11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History

Shannon Quinn - June 4, 2018

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of the Sotah trials. Credit: Quantum Torah

Ordeal by Bitter Water

In Jewish culture, there is a practice in the Torah called “Sotah” that will determine if a woman truly cheated on her husband or not. In the Orthodox Jewish tradition, married women are supposed to hide their hair, because it is considered to be a private part of her body that belongs to their husband. They normally cover their heads with scarves, and even today, some Orthodox Jewish women still carry on the tradition with wigs and hats.

When a woman was accused of adultery, her husband would take her to the rabbi, who told her to untie their hair and expose it in front of everyone. As a married woman, this was considered to be a humiliating and indecent thing for other people to see her hair. Oat barley was ground up into a powder, and the woman was asked to swear an oath that she did not cheat on her husband. She wrote the oath on a piece of paper with the barley. Then, a Rabbi said a prayer, asking God to curse the wheat if she was guilty. It was mixed with with water, and she was forced to drink this bitter concoction. In the earliest form of the tradition, however, women were forced to write with the dirt they found on the floor of the Tabernacle, and drink dirt mixed with water, instead of barley.

The idea was that if she had lied inside the holy Tabernacle, God would know. If a woman was infertile after drinking the bitter water, they took this as a sign that she was cursed, and she truly did cheat on her husband. This does not take into account the possibility that maybe this woman had health problems that made her infertile anyway. There were probably some women who actually did cheat on their husband, and they got away with it, because we now know that while drinking barley water is gross, it is relatively harmless.

The Torah acknowledges the fact that sometimes, husbands are just jealous, and it is very possible that their wife is innocent of adultery. Before “Sotah”, women were publicly lynched whenever their husband accused them of cheating on them, even if there was no tangible proof. So, even though the Sotah trial seems very silly, it was actually a huge improvement on giving women an automatic death penalty just because her husband said so.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Modern-day children jumping into the Sirhind Canal in India. Credit: Rediff.com

Ordeal by Diving

Beginning in the 1600’s, the British East India Company became the leader in global trade, bringing goods across their conquered territories. In 1895, a book was published by The East India Company with some of the information they learned about the cultures of the countries they visited while trading in Asia. While learning about the customs of their legal system, they discovered that people in Siam, Burma, India, Cambodia, and Laos practiced ordeal by diving.

In each village, they would find a pond or river that was not too deep that was free of leeches or any other creepy crawly things that may cause someone to jump out of the water right away. Large stakes were driven into the ground in the bottom of the pond. Young men were encouraged to practice holding their breath underwater, and they sometimes held contests to see who would be the new champion. However, when someone committed a crime, they forced a man to endure holding their breath underwater as a trial to prove their guilt or innocence.

The accused would pray to the water gods, Kala and Varuna before being forced to dive underwater for a certain period of time, holding on to the stake in the ground to help prevent themselves from floating to the top, and a safety rope tied around their waist, just in case they started to drown, or the current picked up. If he could not hold his breath long enough, he was guilty, but if he practice, or had a strong lung capacity, he was acquitted of all crimes. The idea was that if they were innocent, the water gods would protect them and help keep them underwater.

This ordeal sounds completely illogical, but according to their research, the East India Company explained at they were told that the ordeal would only last “3 Klans”, which is only about 4 seconds. The British had a hard time believing this, and they wrote in their guide that it must have been a much longer test, because they thought it was not long enough to be a true ordeal. However, maybe there was a psychological element to this test. It is possible that a guilty person would panic and pop out of the water for fear that the water gods would drag them under.

Whether the person was diving for the purpose of a competition or the trial, they had a policy that if someone was submerged for more than 6 padas, they would pull on the rope to drag the man to the shore. According to the East India Company, they had a very hard time believing that they would actually force someone to be underwater for “6 padas”, because that is 36 minutes. Even the most experienced free divers in the world cannot hold their breath of that long. The current Guinness World Record is 22 minutes. So, rather than a safety rope, it was more like a way to retrieve the dead.


11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of two fighters during trial by combat. Credit: Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Trial by Combat

Trial by combat was recently brought back into the recent memory with the book and TV series Game of Thrones. Cersei Lannister hires a champion named The Mountain to fight on her behalf. This actually did happen in Medieval Europe whenever two people had a disagreement, or someone had to face being accused with a crime. In Great Britain, records were kept whenever two men decided to duel in order to resolve a conflict. Sometimes, both men would die, but apparently, someone could back out of the duel if they chose to. The fear of dying usually helped people put things into perspective, and settled their differences out of court.

Like most of these trials, this was not very logical, because strength and athleticism have nothing to do with innocence. A rich person could also hire the strongest person in the area to represent them, as well. In fact, if someone was accused of being a murderer, they are actually more likely to win in a battle to the death. However, like every other trial, they put faith in God, and in stories like David and Goliath, where even the smallest man can overtake a giant, so long as they have God on their side.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Large illustration of medieval battle with two men dueling to the death. Credit: Famous-Trials.com

The use of trial by combat finally became illegal in 1819. A man named Abraham Thornton raped and killed a young virgin woman named Mary Ashford, and then dumped her body at the bottom of a ditch in the woods. He was acquitted of the crime. Even though he admitted to having sex with Mary Ashford that night, Thornton had an alibi that placed him somewhere else during the estimated time the crime supposedly took place. So they claimed that Mary must have committed suicide from the shame of having sex out of wedlock. For everyone in the town, this was a totally outraged. They knew the kind of person Thornton was, and they knew young Mary would never do that to herself. Everyone knew that he was a cold blooded killer, but there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove it.

