20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History

Tim Flight - October 2, 2018

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
16th-century Scavenger’s Daughter on display at the Tower of London, England. Burgerbe

11. The Scavenger’s Daughter would squeeze blood from your anus, ears, and nostrils

As well as instituting the punishment of being boiled alive, Henry VIII’s reign also oversaw the invention of the Scavenger’s Daughter. The Scavenger’s Daughter, a demonic squashing device, was intended to be used to extract confessions, and was especially effective when used alternately with the Torture Rack (see below), which did the very opposite by stretching people horribly. Its rather confusing name comes from its vicious creator, Sir Leonard Skevington, the Lieutenant of the Tower of London, and is a bastardization of its original name, ‘Skevington’s Daughter’. Though rarely used, the device was truly the stuff of nightmares.

Essentially, the Scavenger’s Daughter was a series of iron rings hinged together in two parts. The suspect was first forced into a kneeling position, as if praying, then told to compress themselves as tightly as possible. One of the rings was passed around the feet, then the torturer would kneel on the victim’s back until the other ring could pass around the small of their back and, eventually, neck. Locked in this position for up to 90 minutes, blood would fill the lungs, and eventually spurt violently from the ears, nostrils, and anus. Few lasted that long before confessing something.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
16th-century German depiction of Peter Stump being broken on the Wheel in Cologne, 1589. Wikimedia Commons

12. Being Broken on the Wheel would break your bones and rupture your vital organs

The wheel was one of the key inventions in human history, but it proved equally effective for torturing people as for locomotion. Its use in torture is credited to the Roman Emperor, Commodus (161-192AD), who would bind a wheel (horizontally or vertically) to a victim’s body, then have someone hammer it with a heavy mallet, breaking their bones. The other chief method of tying someone to the rim of a heavy wheel and rolling it along to break the bones and rupture the internal organs was most famously used to torture Saint Catherine, after whom the spinning firework was named.

Though the Europeans eventually stopped killing Christians, they were unwilling to give up such a fun pastime, and started to execute or torture others on the wheel. The chief modification of the torture in the medieval period was to increase the public spectacle of the event. Then, criminals were tied to the spokes of a wheel, which was raised on a scaffold to allow spectators the best possible view as an executioner methodically broke every limb with an iron bar, the coup de grâce coming with a blow to the head or heart, leaving a vile, pulpy mess.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
They look so innocent… BoatLife

13. Scaphismus would see you marinade in your own dung and be eaten alive by vermin

Scaphismus, also known as The Boats, was an ancient Persian technique of execution that involved a slow, painful, and humiliating death. The 12th-century Byzantine Chronicler, Joannes Zonaras, describes the execution doled out to the soldier Mithridates for murdering King Cyrus by the latter’s mother in 401 BC. ‘Two boats are joined together one on top of the other, with holes cut in them in such a way that the victim’s head, hands, and feet only are left outside. Within these boats the man to be punished is placed lying on his back, and the boats then nailed together with bolts.

‘Next, they pour a mixture of milk and honey into the wretched man’s mouth, till he is filled to the point of nausea, smearing his face, feet, and arms with the same mixture, and so leave him exposed to the sun… flies, wasps, and bees, attracted by the sweetness… miserably torment and sting the wretched man. Moreover, his belly, distended as it is with milk and honey, throws off liquid excrements [breeding] swarms of worms… Thus the victim lying in the boats, his flesh rotting away in his own filth and devoured by worms, dies a lingering and horrible death’.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
Heretic’s Fork, Europe, Early Modern Period. James Prix

14. The Heretic’s Fork ensured an ironically devotional pose

The Spanish Inquisition, lest we forget, though they were the good guys. After all, they were merely weeding out evil for the good of both the wrongdoers and the general public. They only executed people to ensure that they had a spell of penance in the hope of improving their lot in the next life. The victims must have been jolly grateful. Anyway, in order to ensure that the penance was enough to appease God and that true confession were extracted, the Inquisition resorted to some particularly cruel and devious methods of torture. One example was the Heretic’s Fork.

The Heretic’s Fork was a double-ended iron implement with two prongs at each end. It was strapped to the victim’s neck whilst they were kneeling, with one end pushing into the chest, the other into the fleshy area around the chin. The ends were sharp, so forced the head into an upward pose, and precluded talking. Falling asleep would cause the head and chest to be penetrated by the fork, and thus prove lethal. But this was all very kind, you see: this was a devotional pose that ensured victims could keep quiet and pray to God! Thanks, Inquisition.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
Scold’s Bridle, Europe, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons

15. The Scold’s Bridle prevented condemned women from talking, and sometimes severed the tongue altogether

Whilst perhaps the least physically painful of all the items on this list, the Scold’s Bridle, or Branks, provided a heady mixture of misogyny, physical torment, and public humiliation. The Scold’s Bridle was an iron framework which was placed over the female victim’s head, forcing a piece of iron into the mouth to prevent the tongue from moving and thus preventing the spread of gossip, husbands being nagged, or spells being cast. The Bridle would have to be worn in public to humiliate the victim, and some were elaborate affairs with ridiculous ears and appendages to increase this effect.

