Crushing (execution)

Pressing to Death

ONE  of the most barbarous and cruel of the punishments of our English statutes was that distinguished by the name of Peine forte et dure, or pressing to death with every aggravation of torture. It was adopted as a manner of punishment suitable to cases where the accused refused to plead, and was commuted about the year 1406 from the older method of merely starving the prisoner to death. At that time the alteration was considered to be decidedly according to the dictates of humanity and mercy, as the sooner relieving the accused from his sufferings. Such was the small value set upon human life in those dark days of British justice.

The manner in which this exceedingly great torture was inflicted was as follows: "That the prisoner shall be remanded to the place from whence he came, and put in some low, dark room, and there laid on his back, without any manner of covering except a cloth round his middle; and that as many weights shall be laid upon him as he can bear, and more ; and that he shall have no more sustenance but of the worst bread and water, and that he shall not eat the same day on which he drinks, nor drink the same day on which he eats; and he shall so continue till he die." At a later period, the form of sentence was altered to the following: "That the prisoner shall be remanded to the place from whence he came, and put in some low, dark room; that he shall lie without any litter or anything under him, and that one arm shall be drawn to one quarter of the room with a cord, and the other to another, and that his feet shall be used in the same manner, and that as many weights shall be laid on him as he can bear, and more. That he shall have three morsels of barley bread a day, and that he shall have the water next the prison, so that it be not current, and that he shall not eat," etc. The object of this protracted punishment was to allow the victim, at almost every stage of the torture, to plead, and thus allow the law to take its ordinary course. The object of the persons who have refused to plead was, that any person who died under the Peine forte et dure  could transmit his estates to his children, or will them as he desired; whereas, if he were found guilty, they would be forfeited to the Crown. In connection with this, it may be mentioned that when the practice of pressing to death had become nearly extinct, prisoners who declined to plead were tortured, in order to compel them to do so, by twisting and screwing their thumbs with whipcord.

In 1721, a woman named Mary Andrews was subjected to this punishment. After bearing with fortitude the first three whipcords, which broke from the violence of the twisting, she submitted to plead at the fourth.

Baron Carter, at the Cambridge Assizes, in 1741, ordered a prisoner, who refused to plead, to have his thumbs twisted with cords, and when that was without avail, inflicted the higher penalty of pressing. Baron Thompson, about the same time, at the Sussex Assizes, treated a prisoner in a precisely similar manner.

A like method was pursued in 1721, with Nathaniel Hawes, a prisoner who refused to plead; when the cord proved inefficacious, a weight of 250 pounds was laid upon him, after which he decided to plead. The same year seems prolific of cases of this character, there being particulars of an instance in the Nottingham Mercury  of January 19th, 1721. They are included in the London news, and are as follow: "Yesterday the sessions began at the Old Bailey, where several persons were brought to the bar for highway robbery, etc. Among them were the highwaymen lately taken at Westminster, two of whom, namely, Thomas Green,alias  Phillips, and Thomas Spiggot, refusing to plead, the court proceeded to pass the following sentence upon them: 'that the prisoner shall be,' etc. [the usual form, as given above]. The former, on sight of the terrible machine, desired to be carried back to the sessions house, where he pleaded not guilty. But the other, who behaved himself very insolently to the ordinary who was ordered to attend him, seemingly resolved to undergo the torture. Accordingly, when they brought cords, as usual, to tie him, he broke them three several times like a twine-thread, and told them if they brought cables he would serve them after the same manner. But, however, they found means to tie him to the ground, having his limbs extended; but after, enduring the punishment for an hour, and having three or four hundredweight put on him, he at last submitted to plead, and was carried back, when he pleaded not guilty."

The Rev. Mr. Willette, the ordinary of the prison, in 1776, published the "Annals of Newgate," and from these we learn further particulars of the torture of the highwayman, Thomas Spiggot. "The chaplain found him lying in the vault upon the bare ground, with 350 pounds weight upon his breast, and then prayed with him, and at several times asked him why he should hazard his soul by such obstinate kind of self-murder. But all the answer that he made was, 'Pray for me; pray for me.' He sometimes lay silent under the pressure as if insensible to the pain, and then again would fetch his breath very quick and short. Several times he complained that they had laid a cruel weight upon his face, though it was covered with nothing but a thin cloth, which was afterwards removed and laid more light and hollow; yet he still complained of the prodigious weight upon his face, which might be caused by the blood being forced up thither and pressing the veins so violently as if the force had been externally on his face. When he had remained for half-an-hour under this load, and fifty pounds weight more laid on, being in all four hundred, he told those who attended him he would plead. The weights were at once taken off, the cords cut asunder; he was raised up by twomen, some brandy put into his mouth to revive him, and he was carried to take his trial." The practice of Peine forte et dure  gave the name of "Press-yard" to a part of Newgate, and the terrible machine above referred to was probably in the form of a rack.

We require to go further back to find instances of a fatal termination to the punishment. Such a case occurred in 1676. One Major Strangeways and his sister held in joint possession a farm, but the lady becoming intimate with a lawyer named Fussell, to whom the Major took a strong dislike, he threatened that if she married the lawyer he would, in his office or elsewhere, be the death of him. Surely, Fussell was one day found shot dead in his London apartments, and suspicion at once fell upon the officer, and he was arrested. At first he was willing to be subjected to the ordeal of touch, but when placed upon trial, resolved not to allow any chance of his being found guilty, and so refused to plead, in order that his estates might go to whom he willed. Glynn was the Lord Chief Justice on this occasion, and in passing the usual sentence for Peine forte et dure, used instead of the word "weights," as above, the words "as much iron and stone as he can bear," doubtless to suit the prison convenience, and make the sentence perfectly legal. He was to have three morsels of barley bread every alternate day, and three draughts of "the water in the next channel to the prison door, but of no spring or fountain water," the sentence concluding, "and this shall be his punishment till he die." This was probably on the Saturday, for on the Monday morning following, it is stated, the condemned was draped in white garments, and also wore a mourning cloak, as though in mourning for his own forthcoming death. It is curious to notice that his friends were present at his death, which was so much modified from the lengthy process that his sentence conveys as to be in fact an execution, in which these same friends assisted. They stood "at the corner of the press," and when he gave them to understand that he was ready, they forthwith proceeded to pile stone and iron upon him. The amount of weight was insufficient to kill him, for although he gasped, "Lord Jesus, receive my soul," he still continued alive until his friends, to hasten his departure, stood upon the weights, a course which in about ten minutes placed him beyond the reach of the human barbarity which imposed upon friendship so horrible a task.

In 1827, an Act was passed which directs the court to enter a plea of "not guilty," when a prisoner refuses to plead. It is surprising that the inhuman practice of pressing to death should have lingered so long. In this chapter we have only given particulars of a few of the many cases which have come under our notice in the legal byways of old England.