Some of Poe’s most popular tales of terror were inspired by true events. One example is “The Pit and the Pendulum,” which tells of the story of a prisoner of the Spanish Inquisition, an infamous program of trials in which the judges were allowed to use torture to extract confessions from the accused. Poe sets this story in a torture chamber during the Spanish Inquisition. He may have been inspired by a paragraph in Thomas Dick’s Philosophy of Religion (1825): “On entry of the French into Toldeo during the late Peninsular War, General Lasalle visited the Palace of the Inquisition. The great number of instruments of torture, especially the instruments to stretch the limbs, and the drop baths, which cause a lingering death, excited horror, even in the minds of soldiers hardened in the field of battle.” Poe’s story ends with Lasalle entering the Palace of the Inquisition and rescuing one of the prisoners. Poe imagines a series of terrifying events leading up to that conclusion.
In composing his story, Poe describes tortures that differ from those actually used by the Inquisition. In one room, for example, the victim is placed in a dark room with a seemingly bottomless pit and burning walls that close in on him. In another room, the man is tied to a table over which a sharp blade swings, gradually lowering until it almost chops him in half. Through a combination of luck and intelligence, the prisoner is able to narrowly escape each challenge set before him.
After the French invasion of Spain in 1808, Joseph Bonaparte briefly suppressed the Inquisition and appointed Llorente to take over the Inquisitions archives and to write its history. This work was published in 1812. When the Spanish drove out the French, Llorente moved to Paris where he issued a French translation of his history of the Inquisition. By 1826, two English translations were published. Any of these could have been Poe’s sources for research while writing “The Pit and the Pendulum.” The Spanish Inquisition finally ended in 1834, just eight years before Poe wrote his story, so reports of the terrors of that time would still have been fresh in the minds of the public.
The Poe Museum’s new exhibit, “The Pit and the Pendulum: Fact and Fiction,” recreates a scene from Poe’s story and brings together a rare first printing of the tale, illustrations by Harry Clarke, Mark Summers, and others, as well as translations of the work into other languages.
The show runs until August 30 in the Poe Museum’s Exhibits Building.