony of fury.
In his book Suicide, Émile Durkheim states the following about some Amida Buddha devotees:
The sectarians of Amida have imprisoned themselves in caverns with hardly enough room to sit down and where they can only breathe through an air vent. There, they silently permit themselves to starve to death.
According to a well-known tradition, Mughal Emperor Akbar ordered Anarkali to be imprisoned behind two walls at Lahore because she had a romance with crown prince Salim (later Emperor Jehangir) in the 16th century.
Around the location, a bazaar grew up and was given the name Anarkali Bazaar in her honor. In Persia, it was customary to shut up criminals and leave them to starve to death or succumb to dehydration.
Traveler M. E. Hume-Griffith visited Persia between 1900 and 1903, and she made the following observations in her journal:
Another depressing sight occasionally appearing in the desert is brick pillars in which one unfortunate victim has been walled up alive. The victim is placed into the half-completed pillar; if the executioner is kind, he will swiftly cement up to the face, and death occurs soon.
The pain is brutal, and the suffering is extended when a tiny bit of air is permitted to pass through the bricks. At the end of three days, those bricked up in this manner could be heard wailing and pleading for water.
As a gem trader who frequently visited Persia between 1630 and 1668, Jean-Baptiste Tavernier saw a practice that Hume-Griffith had described some 250 years before. According to Tavernier, immurement was primarily used as a form of punishment for thieves because it exposed the prisoner’s head.
He claimed many of these people would beg bystanders to cut off their heads as an alternative to the legally prohibited penalty. While exploring Persia in the 1670s, John Fryer wrote the following:
From this Plain to Lhor, on the Highways and the high Mountains, there were frequently Monuments of Thieves imprisoned for fear of others committing the same Offense.
They had a Stone-Doublet, but we say metaphorically that when anyone is in prison, He has it Stone Doublet on. For these are plastered up, all but their Heads, in a round Stone Tomb, which is left out, not out of kindness, but to expose them.
Several sons of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan engaged in succession conflicts in the late 1650s, with Aurangzeb emerging triumphant.
Shah Shujah, one of his half-brothers, caused him many problems, but Aurangzeb eventually overcame him, and Shah Shuja and his family turned to the King of Arakan for protection.
Francois Bernier writes that the King broke his refuge promise and that Shuja’s daughters were imprisoned and starved to death while his sons were beheaded.
The two youngest sons of Guru Gobind Singh Ji were sentenced to death by being bricked alive during the Mughal era in early 18th-century India because they refused to convert to Islam and give up their Sikh faith.
Along with his older brother, Zorawar Singh, Baba Fateh Singh ji was assassinated in this way in Sirhind on December 26, 1705.
The two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh were put to death at Gurdwara Fatehgarh Sahib, 5 km north of Sirhind, at the command of Wazir Khan of Kunjpura, the Governor of Sirhind.
Within this Gurdwara complex, three memorials commemorate the location where these tragic events occurred in 1705.
From 1775 to 1804, Jezzar Pasha, an Ottoman administrator of modern-day Lebanon and Palestine, was notorious for his brutality. He was in charge of, among other things, the following when building Beirut’s new walls:
… and this creature had added the honorific moniker Dgezar (Butcher) to his name. It was undoubtedly well merited because he imprisoned many Greek Christians while they were still alive when he erected the Walls of Barut. These poor victims’ skulls, which the butcher had left out so he might enjoy their tortures, are still on display.
B. Eastwick served as a diplomat in Persia from 1860 to 1863, where he once met with Aziz Khan, the Sardar I Kull, or military high commander. He “did not impress me as one who would considerably err on the side of leniency,” according to Eastwick.
Eastwick was informed that Aziz Khan had just recently ordered the head-down hanging of two of the 14 robbers walled up alive.
Edward Granville Browne, who spent the years 1887 to 1888 primarily in Shiraz, observed the ominous remnants of a particularly bloodthirsty governor there, Firza Ahmed, who had, for example, caused more than 700 hands to be amputated for a variety of offenses during his four years in office (ending around 1880). Browne goes on to say
In addition to these light penalties, numerous robbers and other criminals were put to death. Several of them were also pent up alive in mortar pillars, where they sadly perished. Outside Shiraz’s Derwaze-i-kassah-khane (“Slaughterhouse Gate”), the ruins of these living tombs are still visible, and another series along the road as it approaches the tiny village of Abade.
Mongolian immurement was still a thing in the early 20th century. It is unclear whether everyone who was thus imprisoned was intended to starve to death. In a 1914 newspaper article, it is stated:
Many well-educated Chinese are imprisoned in the prisons and dungeons of the Far Eastern nation, where they are confined to large iron-bound coffins that prevent them from sitting or lying down. When the food is put into their coffins, only a few minutes each day can these captives glimpse the light of day.
The two younger sons of Guru Gobind Singh were ordered to be bricked alive by Wazir Khan, the Mughal Governor of Sirhind since they refused to convert to Islam during the Mughal-Sikh Wars.
Cases of Immurement in North Africa
Hadj Mohammed Mesfewi, a cobbler from Marrakech, was convicted of killing 36 women in 1906 (the bodies were found buried underneath his shop and nearby). He was walled up alive because of the nature of his crimes. His screaming could be heard nonstop for the first two days but stopped after the third.
