|The Torture of Cuauhtemoc, 1892 painting by Leandro Izaguirre|
After 80 days of continuous assault from the Spanish, the city-state of Tenochtitlan needed help. Their ruler, the 25-year old Cuauhtemoc, went to try and find some. On the way, he was captured by Cortez and his men. Cuauhtemoc handed Cortez his knife, and asked him to kill him.
But Cortez was chivalrous -- at least at first. "A Spaniard knows how to respect valor, even in an enemy," Cortez said. Ah, but then he found out there was gold involved.
The Aztecs were rumored to have vast stores of gold. That wasn't really true. The Aztecs didn't believe that gold had any intrinsic value; they just thought it made a nice overlay for wood. Consequently, there wasn't really a lot of gold in any one place.
Cortez didn't know this, of course, so he allowed Cuauhtemoc and few other leaders to be tortured. They put their feet into a fire, but no information was forthcoming. Finally, Cortez grew ashamed, and stopped the torture.
That doesn't mean he let Cuauhtemoc go. He thought the man was a threat, so he took him along on a trip to Honduras. Along the way, Cortez got the idea that Cuauhtemoc and a few others were plotting against him. Some say that another Aztec reported the plot. Others say that Cortez imagined the whole thing. There was also a theory that Cortez believed that he could instill fear in the natives by causing them to think he had discovered the plot by magic.
Cuauhtemoc, two other Aztec nobles, and eight other men were all hanged. It was said that afterwards, Cortez was wracked with guilt, suffered from insomnia, and sleep-walked, sometimes hurting himself while in his travels.