12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm

Natasha sheldon - November 15, 2017

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The Breaking Wheel. Google Images

The Breaking Wheel

The wheel or ‘breaking wheel’ was a popular punishment in Europe from antiquity until the nineteenth century. Legend states it began with the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria who died on the wheel in 305 AD for refusing to renounce her Christian faith. By the middle ages, those broken on the wheel were less exhaulted personages than Christian saints. Instead, they were murderers of one sort or another.

The punishment could take two forms. A person could either be broken by the wheel or broken on the wheel. The first version may well date from Frankish times when it was customary to dispose of certain criminals by driving a wagon over them. By the middle ages, it involved using a single wheel to break the criminal’s body.

Procedures from the blood court of Zurich in the fifteenth century describe how the condemned was placed belly down on a board. The wheel was then slammed down twice on each arm and leg. The ninth blow was to the spine. The broken body was then woven between the spokes of the wheel, which was then hammered to a pole. This pole was then erected and the victim was left to die.

To be broken on the wheel involved tying the limbs of a criminal to the wheel and then smashing them with a cudgel. In France, the wheel revolved to add an extra dimension of uncertainty to the punishment. However, the number and sequence of blows were no random things. The court, at sentencing, determined them. If mercy was judged to be appropriate, the executioner would despatch a criminal after one or two blows by strangling them. Alternatively, they could be killed with one blow to the neck- or the chest. This chest blow was known in France as the coups de grace- the blow of mercy.

In the worst cases, limbs were broken legs first, working upwards, in a sequence guaranteed to make the pain last. In 1581, mass murderer Peter Niers, a German bandit convicted of 544 murders was tortured for two days and given 42 strikes on the wheel before being quartered alive. Most criminals, however, would be left on the wheel to die after their cudgeling, eventually expiring of shock, dehydration or animal attacks. Most survived no longer than three days.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Scaphism. Google Images


Scaphism derives its name from the Greek term ‘skaphe’ meaning ‘anything scooped out“, a reference to the hollow in which the unfortunate victim was trapped while they suffered their fate. This hollow trap was formed from two boats stuck together, hence the other name for Scaphism- ‘The Boats”. Scaphism originated in Persia, but was known by a Greek name because the earliest and most detailed account of the practice is that of Plutarch in his “Life of Artaxerxes.”

The victim was Mithridates, a young soldier in the army of King Artaxerxes II. Artaxerxes brother, Cyrus the younger, had challenged his claim to the throne. The matter was decided between the two brothers at the Battle of Cunaxa in 401 BC, when a dart by Mithridates killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes richly rewarded the young soldier but he had a condition: everyone must think it was he, Artaxerxes who had killed his brother as in this way, he could consolidate his power. Mithridates agreed- but then could not help boasting that he had actually killed Cyrus. Artaxerxes punished his treachery by sentencing him to death by scaphism.

Plutarch describes how “two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other” were acquired, and Mithridates was placed inside with his head, hands, and feet outside the boat. The executioner then offered him food and “if he refuse[d]s to eat it, they force[d] him to do it by pricking his eyes.” Once this was done, Mithridates was drenched in milk and honey, which was poured “not only into his mouth, but all over his face.” He was then kept with “his face continually turned towards the sun,” so that “it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it.”

Mithridates was left in the boats to die. He continued to be fed. Meanwhile, his wooden shell began to fill with “what those that eat and drink must needs do.” By now, the sweet, sticky coating on his body plus the excrement collecting in the boats was attracting more insects. They began to feed upon him and reproduce “out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement,” When the top boat was taken off once Mithridates was dead, Plutarch described how “they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.”

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
The section from Stora Hammers Stone I showing potential Blood Eagle Execution. Google Images

The Blood Eagle

The blood eagle was a ritual execution described in Scandinavian skaldic poetry and the sagas as a ritual form of vengeance. Only two accounts exist: The Orkneyinga Saga and Snorri Sturlson’s Heimskringla. Both were written at least two centuries after the events they describe, leading scholars to debate their validity as proof that the blood eagle had a basis in fact.

The first death by Blood Eagle was that of Prince Halfdan Haaleg. Halfdan had killed the father of Einar- and so Einar had his revenge. The two accounts contradict themselves slightly as in one, Einar orders the execution while in the other, he carried it out himself. However, both describe what the blood eagle involved. The victim knelt with his back to the executioner, who severed his ribs from his spine. The executioner then pulled out the lungs through the gap to form ‘wings.’

This death was also described as being inflicted on King Aella of Northumbria by Ivar the boneless. Aella was responsible for the death of Ivar’s father, the semi-historical Ragnar Lothbrok. Ivar and his brothers stormed England in revenge and in, 867AD took the city of York and captured Aella. They then “caused the bloody eagle to be carved on the back of Aella and they cut away all of the ribs from the spine and then ripped out his lungs.”

However, the fact that Ragnar Lothbrok and his death are semi-mythological, coupled with the lack of evidence has led some scholars to believe that these accounts are suspect. Rather than being factual accounts, some view them as beefed-up stories designed to entertain rather than inform, colored with inspiration from the tales of Christian martyrdom the Norsemen were now exposed to.

However, Alfred Smyth, former professor of medieval history at the University of Kent in the UK believed in the Blood Eagle as an actual mode of execution. He stated that the term for Blood eagle, ‘blodorn” was an Old Norse word that predates Christianity. Smyth’s belief could also be backed by material evidence. The Stora Hammars Stones in Gotland, Sweden date back to the Viking age. One of them, Stora Hammer I seems to depict a man about to be opened up from the back while an eagle hovers behind him. Does this depict the blood eagle or is it another allegory? The debate whether this particular torturous death was fact or fable will no doubt continue.


Sources For Further Reading:

Owlcation – How and Why the Romans Executed People

The Outlaw Bible Student – Crucifixion of Christ: Was a Cross or Pole Used?

Biblical Archaeology Society – Roman Crucifixion Methods Reveal The History Of Crucifixion

World History Encyclopedia – Vestal Virgin

All That’s Interesting – Immurement: A History Of Walled In Terror And Cruelty

Medium – The Man Henry VIII Boiled to Death

Medium – Brazen Bull — The Story of the Worst Punishment in History

Medievalist – Archaeologists Discover Medieval Man ‘Broken On The Wheel’

Smithsonian Magazine – The Vengeance of Ivar the Boneless

History Collection – Slowest Historical Torture Methods We Can’t Believe Living Souls Had to Endure

History Collection – 6 Cruel Torture Methods of the Spanish Inquisition