Europeans were creative when it came to torture. They developed some of the most excruciating and slowest methods of torture in history, including the horrific blood eagle torture method. But one of the worst forms of torture was not even considered torture by the court. It was an official sentence: pressing to death.
The men and women who were sent to death by crushing in Britain had not been found guilty of any crime. In fact, they refused to plead innocent or guilty, and pressing was supposed to coerce them to enter a plea so they could go to trial. The victims could end their torment at any time if they simply cried out "not guilty."
Dating back to the 13th century, England used pressing as a form of punishment, and it continued well into Britain's Enlightenment. Victims not only suffocated, but their bones were also crushed and sometimes even burst through their skin. And the most famous case occurred in the United States, when Giles Corey was pressed to death in the Salem witch trials. Shockingly, people who were pressed to death often had a very good reason for choosing their brutal executions.
- Photo: BBC One
Using 800 Pounds To Press A Woman Made Her Ribs Burst Through Her Skin
Margaret Clitherow, charged with harboring priests and practicing Catholicism, was taken to a public bridge on March 25, 1586, for refusing to enter a plea. First, she was stripped naked in front of everyone, which scholars Peter Lake and Michael Questier explained as an "obscene, virtually pornographic, shaming ritual." Her limbs were tied with ropes and stretched. A door was placed on her chest. And then the weights were slowly added.
At any point during the extended torture, Margaret could have chosen to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. She would have been put on trial and almost certainly found guilty and executed. But Margaret refused. The jailer began to pile more stones on the board, burying Margaret under 800 pounds of weights. Her spine snapped, and her ribs "burst forth of the skin."
The grisly execution inspired a scene in the BBC series Gunpowder, in which an elderly woman was crushed to death for conspiring against the monarchy.
The Most Famous Pressing Happened During The Salem Witch Trials
The most famous case of pressing to death comes from the Salem witch trials. During the panic over witches that swept the village of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692, nearly 200 people were accused of witchcraft. A special court was created to hear the cases, and 18 people were convicted and executed by hanging for the crime of witchcraft.
One of the accused was Giles Corey, an elderly farmer with a bad reputation. Nearly two decades earlier, Corey had beaten a man to death for stealing apples. And Corey's wife, Martha, had also been accused of witchcraft. On September 9, Martha was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to be executed. Just days later, the same court told Giles that he would stand trial for witchcraft. He refused, and the court decided to press him.
Giles Corey Called for "More Weight" As He Was Being Pressed
Giles Corey had seen how the court had twisted the words of his wife, Martha, during her trial for witchcraft. And he refused to allow himself to be put through the same thing. So to force Giles to enter a plea, the court pressed him. Corey was stripped naked, and a board was placed on his body. Heavy stones were set on top. The torture went on for a full day, with Giles refusing to enter a plea. The only words he spoke were, "more weight."
On the second day, even more stones were added until the weight was unbearable. On September 19, 1692, Giles finally died after two days of being pressed. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Europeans Thought Death By Elephant Was Bad, But They Were Crushing People For Lesser Offenses
In the 19th century, Europeans gasped in horror at reports of grisly execution methods in Asia. One of those methods was execution by elephant, in which trained elephants would torture and kill enemy soldiers or convicted criminals. Trained elephants could even slice off limbs with their tusks before crushing men to death under their feet.
While British colonialists in India tried to stamp out the practice in the 19th century, their own countrymen had been subjected to the same horrific punishment only decades earlier.
The Victims Were Not Even Convicted Criminals
In its heyday, a pressing went a little something like this: First, the individual sentenced to pressing was stripped naked. Then, heavy weights were laid upon his body, creating the sensation of suffocation. More and more weights were added, tormenting the poor sufferer. And a man or woman could live for days with weights crushing them – until they died an agonizing death.
The punishment was known as peine forte et dure, or, "strong and hard punishment," and the people who endured the punishment had not been convicted of a crime at all. In fact, peine forte et dure was used to coerce a suspected criminal to plead guilty or not guilty. The goal was to force suspects to make a plea before the court so that they could be put on trial.
A Catholic Woman Was Pressed For Hiding Priests In Her House
During the bloody English Reformation, people practicing the "wrong" faith (AKA whatever faith had been declared illegal by the ruler of the moment) could easily find themselves on the chopping block. When Queen Mary took the throne in 1554, she burned hundreds of Protestants at the stake. As Queen, Elizabeth I outlawed Catholicism. Even sheltering a Catholic priest was a capital offense.
In 1586, Margaret Clitherow was caught red-handed. She had created a secret room in her house to hide priests. When the room was discovered, Margaret was arrested. Even though she was clearly guilty – after all, she had already been thrown in jail three times for refusing to attend Anglican church services – Margaret refused to enter a plea. Without a plea, the trial could not move forward, and Margaret was ordered to endure the punishment of pressing.