A Medieval Punishment, Fit for a Fiend

In the spring of 1906, dozens of young women disappeared from the town of Marrakesh, Morocco. In mid-April, ten young women were reported missing. Despite extensive searches, no trace of the women was found. The number of missing women rose to twenty. Then thirty.

Finally, the family of one woman, the thirty-sixth person to disappear in a 2-week timeframe, tracked her to the home and shop of a cobbler and letter-writer named Hadj Mohammed Mesfewi.

Marrakesh, Morocco

 

Mesfewi’s birthday isn’t recorded but he was probably in his 60s. He lived with a woman named Annah Rahali, who was 70 years old. As the accused couple were taken to the prison, the infuriated crowd—goaded by the cries of the murdered women’s relatives—attempted unsuccessfully to lynch them.

A news dispatch from Tangiers noted that Annah “was put to the torture” and confessed that when the girls came to dictate letters she treated them to drugged wine. Once they passed out, Mesfewi killed them. The torture killed Annah but Mesfewi survived. The man who became known as the Arch-Killer of Marrakesh confessed to all 36 slayings. He said that after Annah drugged the women, he would steal whatever money or valuables they had before decapitating them. The missing women were buried under his house and in his garden. No motive was cited, but it was implied that Mesfewi’s motive was robbery.

Crucifixion was an ancient custom reserved for the very worst offenses, and Mesfewi was scheduled to die on May 2. But it was not to be. Foreign diplomats were outraged and demanded Mesfewi meet his demise in a more humane way.

This worked as well as foreign interference usually does. The Moroccan officials jailed Mesfewi and waited nearly two weeks, until they judged interest in his case had dissipated. Then they began to torture him. Every day, Mesfewi was taken into the marketplace and whipped ten times with thorny acacia switches as two volunteers held him in place. Afterwards, his back was treated with vinegar and oil so he could withstand the next day’s beating.

Mesfewi never cried out as he was beaten. But after weeks of this treatment, he began to decline. “The people of Marrakesh had no idea of letting him die too easily,” ran the dispatch. Per order of the sultan, his execution would take place June 11. The Arch-Killer of Marrakesh was to be “walled” in the town bazaar, an execution method sometimes called immurement. Immurement is a process in which a person is placed within an enclosed space with no exits and left to die from starvation and thirst.

Immurement of a nun (fictitious depiction in a painting from 1868)

Immurement was popular in the medieval world, but the first known instances of walling trace back to the Holy Roman Empire. The Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome who were found guilty of breaking their chastity vows were walled. The Persians used immurement well into the twentieth century to punish thieves. In addition to capital punishment, immurement was used by some cultures as a human sacrifice to ensure the strength of a building.

Word spread quickly. Execution by walling had not taken place in Morroco for a generation, but the people agreed that Mesfewi’s dreadful crimes warranted it. Thousands of Moroccans gathered at the bazaar to watch Mesfewi’s execution. The atmosphere was like a picnic. People brought food and jockeyed for a place close to the front where they would see everything.

Just outside the jail, two masons set to work. “The chief bazaar has thick walls and in one of these, the masons dug a hole 6 feet high 2 feet wide and 2 feet deep. Just as his fellow townsman would not let him slip away by too much flogging so they did not intend to smother him too quickly.” Chains were affixed to the walls to keep the victim standing so he couldn’t move out of sight of the crowd.”

Mesfewi was not warned of his fate. On the morning of June 11, he was led from his cell, expecting his daily whipping. Instead he was confronted with thousands of screaming Moroccans, eager to see him suffer. When Mesfewi saw the structure, he understood what would happen. He struggled against the jailers, screaming, pleading for mercy.

A 1906 postcard depicting a marketplace in Marrakesh

 

He was maneuvered into his tiny tomb and chained there. The crowd roared and pelted him with refuse. As the masons built the wall around him, the murderer pleaded for mercy, but only one respite was offered him. A jailer came forward and gave him some bread and water while the masons took a break. Gradually, Mesfewi disappeared from view as the wall was built.

The huge throng did not disperse but an eerie silence temporarily came over them. They wanted to hear Mesfewi suffer. For two days, he screamed and pleaded, and the crowd roared back, laughing and mocking him.

The bloodthirsty crowd is terrifying. The Crowd was written by Gustave Le Bon in the 1880s to document crowd psychology. Crowds are easy to manipulate with chanting and slogans, a fact nearly every successful politician of any stripe makes use of. Crowds also do things (e.g., attack, riot, lynch) that are morally reprehensible to the individuals who make up the crowd. In other words, people do things in a group they would never do on their own.

The shrieks behind the wall grew fainter and finally went silent on June 13, and the crowd concluded Mesfewi was dead and dispersed. “Hadj Mohammed Mesfewi had expiated his crime,” the dispatch ended.

Much about this story is remarkable and mysterious. Murdering so many victims in such a short timeframe is mind-boggling. 36 victims in 2 weeks is 2.5 people per day. At that rate, it’s surprising it took two weeks to catch him. Mesfewi was likely a psychopath, and it’s difficult to believe he did not murder anyone prior to these killings. The lives of Mesfewi and Annah are a mystery. What led them to this horrible place, we cannot know.

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