The Torture of John Coustos
By Brother Robert J. Currie
Many of us have taken our Masonic obligations with a sincere and serious attitude. Throughout history many freemasons have been confronted with various situations that may have called their loyalty to the order into question. One man whose crime was no more than that of being a member of our noble order, experience this at first hand.
Between the years of 1743 and 1744 John Coustos on being loyal to his Masonic obligations, suffered what could only be described as horrific and unimaginable torture at the hands of the Spanish Inquisition during his residency in the city of Lisbon, Portugal.
Born in Berne, Switzerland, John Coustos along with his father travelled to England in 1716 where both became British citizens. A few years later in 1743 John Coustos moved to Lisbon where he began to practise his profession of Lapidary, that being a buyer and seller of precious and semi precious stones.
It was during this time that the Catholic Church began to carry out a so-called Inquisition in the hope of, as they put it of, " ridding the world of heretics". Part of the remit of the Inquisition involved the denouncing of Freemasons and their fraternal organisation. Pope Clement XII issued this through a Papal Bull. The result of this Papal Bull meant that all Masonic Lodges within the city of Lisbon met in private lodgings and not as they had previously, within the local drinking houses and taverns.
Coustos was Master of one of these lodges and a fervent Freemason. During the year of 1743 a certain female who was knowledgeable of Coustos' lodge informed the Inquisition as to where and when the members met. She declared that these men were "monsters in nature, who perpetuated the most shocking crimes", and as a result Coustos along with one of his wardens were arrested on a false charge, that of being responsible for stealing a valuable diamond. Once arrested Coustos was held in a local prison whereby he was stripped of all monies, papers and personal belongings. The next day he was taken before the President and four Inquisitors whereby he was asked to state his name, age, religion and length of time he had resided in Lisbon, as well as a full confession as to all the crimes he had committed during his life. Coustos freely informed them of his details but as to a confession he declared that " he had been taught to confess not to man, but to God". The Inquisition thereby achieving nothing from him regarding this confession, returned him to his prison cell.
After a wait of three days Coustos was brought up before the Inquisitors and again re-examined. What came to light was the fact that he was not there regarding any theft, but as the subject of Freemasonry began to be introduced, Coustos found himself imprisoned and questioned on the evidence of being a member of a supposed illegal and heretical organisation.
Over the next several weeks Coustos was taken periodically before his Inquisitors and continually asked about Freemasonry. They informed him that if his order was so virtuous as he claimed, then there was no need to conceal its secrets. They asked him about the "Tenets" of the Craft, as well as other questions pertaining to the order, including whether he had admitted into Freemasonry any Portuguese. Coustos refused to answer and was taken below to an even deeper dungeon.
Again after a few days he was taken before his Inquisitors where he was asked directly to reveal the secrets of Freemasonry. With threatening consequences hanging over him Coustos again refused, as he stated that it would be a betrayal of his obligations. Several other questions were then put to him whereby he continuously refused to reveal the secrets. The Inquisitors frustrated at his answers then reverted to torture.
Coustos states in his own account the following,
" I was instantly conveyed to the torture room, built in the form of a square tower, where no light appeared but what two candles gave; and to prevent the dreadful cries and shocking groans of the unhappy victims from reaching the ears of the other prisoners, the doors are lined with a sort of quilt.
I saw myself on a sudden, surrounded by six wretches, who, after preparing the tortures, stripped me naked, when, laying me on my back began to lay hold of every part of my body. First they put round my neck an iron collar which was fastened to the scaffold; they then fixed a ring to each foot; and this being done they stretched my limbs with all their might. They next wound two ropes around each arm, and two round each thigh, which ropes passed under the scaffold, through holes made for that purpose and were all draw tight at the same time by four men upon a signal made for this purpose.
"The reader will believe that my pains were must be intolerable, when I solemnly declare that these ropes, which were of the size of one's little finger, pierced through my flesh quite to the bone, making the blood gush out at eight different places that were thus bound. As I persisted in refusing to discover any more than what has been seen in the interrogatories above, the ropes were thus drawn together four different times. At my side stood a physician and a surgeon, who often felt my temples to judge of the danger I might be in, by which means my tortures were suspended, at intervals, that I might have little opportunity of recovering myself a little.
Whilst I was thus suffering they were so barbarously unjust as to declare, that, were I to die under torture, I should be guilty, by my obstinacy, of self murder. In fine the last time the ropes were drawn, I grew so exceedingly weak, occasioned by the bloods circulation being stopped, and the pains I endured, that I was carried back to my dungeon, without perceiving it.
They were so inhumane, six weeks after, as to expose me to another kind of torture, more grievous, if possible than the former. They made me stretch my arms in such a manner that the palms of my hands were turned outwards; when, by the help of a rope that fastened them together at the wrist, and which they turned by an engine, they drew them gently nearer to one another behind, in such a manner that the back of each hand touched, and stood exactly parallel one another; whereby both my shoulders were dislocated, and a considerable quantity of blood issued from my mouth. This torture was repeated thrice; after which I was again put into the hands of the physicians and surgeons, who in setting my bones, put me to exquisite pain.”
Two months after having somewhat recovered Coustos was then taken again to the torture chamber and subjected to another bout of torture of harrowing proportion,
“The torturers turned twice around my body a thick iron chain, which, crossing upon my stomach, terminated afterwards at my wrists. They next set my back against a thick board, at each extremity whereof was a pulley through which there ran a rope, that catched the ends of the chains at my wrists. The tormentors then stretched these ropes by means of a roller, pressed or bruised my stomach, in proportion as the means were drawn tighter. They tortured me on this occasion to such a degree, that my wrists and shoulders were put out of joint. The surgeons, however, set them presently after; but the barbarians not yet having satiated their cruelty, made me undergo this torture a second time, which I did with fresh pains, though with equal constancy and resolution.”
After having suffered this second bout of torture Coustos was sentenced to 4 years hard labour on a Portuguese galley. This lasted only a few days as his wounds prevented him from continuing his sentence and he was subsequently sent to a local infirmary. He remained there until the month of October in 1744 when a British Ambassador, on behalf of the King of England demanded his release. A condition of his release was that he had to leave the country. Why the King of England became involved is uncertain, but it is thought that his connection with the Masonic order may have been the reason.
Two years later John Coustos published his account in a 400-page book, entitled " The Sufferings of John Coustos for Freemasonry, and His Refusal to Turn Catholic in the Inquisition of Lisbon". Although Coustos never in his life advanced or promoted any aspect of our order, his personal account proves his dedication to our order, as well as the severity that our former brethren showed with regards to the Masonic Obligation.
In the light of what happened to Bro Coustos we may ask ourselves do we apply the same level of commitment to our own obligations. Can we learn anything from Bro. Coustos' dedication as he truly showed that the secrets of our order are kept locked within the repository of our hearts uniting in the art of Fidelity, Fidelity, Fidelity.
Robert J. Currie is a Past Master of Lodge Magdalene No.100 under the Scottish Constitution, their web site can be reached by clicking this link.
Permission to use this article was granted to the webmaster by Brother Bob, to whom our thanks go.