Mary’s brother, William Ashford, knew that this was totally unfair to let this monster walk free. He gathered new evidence for the case, hired a really good lawyer, and wanted justice for his sister’s death. So he tried to take him to trial a second time, knowing that he had enough evidence to prove the man’s guilt. This made Thornton furious, so he called up his right to trial by combat, which was still technically on the books as a real option. He demanded he and William Ashford should have a battle to the death. Since he knew Thornton was an actual murderer, he backed off, and the man went free a second time.

After this incident, the government could see that this legal system was a total disaster. Today, there are laws against “double jeopardy”, which makes it impossible to try the same person for the same crime twice. It also eliminated trial by combat.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of the ducking stool with a woman who is accused of being a witch. Credit: The British National Archives.

Cold Water Witch Trials

When a woman was accused of being a witch, there are different techniques in each culture that were used to test her guilt or innocence. There was a belief that river water was pure, and it would reject a witch if she were to be dunked underwater. A woman was tied up, and thrown into the river. If she was a witch, she would float to the top. If she was innocent, however, the woman would sink. Clearly, there was one huge flaw to this trial, because if a woman drowned, it meant she was exonerated, but she was dead. If she floated, they would take her out of the water and burn her at the stake. Either way, this trial ended up in death.

In order to address the issue, they invented a device called “the ducking stool”, where a woman was tied to a chair that was attached to a large wooden log. She was then dunked into the water and held underwater. This was repeated multiple times. In some cases, this was done to women who were considered to be too loud and outspoken, the elderly, or to a woman who was accused of committing adultery. Basically any woman that was seem as a troublemaker was put through cold water torture.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of the Ordeal by Blood trials. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Trial By Touch

In the Jewish tradition, the soul exists in blood, since it is essential to maintaining human life. This belief is why people sometimes did blood oaths to seal a contract. There used to be a tradition during Jewish funerals where people would visit the body, and ask for forgiveness for any arguments they may have had in the past. If the corpse started to have a nosebleed immediately following someone’s request for forgiveness, it meant that the ghost was still holding a grudge.

The trial by touch, also sometimes called “the ordeal of blood” was a method people used to identify a murderer. The idea was used during the reign of Richard the Lionhearted of England, who ruled in the 1100’s. It was even alluded to in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where the blood on Lady Macbeth’s hands will never go away, no matter how much she washes them. The idea was that when someone commits murder, they will never be able to escape the flow of blood from their victim both physically and mentally.

Roughly ten hours after someone dies, blood in the body coagulates, and they will no longer bleed from any cuts or lacerations, but if the body is still fresh, it is very possible that it will continue to bleed. In ancient times, people did not understand the science behind this, or course, and they believed that a soul lingered around a body for a while immediately following their death. If someone was murdered, their ghost would surely want justice.

When a murder suspect was captured, they were brought to the body of the person who had been murdered, and forced to touch it. They believed that if this person was the murderer, the dead person would begin pour out fresh blood from their wound. This was not considered to be a superstition. It was accepted as actual fact that the method works, even from doctors that should have known better. Since the idea was believed in Europe, it spread to the colonies in the United States.

In the 1700’s, a song called “Earl Richard and Young Huntin'” describes the trial by blood in the lyrics. “The maiden touched the clay-cold corpse, a drop it never bled. The lady lay her hand on him, and soon the ground was red.”

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of the Trial by Boiling Water from the 1300’s. Credit: Herzog August Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, Germany

Ordeal by Boiling Water

When a man was accused of a serious crime, he was required to fast on only water, salt, and herbs and abstain from having sex for three days straight. During this time, he was forced to live with a priest, who would pray for help from God to endure his trial. Once those three days of preparation were over, and they considered a man’s body to be cleansed, they brought him to a cauldron of boiling water. He had to put his entire forearm into the cauldron to retrieve a stone from the bottom. The priests would quickly wrap his arm in bandages.

Three days later, the priests would unwrap the man’s arm. If it looked normal, it meant that God had healed his wounds, and he was declared innocent. If it was still scarred and burned, it meant that the man was innocent. According to the laws of Pope Gregory The Great, the accused man had to keep the fire going under his own cauldron for fourteen days straight. It is possible, then, that maybe someone was able to get away with lighting a fire just before their trial, and their water was not actually going at a full boil. Otherwise, this trial was likely to come up with a guilty verdict every single time.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Botony illustration of the calabar bean. Credit: eBay.

