Formerly, in England, when a prisoner indicted for a capital felony or petit treason stood mute, as the phrase was, upon his arraignment, that is, refused to plead and so to put himself upon his trial in the mode which the law prescribed, answering either not at all or impertinently to the charge preferred against him, he was condemned to the punishment of peine forte et dure. It wrought a forfeiture of goods, but no attainder and corruption of blood, and therefore no escheat of lands. The peine forte et dure was an infliction of extreme severity. The prisoner was carried back to prison, and laid in some low, dark room, almost naked, upon his back; his body was burdened with very heavy weights; he received once each day a portion of the meanest bread or water, of bread one day and of water the next, and so on alternately; and thus he continued until he died. In early times, it is supposed, the torture lasted only until the prisoner declared himself willing to plead; but later, says Hawkins, he could not save himself, if once the punishment had been ordered. Women were subjected to the same torture. - It is matter of dispute how and when peine forte et dure was introduced; whether it existed at common law, or was created by legislative provision.
The statute Westminster the first, c. 3, enacted in the time of Edward I. (and there is no mention of this penalty before that reign), says that felons standing mute shall be put in prison forte et dure; and as it does not explain these words at all, it seems to imply that their meaning was already familiar in practice. This is the opinion of Sir Edward Coke and Sir Matthew Hale, but Blackstone thinks that the punishment had a statutable origin. The penalty of peine forte et dure was not abolished until the 12th year of the reign of George III. (1772). It was doubtless for the purpose of extorting a plea and of securing their escheats and forfeitures, that the feudal lords devised this penalty. Generally, no doubt, the device accomplished its end; though there were instances of persons who suffered death in this mode in order to preserve their estates to their families. The statute 12 George III., c. 20, prevented further need of this harsh coercion, by providing that, if any person thereafter should stand mute on his arraignment, he should be convicted of the felony charged, and judgment and its consequences should follow in the same manner as if such person had been convicted by verdict or confession of the felony charged against him. - The only instance, so far as we are aware, in which peine forte et dure has been inflicted in this country, was when in Massachusetts, in 1692, Giles Cory, 80 years old, the husband of a reputed witch, stood mute upon his trial, and was condemned to be pressed to death.