Immurement takes its name from the Latin im (in) murus (wall). So it means ‘in the wall’ or ‘walling in.’ An immured person could not expect to die quickly for asphyxiation was not generally a risk. Instead, they would be left to die of dehydration or starvation.
The most famous example of execution by immurement was that of the Vestal Virgins. Sworn to chastity, to break this vow was a betrayal of Rome and so a capital crime. The guilty Vestal would be stripped of her vestments and flogged before being dressed as a corpse and sent to join her funeral procession in a closed litter.
The Vestal’s mourning relatives would accompany the procession out of Rome to a place just outside the city walls called the Campus Sceleratus- the Evil Fields. Here, the Vestal’s tomb awaited her, complete with a couch, lamp and a little food. After the Pontifex Maximus commended the doomed woman to the gods, she would enter the tomb by a ladder. Once within, the tomb was sealed so that its entrance was untraceable.
It was believed that if a Vestal was innocent, the goddess Vesta would release her from the tomb. Sadly, victims of immurement in other cultures did not have even this slender hope to cling to. MA Hume-Griffiths a traveler who lived in Persia between 1900-1903 describes how the locals immured criminals:
“The victim is put into the pillar, which is half built up in readiness; then if the executioner is merciful he will cement quickly up to the face, and death comes speedily. But sometimes a small amount of air is allowed to permeate through the bricks, and in this case the torture is cruel and the agony prolonged. Men bricked up in this way have been heard groaning and calling for water at the end of three days.”
One of the last cases of immurement was in Marrakesh in 1903 when Hadj Mohammed Mesfewi, a local cobbler was walled up for the murder of 36 women. Mesfewi had lured the women to his home, drugged them, robbed them of their valuables, then mutilated and killed them and buried them under his shop and garden. The court initially sentenced him to crucifixion, but when foreign officials objected, his sentence was changed. He was flogged every day until, on June 11, he was finally immured. His cries for mercy did not cease until two days later.