Death by Crushing – Peine forte et dure

Giles Corey stone

Justice in the older days was served quite harshly. In fact, the word ‘harsh’ itself isn’t even the perfect adjective to describe how brutal punishments were done in order to set an example of what would take place if you, as a citizen, happened to break the law or did something to offend or otherwise threaten the balance of a certain community.

I’ve come across over dozens of execution styles before but somehow, I am compelled to “Death by Crushing”. Even without pictures, I can vividly imagine the ghastly method of this punishment. Eyes would bulge out from the forced weight, maybe the tongue would protrude out of the mouth and there would be intense screaming, crying out for help, pain, the horror – the whole nine yards of torture.

Although death sentences are still present in some countries, death by crushing or pressing is no longer sanctioned by any governing body.

Under common law, crushing is referred to as Peine forte et dure, French for “hard and forceful punishment”. It strikes me quite heavily that this form of capital punishment actually existed. Still, this method has a deep history, dating back for over 4,000 years in the South and South-East Asian regions.

Commonly, stones were used and placed atop the chest of a defendant until he/she would finally give in to plea or confess of any wrong doing. The Asians however used elephants. The head would be placed beneath the enormous foot of the animal and mercilessly crushed.

The Romans and Carthaginians also used method from time to time, only, stones were used. In pre-Columbian America, death by pressing was supposedly practiced by the Aztecs.

Famous Cases of Death by Crushing

Only one person died through Peine forte et dure in the history of America, in the person of Giles Corey. It happened at the time of the Salem witch trials. Corey was crushed because he refused to enter a plea, and so on September 19, 1692, stones were placed atop his body in attempt to force him to do so.

Giles Corey

Giles Corey

As one of the first individuals to be accused of witchcraft, Corey was described by his accusers as “a dreadful wizard”. Whether true or not, he managed to leave a legacy that will stand by his name forever, as his last words were reportedly “more rocks” or “more weight”.

Giles Corey pressed


According to the law at the time, the process of Peine forte et dure is as follows:

… remanded to the prison from whence he came and put into a low dark chamber, and there be laid on his back on the bare floor, naked, unless when decency forbids; that there be placed upon his body as great a weight as he could bear, and more, that he hath no sustenance, save only on the first day, three morsels of the worst bread, and the second day three draughts of standing water, that should be alternately his daily diet till he died, or, till he answered.

Inhumane, yes, but people in the past seem to believe that they were living amongst of forces of evil that scared the shit out of them, forcing them to do punishments which were not only gruesome, but utterly unforgivable.

Giles Corey pressed illustration 2

Here’s an account of a witness during Giles Corey’s trial:

After two days, Giles was asked three times to plead innocent or guilty to witchcraft. Each time he replied, “More weight.” More and more rocks were piled on him, and the Sheriff from time to time would stand on the boulders staring down at Corey’s bulging eyes. In the pressing, Giles Corey’s tongue was pressed out of his mouth; the Sheriff, with his cane, forced it in again.

We are still living among forces of evil – witches, monsters, ghosts, the devil himself (literally or figuratively) – but we don’t really do that now, do we? Even though the world has turned out to be more violent in the modern times, people have become saner and less stupid.

Margaret Clitherow was another case of Peine forte et dure in the United Kingdom. She was no witch – in fact, she could be the opposite. Clitherow was a Roman Catholic martyr who was crushed to death for the sake of religion.

Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York

Margaret Clitherow, the Pearl of York

Personally, I follow no religion but I couldn’t care less about people who do at all. Don’t force me to swallow what you believe in and we’ll be friends for life.

Going back to the point, Clitherow was beatified for what she did, so technically she’s a saint, according to Catholic doctrines.

An illustration of St Margaret Clitherow's Peine forte et dure

An illustration of St Margaret Clitherow’s Peine forte et dure

Regardless of her religion, I adore her though. She refused to plead guilty of being accused of harboring Catholic (then outlawed) priests in her house in order to avoid a trial in which her own children would be obliged to give evidence.

So in March 25, 1586, Margaret Clitherow was stripped and had a handkerchief tied across her face then laid out upon a sharp rock the size of a man’s fist, a door was put on top of her and slowly loaded with an immense weight of rocks and stones, a total; weight of 700 pounds. Her death occurred within 15 minutes. she was left for 6 hours before the weight was removed from her corpse.

Martyrdom of the Holy by Richard Verstegan for the book Theatrum Crudelitatum (Scenario Cruelyies)

Martyrdom of the Holy by Richard Verstegan for the book Theatrum Crudelitatum (Scenario Cruelyies)

Added Rants

We are quite lucky to be living in an age where death by crushing is no longer practiced. If it did though, I wonder how many people would be beatified and be named Saint, or left for dead with the thought of being the most horrible man on Earth.

3 thoughts on “Death by Crushing – Peine forte et dure

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