In the 1700s, a dungeon was not a place a person wanted to end up. Eighteenth-century dungeons were cruel places where prisoners could expect ill treatment. Conditions varied depending on the country in which the person was imprisoned and the reason they found themselves in a dungeon. Torture was certainly not an uncommon expectation.
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Often jailers did not need to torture or even execute prisoners, as the conditions in the prisons took care of that naturally. The prisoners rarely received quality food or water, and many starved to death. Pestilence also frequently entered 18th-century dungeons. The filth and food quality combined with the prisoners being jammed so close together meant that once one person got sick, a pestilence could quickly sweep through all in a dungeon.
Torture was a very common occurrence in dungeons in the 18th century. Prisoners were tortured in numerous ways until they admitted to the crime for which they were charged. A common form of torture used at Newgate Prison in London was called "pressing." To press a prisoner meant that he was flattened out on the floor and had a heavy board put on top of his body after he was tied down. Every day, weights were put on top of the board until the prisoner finally confessed his crimes.
Dungeons in the 18th century faced overcrowding problems consistently. Most crimes in that time were not punishable by long-term imprisonment, so a constant movement of bodies in and out of prison was common. Many people died while chained to walls in dungeons. In other cases, people were transported out of dungeons and shipped to outside colonies instead. In 18th-century England, for example, many of the imprisoned were shipped to Australia.
Dungeons were not used exclusively as prisons during this era. Throughout most of the 18th century, dungeons also doubled as insane asylums. Very little was known about mental illness during this time. People who exhibited signs of madness or mental illness were often imprisoned in dungeons and literally chained to the walls and offered no treatment or compassion. It was not until the end of the 18th century that Phillippe Pinel began to reform the treatments given to mental patients.
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