Immurement in Culture and Architecture
Many civilizations have stories and ballads where a human being is sacrificed to secure the stability of a structure. For instance, human sacrifice was a common practice in East and Southeast Asia while building massive structures. These rituals included hitobashira in Japan, myosade in Burma, and Da Sheng Zhuang in China.
Many Southeastern European cultures refer to immurement as the method of death for a sacrificed person while building a structure, like a bridge or a fortress (mostly actual buildings). The Albanian and Slavic oral traditions have tales about the Castle of Shkodra.
The Albanian version is The Legend of Rozafa, in which three brothers laboriously built walls that vanished at night. When told they must bury one of their wives in the wall, they swear to pick the one who will bring them luncheon the following day and not tell their respective spouses.
However, the two brothers abandon Rozafa, the wife of the honest brother, to perish (the topos of two men betraying one another is frequent in Balkan poetry. She accepts her destiny but requests to leave her hand, foot, and breast exposed so she can rock her young boy in his cradle and nurse him.
The Serbian epic poem The Building of Skadar, written by Vuk Karadi after he recorded a folk ballad sung by a Herzegovinian storyteller named Old Rashko, is one of the most well-known versions of the same legend.
The song’s Serbian translation is the first known collection of the legend and the first to achieve literary fame. Vukain, Ugljea, and Gojko, members of the noble Mrnjavevi family, served as the legend’s three brothers. Jacob Grimm was especially taken with the poem when Karadi sent him a copy of his folksong collection in 1824.
It was translated into German by Grimm, who called it “one of the most moving poems of all peoples and ages.” The German translation was published by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who disagreed with Grimm’s assessment of the poem since he thought its tone was “superstitiously primitive.”
According to renowned folklorist Alan Dundes, Grimm’s viewpoint prevailed, and subsequent generations of folksingers and ballad ologists have continued to love the song.
A similar Romanian legend that of Meşterul Manole describes the construction of the Curtea de Argeş Monastery. Neagu Voda commissions ten expert masons, including Master Manole, to build a stunning monastery. Still, they suffer the same fate and decide to murder the wife who will be bringing them luncheon.
When Manole, who is on the roof, sees her coming, he begs God to let the weather take its course to stop her, but in vain. When she arrives, he walls her in a while, acting as though he’s doing it for fun, while his wife cries out in increasing despair.
When the edifice is complete, Neagu Voda takes away the masons’ ladders out of fear that they may construct a more beautiful structure. The masons attempt to flee, but all perish in the attempt. Only Manole’s fall produces a stream.
Numerous folk poems and songs from Bulgaria and Romania tell the story of a bride offered for similar reasons and her subsequent pleadings with the builders to leave her hands and breasts free so she can continue breastfeeding her child.
The bride’s demise is altered in later renditions of the songs; instead of languishing, imprisoned in the building’s stones, she is transformed into her nonphysical shadow, whose loss causes her to grieve and ultimately die.
Other adaptations include the folk ballad “Kmves Kelemen” from Hungary (Kelemen the Stonemason). This is the tale of the unfortunate stonemasons assigned to construct the Déva fort (a real building).
It is decided that one of the builders must offer his bride to stop the building’s frequent collapses, and the sacrificed bride will be the one who first visits. In certain renditions of the ballad, a little mercy is granted to the victim; instead of being imprisoned alive, she is burned, and only her ashes are buried.
A bridge in the city of Arta was the subject of the Greek tale “The Bridge of Arta,” which details multiple futile attempts to construct one. The master mason’s wife is imprisoned, breaking the cycle in which a group of talented builders toils all day only to return the following morning to discover their labor destroyed.
According to legend, a virgin was impaled in the Madliena church’s walls as a sacrifice or offering following repeated failures to construct it. The pastor accomplished this by inviting all the most attractive women to a feast and having the most attractive one, Madaa, fall asleep after receiving wine from a “particular glass.”
Ceremonial Cases of Immurement
Young maidens (between ten and twelve years old) were reportedly sacrificed as part of the giant Sun celebration in Inca civilization.
After completing their ceremonial obligations, the young girls were allegedly dropped into a waterless cistern and imprisoned alive. The children of Llullaillaco show another instance of Incan child sacrifice.
Jacob Grimm gives some examples of the sacrifice of animals while acknowledging the customs of human sacrifice in constructing structures throughout German and Slavic folklore.
He claimed that according to Danish tradition, a lamb was immured under a built-in altar to preserve it, and a living horse was immured as part of the rite to secure the safety of a churchyard. Grimm observes that additional animals were killed during the ceremonies for building other structures, including pigs, hens, and dogs.
In the Niger Country, an 1898 non-fiction book by Harold Edward Bindloss, the author describes what happened when a revered chief passed away:
Only a few years ago, some of a prominent headman’s wives had their legs shattered and were buried alive with him after he passed away not far from Bonny.
Ibn Batuta, a traveler from the 14th century, also saw the grave of a famous khan:
The dead Khan and approximately a hundred of his family were then brought, and a sizable grave was dug for him beneath the ground, in which a stunning couch was placed, and the Khan was laid out with his weapons.
They also sent four female slaves, six of his favorite Mamluks, a few drink containers, and all the gold and silver utensils he owned in his home. They were then completely enclosed and covered with earth that reached the height of a substantial hill.
RIP victims of Immurement and other Torture.
Next, read about the case of Robert Pickton, the Pig Farm Killer Who Distributed Human Meat at Concerts. Then, read about the horrific case of Robert Hansen, the Man Who Hunted Women in the Woods of Alaska!
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