The Spanish Inquisition
By the time Poe wrote ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum,’’ the Spanish Inquisition was over. The Inquisition began in 1478 as a way to punish Jews and Muslims who had converted to Roman Catholicism rather than having been born into it. Thousands of people were put on trial, pronounced guilty, and sentenced to death. Many were burned at the stake. In 1834—eight years before Poe wrote the story—Spain formally abolished the Inquisition, although it had lost much of its power decades earlier.
The Spanish Inquisition was famous for its autos-da-fe´, in which victims were tried in public, ceremonially paraded through the streets, and burned at the stake following a Catholic Mass. However, over the years, the Inquisition devised many other forms of slow, painful torture designed to elicit a confession rather than to kill someone. The rack involved stretching a person’s limbs over movable rollers until they broke free of their sockets. Sometimes a person’s face was covered with a cloth and water was poured on it to simulate drowning, a technique known today as waterboarding. The phrase ‘‘putting one’s feet to the fire’’ alludes to the Inquisition’s practice of literally doing that to the victim. Thumbscrews were used to pinch a heretic’s fingers, and sometimes a person’s hand was inserted into a metal glove and then heated over a fire. However, the pit, the pendulum, and the collapsing dungeon that appear in Poe’s story are products of the author’s imagination.
The United States did not have a history of large-scale religious persecution on a par with the Spanish Inquisition, the possible exception being the Salem witch trials in 1692–1693. On the contrary, religious freedom has been a hallmark of the country since its founding, resulting in a climate that fostered many new religions during Poe’s lifetime. These included the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints; the Church of Christ, Scientist; and the Adventists, among many others. However, the United States was no stranger to legalized intolerance. As a child growing up in Richmond, Virginia, Poe would have been exposed to the institution of slavery and the harsh conditions under which slaves toiled. Native Americans also suffered under U.S. government policy. In 1831, Native Americans were stripped of their homelands and were forced to march to reservations in Oklahoma in accordance with President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830. Thousands died along the way.
General Lasalle and Washington Irving
Antoine Lasalle was born into French nobility in 1775 and died in 1809, a generation before Poe wrote ‘‘The Pit and the Pendulum.’’ During his lifetime he was known as ‘‘The Hussar General’’ and fought in the French Revolution and the NapoleonicWars. He joined the army at age eleven and became a lieutenant by age fourteen. He was regarded as a supreme cavalry commander— known for his daring and heroic deeds both on and off the battlefield—dashing good looks, colorful personality, and ability to impress women. His exploits would have been well known to Poe’s readers. He fought bravely, drank heavily, and gambled away a fortune. Napoleon looked the other way, forgiving his unbecoming behavior because of his value as a commander.
In 1808, Lasalle arrived in Spain, torched the village of Torquemada, left one thousand Spanish troops dead after a charge at the Pisuerga River, and marched on to Valladolid. Napoleon made Lasalle ‘‘Count of the Empire’’ for his role in capturing Spain for France. However, Lasalle never went to Toledo, and he had nothing at all to do with the Spanish Inquisition. During Poe’s time, details of Napoleon’s campaign in Spain, including the exploits of General Lasalle, would have been common knowledge among educated readers through the many popular novels that included these historical events in the plot.
In 1842, President Tyler appointed Washington Irving the U.S. minister to Spain. Irving, the author of ‘‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’’ and ‘‘Rip Van Winkle’’ was one of Poe’s favorite writers; Poe had sought his advice several years earlier on his story ‘‘The Fall of the House of Usher.’’ Irving traveled to Spain and found the royal court mired in intrigue during its postInquisition turmoil, most of it surrounding the teenaged Isabella II. The Spanish Empire, a relic of a bygone era, was crumbling. Irving found the resulting upheaval exhausting and returned home in 1846 to pursue his writing.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 29, Edgar Allan Poe, Published by Gale Group, 2001.