Return to main page

Masonic Bios

John Coustos 1703 - 1746


The sufferings inflicted, in 1743, by the Inquisition at Lisbon, on John Coustos, a Freemason, and the Master of a Lodge in that city; and the fortitude with which he endured the severest tortures, rather than betray his trusts and reveal the secrets that had been confided to him, constitute an interesting episode in the history of Freemasonry. Coustos, after returning to England, published, in 1746, a book, detailing his sufferings, from which the reader is presented with the folio wing abridged narrative.

John Coustos was born at Berne, in Switzerland, but emigrated, in 1716, with his father to England, where he became a naturalized subject. In 1743 he removed to Lisbon, in Portugal, and began the practice of his profession, which was that of a lapidary or dealer in precious stones. In consequence of the bull or edict of Pope-Clement XXII denouncing the Masonic Institution, the Lodges at Lisbon were not held at public houses, as was the custom in England and other Protestant countries, but privately, at the residences of the members. Of one of these Lodges, Coustos, who was a zealous Freemason, was elected the Master. A female, who was cognizant of the existence of the Lodge over which Coustos presided, revealed the circumstance to her confessor, declaring that, in her opinion, the members were "monsters in nature, who perpetrated the most shocking crimes." In consequence of this information, it was resolved, by the Inquisition, that Coustos should be arrested and subjected to the tender mercies of the Holy Ofice. He was accordingly seized, a few nights afterwards, in a coffee-house--- the public pretense of the arrest being that he was privy to the stealing of a diamond, of which they had falsely accused another jeweler, friend and warden of Coustos, whom they had previously arrested. Coustos was then carried to the prison of the Inquisition, and after having been searched and deprived of all his money, papers, and other things that he had about him, he was led to a lonely dungeon, in which he was immured, being expressly forbidden to speak aloud or knock against the walls, but if he required anything, to beat with a padlock that hung on the outward door, and which he could reach by thrusting his arm through the iron grate. "It was there," says he, "that, struck with the horrors of a place of which I had heard and read such baleful descriptions, I plunged at once into the blackest melancholy; especially when I reflected on the dire consequences with which my confinement might very possibly be attended."

On the next day he was led, bareheaded, before the President and four Inquisitors, who, after having made him reply on oath to several questions respecting his name, his parentage, his place of birth, his religion, and the time he had resided in Lisbon, exhorted him to make a full confession of all the crimes he had ever committed in the whole course of his life ; but, as he refused to make any such confession, declaring that, from his infancy, he had been taught to confess not to man but to God, he was again remanded to his dungeon.

Three days after, he was again brought before the Inquisitors, and the examination was renewed. This was the first occasion on which the subject of Freemasonry was introduced, and there Coustos for the first time learned that he had been arrested and imprisoned solely on account of his connection with the forbidden Institution.

The result of this conference was that Coustos was conveyed to a deeper dungeon, and kept there in close confinement for seven weeks, during which period he was taken three times before the Inquisitors. In the first of these examinations they again introduced the subject of Freemasonry, and declared that if the Institution was as virtuous as their prisoner contended that it was, there was no occasion for concealing so industriously the secrets of it. Coustos did not reply to this objection to the Inquisitorial satisfaction, and he was remanded back to his dungeon, where a few days after he fell sick.

After his recovery, he was again taken before the Inquisitors, who asked him several new questions with regard to the tenets of Freemasonry-among others, whether he, since his abode in Lisbon, had received any Portuguese into the society. He replied that he had not. When he was next brought before them, "they insisted," he says, "upon my letting them into the secrets of Freemasonry; threatening me, in case I did not comply." But Coustos firmly and fearlessly refused to violate his obligations.

After several other interviews, in which the effort was unavailingly made to extort from him a renunciation of Freemasonry, he was subjected to the torture, of which he gives the following account:

I was instantly conveyed to the torture-room, built in 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.

The reader will naturally suppose that I must be seized with horror, -when, at my entering this infernal place, I saw myself, on a sudden, surrounded by six wretches, who, after preparing the tortures, stripped me naked, all to linen drawers, when, laying me on my back, they began to lay hold of every part of my body. First, they put around 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 round each arm, and two round each thigh, which ropes passed under the scaffold through holes made for that purpose, and were all drawn tight at the same time, by four men, upon a signal made for this purpose.

The reader will believe that my pains 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 an 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 the torture, I should be guilty, by my obstinacy, of self-murder. In fine, the last time the ropes were drawn tight, I grew so exceedingly weak, occasioned by the blood's circulation being stopped, and the pains I endured, that I fainted quite away; insomuch that I was carried back to my dungeon, without perceiving it.

These barbarians, finding that the tortures above described could not extort any further discovery from me; but that, the more they made me suffer, the more fervently I addressed my supplications, for patience, to heaven. they were so inhuman, 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 outward; 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 to 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 taken to my dungeon, and put into the hands of physicians and surgeons, who, in setting my bones, put me to exquisite pain. Two months after, being a little recovered, I was again conveyed to the torture-room, and there made to undergo another kind of punishment twice. The reader may judge of its horror, from the following description thereof:

" 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 caught 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 cut 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 consistency and resolution. I was then remanded back to my dungeon, attended by the surgeons, who dressed my bruises; and here I continued until their auto-da-fé, or gaol delivery. On that occasion, he was sentenced to work at the galleys for four years.

Soon, however, after he had commenced the degrading occupation of a galley slave, the injuries which he had received during his inquisitorial tortures having so much impaired his health, that he was unable to undergo the toils to which he had been condemned, he was sent to the infirmary, where he remained until October, 1744, when he was released upon the demand of the British minister, as a subject to the King of England. He was, however, ordered to leave the country. This, it may be supposed, he gladly did, and repaired to London, where he published the account of his sufferings in a book entitled The Sufferings of John Coustos for Freemasonry, and for refusing to turn Roman Catholic, in the Inquisition at Lisbon, etc., etc. London, 1746; 8 vo, 400 pages. This work was reprinted at Birmingham in 1790. Such a narrative is well worthy of being read. John Coustos has not, by his literary researches, added anything to the learning or science of our Order; yet, by his fortitude and fidelity under the severest sufferings, inflicted to exhort from him a knowledge he was bound to conceal, he has shown that Freemasonry makes no idle boast in declaring that its secrets "are locked up in the depository of faithful breasts."

- Source: Mackey's Encyclopedia of Freemasonry

more masonic biographies