Peine forte et dure (Law French for “forceful and hard punishment”) was a method of torture formerly used in the common law legal system, in which a defendant who refused to plead (“stood mute”) would be subjected to having heavier and heavier stones placed upon his or her chest until a plea was entered, or as the weight of the stones on the chest became too great for the condemned to breathe, fatal suffocation would occur.
The common law courts originally took a very limited view of their own jurisdiction. They considered themselves to lack jurisdiction over a defendant until he had voluntarily submitted to it by entering a plea seeking judgment from the court. Since a criminal justice system that tried and punished only those who volunteered for trial and punishment was practically unworkable, this was the means chosen to coerce them.
Many defendants charged with capital offences nonetheless refused to plead, since thereby they would escape forfeiture of property, and their heirs would still inherit their estate; but if the defendant pleaded guilty and was executed, their heirs would inherit nothing, their property escheating to the Crown. Peine forte et dure was abolished in Great Britain in 1772, and the last known use of the practice was in 1741. In 1772, refusing to plead was deemed to be equivalent to pleading guilty. This was changed in 1827 to being deemed a plea of not guilty. Today, in all common law jurisdictions, standing mute is treated by the courts as equivalent to a plea of not guilty.
The elaborate procedure was recorded by a 15th-century witness in an oft-quoted description: “he will lie upon his back, with his head covered and his feet, and one arm will be drawn to one quarter of the house with a cord, and the other arm to another quarter, and in the same manner it will be done with his legs; and let there be laid upon his body iron and stone, as much as he can bear, or more …”
“Pressing to death” might take several days, and not necessarily with a continued increase in the load. The Frenchman Guy Miege, who from 1668 taught languages in London says the following about the English practice:
For such as stand Mute at their Trial, and refuse to answer Guilty, or Not Guilty, Pressing toThe Frenchman Guy Miege, who from 1668 taught languages in London says the following about the English practice:
For such as stand Mute at their Trial, and refuse to answer Guilty, or Not Guilty, Pressing to Death is the proper Punishment. In such a Case the Prisoner is laid in a low dark Room in the Prison, all naked but his Privy Members, his Back upon the bare Ground his Arms and Legs stretched with Cords, and fasten’d to the several Quarters of the Room. This done, he has a great Weight of Iron and Stone laid upon him. His Diet, till he dies, is of three Morsels of Barley bread without Drink the next Day; and if he lives beyond it, he has nothing daily, but as much foul Water as he can drink three several Time , and that without any Bread: Which grievous Death some resolute Offenders have chosen, to save their Estates to their Children. But, in case of High Treason, the Criminal’s Estate is forfeited to the Sovereign, as in all capital Crimes, notwithstanding his being pressed to Death.
Giles Corey was pressed to death during the Salem Witch Trials in the 1690s.
The most famous case in the United Kingdom was that of Roman Catholic martyr St Margaret Clitherow, who (in order to avoid a trial in which her own children would be obliged to give evidence) was pressed to death on March 25, 1586, after refusing to plead to the charge of having harboured Catholic (then outlawed) priests in her house. She died within fifteen minutes under a weight of at least 700 pounds (320 kg). Several hardened criminals, including William Spigott (1721) and Edward Burnworth, lasted a half hour under 400 pounds (180 kg) before pleading to the indictment. Others, such as Major Strangways (1658) and John Weekes (1731), refused to plead, even under 400 pounds (180 kg), and were killed when bystanders, out of mercy, sat on them.
The only death by peine forte et dure in American history was Giles Corey, who was pressed to death on September 19, 1692, during the Salem witch trials, after he refused to enter a plea in the judicial proceeding. According to legend, his last words as he was being crushed were “More weight”, and he was thought to be dead as the weight was applied.
In medieval Europe, the slow crushing of body parts in screw-operated “bone vises” of iron was a common method of torture, and a tremendous variety of cruel instruments were used to savagely crush the head, knee, hand, and, most commonly, either the thumb or the naked foot. Such instruments were finely threaded and variously provided with spiked inner surfaces or heated red-hot before their application to the limb to be tortured.