The Ordeal Bean

The Code of Hammurabi is one of the oldest written books of law in human civilization. In this text, it claims that the calabar bean is essentially like a magical plant put on Earth by God to help humans find out the truth. These beans are extremely poisonous, and anyone who eats them would become really sick, and die, or have permanent damage for the rest of their life. The theory behind this method was that if this person was innocent, God would have mercy on them and help them recover from the illness and go back to normal. If they died, it meant they were guilty.

It turns out that there was a way to survive this ordeal, but very few people probably figured it out before it was too late. If someone swallows a calabar bean whole, they are far more likely to survive without getting too sick, because the skin of the bean will hold in the toxins. It is possible that it could pass through the digestive system without doing any damage at all. But if someone bit down and chewed on the bean, it would release the poison immediately, and they were far more likely to die as a result.

The beans contain physostigmine alkaloid, which is one of the chemicals that is used to produce nerve gas. People lose complete control over their nervous system’s connection to their internal organs. They begin having seizures, and it can lead to brain damage and asphyxiation. Since ancient people strongly believed that evil acts were influenced by demons, they would have seen someone convulsing and having seizures as proof that the demon had possessed them to do the crime.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
During Catholic Mass, the priest uses golden chalices and holders for the communion ceremony. Credit: Wikimedia Common.

Ordeal By Host

In the Catholic Church, people eat the Eucharist every Sunday during mass. The Eucharist is a bread wafer that is supposed to symbolize the body of Jesus Christ, and red wine represents his blood. This comes from the Bible verse Matthew 26:26 when Jesus was speaking to his Apostles during the Last Supper, and he instructed them to eat the bread and blood as a representation of his flesh.

In Medieval Times, people truly believed that a priest had the power to turn the bread and wine into the flesh of Jesus. Even to this day, devout Catholics truly believe in the act of “transubstantiation”, which was a term invented during the Middle Ages. Even back then, there was a debate as to whether the transformation was literal, or symbolic. Either way, it is a sacrament, or requirement for every member of the church. Consuming the Eucharist provides a direct communication with God, and an opportunity for someone to say their prayers as the wafer dissolves on their tongue. Once someone consumed the wafer, they were exposing their soul to God to judge them for their sins. This was why people were encouraged to confess their sins to the priest before they receive communion.

It only makes sense, then that priests decided they would use this belief to their advantage whenever one of them committed a crime. Instead of enduring torture like the common people, a priest would hold the Eucharist and declare that if they were guilty, God would make him choke when he ate the bread. There were a few times when people had a psychosomatic reaction to swallowing the wafer, because their guilt over their deed, combined with the fear that God was going to smite them was enough to make them panic and start to choke.

11 Unbelievable Trials By Ordeal Throughout History
Illustration of a group of men surrounding an accused villain of a crime with the sassywood trial. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Sassywood Ordeal

This is a traditional African trial that has been practiced in Liberia for thousands of years to get a confession out of a murderer. First, the suspect is given a poisonous drink made from the bark of a sassywood tree, and a machete is heated over a fire. The red hot metal is then pressed against the person’s legs, burning them until they agree to talk. Other times, hot oil is dripped on the suspect. This is basically just using torture to coerce a confession. In the western world, we now know that torturing people to get information or even just blackmailing them can often lead to a false confession. This is not a good way to test innocence or guilt at all, but sometimes, tradition trumps logic.

This practice was used all the way until 2009, when it was finally outlawed by the Liberian government after several innocent women died from the poison sassywood drink and torture after being accused of witchcraft. However, this has been part of tribal Liberian culture for so long, there are people who are not willing to give it up, because they truly believe it is a better method for finding guilty people than taking them to court.

In 2010, a group of young Liberian men went out to the bush, and when they returned home, one of them was missing. They refused to explain what had happened, and the man’s parents could not find a body. If there had been some kind of accident, they would have found him, or his friends would have carried him back to the village. So they pretty had already assumed that the man had been murdered. All of the men were forced to drink the sassywood poison, and they all eventually confessed to murder. The chief of the traditional counsel, Chief Zanzan Kanwor, was forced to meet with the Liberian counsel to defend breaking the new law. He gave a speech, saying that the ancient practice of sassywood works really well, so there should be no need to change it to a more humane criminal proceeding. After he gave his speech, the crowd applauded him, proving that the members of the government have a long way to go in improving humane trial practices.


Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

Asian Review. 1895. East India Trading Association.

Laura Wright. The Virginia Creeper. 2007

Sassywood or Not? Cabinet Retreat in Buchanan. Dr. Abdoulaye Dukule’. The Liberian Journal.

Sotah. Ishay Rosen-Zvi. The Jewish Women’s Archive.

Trial By Ordeal. The Albany Law Journal, Volume 1. 1871.

Big, Bad Botany: Calabar Bean (Physostigma venenosum), the Lie Detector. Michael Largo. Slate. 2014.

Medieval Trial by Ordeal. L. Kip. Wheeler. Carson-Newman University.

Medieval Sourcebook: Ordeal of Boiling Water, 12th or 13th Century. Paul Halsall. Fordham University. 1996.

Was Trial By Combat Ever Actually a Thing? Melissa. TodayIFoundOut.