12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
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 Judgement of Cambyses by Gerard David (1498) Google Images

Flaying Alive

Flaying or skinning alive is another very ancient method of execution. The victim was stripped and their hands and feet secured to stop movement. Then, the executioner would slash the skin with a sharp knife and peeled it away from the muscles. The face was often flayed first to cause maximum suffering, as the victim was still conscious. To make the punishment worse, the executioner could part boiling the victim first for a few minutes as this softened the skin, making it easier to tear away.

The procedure left not only muscles but also nerves exposed. This was agonizing, but it also left the victim’s body vulnerable. So if the shock of the pain did not kill them, blood loss, and hypothermia or, if they survived long enough, infection would bring about death.

A number of cultures practiced flaying. An enraged Christian mob flayed the female philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria by killing her “with potsherds.” The Aztecs and Assyrians both flayed their enemies. In the Aztec’s case, prisoners of war were flayed alive while the Assyrians liked to make an example of the defeated rulers of their enemies by skinning them.

The displayed skin of a flayed person could act as a warning and a deterrent. A legend from Hadstock, Essex, in England told how medieval parishioners nailed the flayed skin of a Danish raider to the church door as a warning to other unchristian marauders. The legend proved to be true. When the door came to be repaired, pieces of human skin were found under the doornails.

From 900AD until it was banned in 1905, the Chinese practiced a type of flaying called Ling chi or death of a thousand cuts. This prolonged death was only awarded to those guilty of treason. One such person was Lui Jin, a sixteenth-century imperial eunuch. Lui Jin was the leader of “The eight tigers” a group of powerful Ming dynasty eunuchs. When their emperor began to neglect imperial affairs due to his dissolute lifestyle, Lui Jin effectively organized a coup and began to pass laws in the emperor’s stead.

However, once the emperor became aware of the situation, he had Lui Jin arrested and sentenced to Ling chi. The former court official was sentenced to 1,000 cuts a day over a three-day period. Lui Jin only survived until the second day, just long enough received 300-400 of his second day of cuts.

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

Boiling Alive

Boiling people alive, as a punishment for their crimes may not have been as common as some forms of execution. However, it enjoyed a brief but nasty time on the statute books of England in the sixteenth century and was used intermittently in Asia as a form of vengeance and intimidation.

Oil, water, lead- even hot wax could be used. The procedure involved either placing the victim in the liquid and heating it or else waiting for the liquid to come to temperature and lowering the victim into it from above. If the temperature was moderated correctly, the victim would remain alive and in agony until the overlying fatty tissue was destroyed, allowing major breaches in the veins and arteries.

Boiling as a means of execution entered the English statute books in 1531. Henry VIII enacted the punishment after the Bishop of Rochester and his household narrowly escaped being poisoned by the bishop’s cook, Richard Rouse. Rouse had laced a pot of porridge with poisonous yeast, which made seventeen people ill and caused the death of two. The conviction of a cook for poisoning in such a prominent household worried the establishment. So Rouse had to be made an example to send out a strong message of discouragement.

Rouse’s death in 1532 was described by “The Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London“: “This year was a cook boiled in a cauldron in Smithfield for he would a poisoned the bishop or Rochester Fischer with his many servants and he was locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet many times until he was dead.”

The spectacle was not well received by the crowd. Some women fainted at the sight and sound of Rouse’s agony while others were not affected by anything other than boredom and said they preferred a good beheading. Perhaps this was why, aside from the execution of Margaret Davy in 1542, again for poisoning, Edward VI, Henry’s son finally removed boiling from the statute books in 1547.

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

The Brazen Bull

According to Diodorus Siculus, in 560BC, Perilaus, a metalsmith from Athens designed the brazen bull. Perilaus made the contraption for the Phalaris, the despot of the Sicilian city of Acragas. Phalaris was known for his excessive cruelty and so, with this in mind, Perilaus designed something especially unpleasant for Phalaris to execute his enemies in.

As the name suggests, the brazen bull was a hollow metal vessel in the shape of a bull. The condemned were forced inside through a trapdoor in the bull’s belly and then enclosed within. Once the victim was secured, a fire was lit beneath the bull, heating the metal- and cooking the unfortunate victim. Pipes fitted to the bull’s mouth converted the sounds of the victim’s agonized screams into: “the tenderest, most melodious, most pathetic of bellowing’s” as Perilaus described them when he was pitching the bull to Phalaris.

Phalaris, perhaps shocked to find someone with an even sicker mind than his own, decided that Perilaus should give him a personal demonstration of the bull’s attributes. So he had the hapless metal smith bundled inside his invention and ordered the fires lit. As soon as the terrified Perilaus proved that the bull did indeed bellow ‘melodiously and pathetically’ Phalaris ordered the metal smith’s release- only to finish him off by throwing him off a cliff.

Phalaris put the bull to use in Acragus. It was said that once it was opened after execution, the victim was nothing but bones, so perfectly de-fleshed that they ‘gleamed.’ These bones were reputedly made into bracelets and sold in the markets of Acragus. However, in 570AD, Telemachus overthrew Phalaris and had the defeated despot thrown into the belly of the bull- quite literally firing him.

However, this was not the last history saw of the brazen bull as a means of execution. The bull was particularly useful in making martyrs of the early Christian saints. Saint Antipas, bishop of Pergamon became the first Christian martyr in Asia Minor when Emperor Domitian ordered him to be roasted alive in the belly of the bull.

12 Torturous Methods of Execution in History that Will Make You Squirm
Carthusian monks, hanged, drawn and quartered on the orders of Henry VIII. Google Images

Hanged, Drawn and Quartered

The penalty of hanging, drawing, and quartering in England began to evolve as a penalty for treason in the thirteenth century. Matthew of Paris, a contemporary chronicler, recorded how a plot to kill Henry III resulted in two men, William de Marisco and his unnamed accomplice being put to death. The two men were drawn on hurdles to their place of execution and hung. De Marisco was posthumously disemboweled and quartered and his accomplice beheaded.

Henry’s son, Edward III elaborated on this grisly ritual. He was enraged when welsh nobleman Dafydd ap Gruffydd declared himself Prince of Wales and rebelled against the English crown in attempted to restore welsh independence. Once ap Gruffydd was captured, Edward came up with a suitable punishment for the recalcitrant Prince.

Firstly, he instigated a new law of High Treason, of which ap Gruffydd was found guilty and condemned to death. The manner of that death suitable expressed Edward’s ire. Ap Gruffydd was to be drawn to his place of execution because of his rebellion. He would then be hung for killing English nobles at Easter. He would be cut down and eviscerated while alive and his body quartered and displayed for his treachery to the King. In this way, Dafydd ap Gruffydd became the first noble to be hung, drawn and quartered.

The 1351 Treason Act made hanging, drawing and quartering the statutory punishment for treason- for men at least. Because it involved stripping the body, women were spared the penalty for modesties sake- and burned instead. Treason was not just against the king. The crime of petty treason: the murder of an employer or husband also earned the same penalty as high treason.

The victim was usually still alive during disemboweling. Major General Thomas Harrison, one of the signatories on the death warrant of Charles I actually hit the executioner as he cut him open. Others tried to avoid the worst by ensuring they died on the gallows. Guy Fawkes broke his own neck by jumping from the gallows at his execution in 1606. Often, sympathetic onlookers would pull on the condemned person’s legs to help them along before they were eviscerated.

The penalty for hanging, drawing, and quartering was modified from the late eighteenth century, with bodily mutilation occurring after death. The last person sentenced to it in 1839 after the Chartist Newport rising had their sentence transmuted to transportation and in 1870, the penalty was removed from the statute books.

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