Being made of iron, the Scold’s Bridle weighed a lot and would cause great discomfort to the wearer. Some surviving examples were also eminently crueler than those described above. The iron appendage shoved under the tongue could be modified to ensure horrific injuries by the addition of spikes or simply being crudely sharpened. In these examples, the punished woman could not escape the tongue being severed or the mouth being lacerated, leading to lethal infection or a permanent hindrance to speech. Injuries aside, the shame of being thus punished in the small, close-knit communities of the past would be permanent.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
Cuthbert Simpson tortured on the Rack, from an edition of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, England, 1563. Johnfoxe.org

16. The Torture Rack could tear off limbs and rupture organs

Although primarily a method of extracting information, the Torture Rack could also be a method of execution, whether by design or miscalculation. Quite simply, the torture rack was a wooden frame containing a series of rollers, around which ropes were tied. The victim was placed on the rack, their limbs spread out and tied with the ropes, which could then be tightened by means of a lever. The effect was to stretch the body beyond its natural limitations, dislocating the limbs and even severing them entirely. Death came from loss of blood or the over-stretching and rupturing of internal organs.

Invented by the Romans, the Torture Rack was wheeled out throughout the medieval and Early Modern periods in Europe pretty much whenever heresy or conspiracy was afoot. The Rack was thus a widely-known, and widely-feared, instrument for centuries. In the sixteenth century, the Baron Scanaw of Bohemia was accused of heresy and sentenced to be tortured on the rack to extract a confession and the names of his co-conspirators. His dread was such that he cut out his own tongue to avoid it. Cruelly, the court simply changed his sentence to being executed on the Torture Rack. Nice try, Baron.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
Implements very similar to these blacksmith’s tongs were heated up and used to tear off gobbets of flesh. Pinterest

17. Some people were tortured by having their flesh torn off with red-hot pincers

Like the wheel, the invention of pincers gave the human race an important technological advancement. They ensured that red-hot metals could be handled, and thus iron could be manipulated to make items such as swords, buckles and, eventually, cannon. Their ability to withstand incredible heat, however, meant that they provided a cruel and extremely painful method of torture. With brutal simplicity, torturers could heat the pincers up to high temperatures until they glowed red, before pinching bits of a victim’s flesh and tearing them off. Standard blacksmiths’ pincers were modified for this task by being sharpened or spiked.

Red-Hot Pincers also offered the most painful way of castrating a criminal. Although most commonly used to extract confessions or information, the injuries resulting from the flesh being torn could lead to deadly infection or severed arteries. Sometimes the wounds would be filled with boiling liquids to increase the torment. Often pincer-torture was incorporated into an elaborate execution. Michel Foucault memorably discusses the execution of Robert-François Damiens, whose failed assassination of Louis XV saw his flesh torn off in certain places with red-hot pincers, the wounds filled with molten lead and sulfur, and his body finally torn apart by horses.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
A swarm of rats. The Daily Mirror

18. Some people were eaten alive by Rats

Rats will eat pretty much anything, alive or dead. Many are the semi-legendary tales of people partially eaten by rats after a fall or non-lethal heart attack, but this tendency was once seen as useful to the state in many countries, rather than annoying. At the Tower of London in Elizabethan times, there was a cell dubbed ‘The Dungeon of Rats’, located below the waterline of the River Thames. At high tide, the local rats would head into the cell to escape the rising water and take advantage of the free meal afforded by the injured and shackled prisoner.

Where the English were content to look the other way and let the rats go about their horrible business, during the Dutch Revolt against Spain in the seventeenth century, the dissident Dutch leader Diederik Sonoy did not want to leave anything to chance. He would bind his prisoners to a table, place a rat in a cage on top of them, and heat it up. The rat would desperately attempt to escape the searing heat by burrowing downwards… through the victim’s chest. In this way, Sonoy extracted crucial information about Spanish movements and, presumably, learned a lot about rodent biology.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
A missionary in China is killed by Ling-chi, France, 1858. Wikimedia Commons

19. Death by a Thousand Cuts involved considerable skill and an agonizing death

Known in China as ling-chi, Death by a Thousand Cuts was practiced well into the 20th century in the country. In this form of execution, a victim was tied to a cross on a table which also contained a basket of razor-sharp knives, each with a different part of the anatomy written upon it, which was covered with a cloth. The executioner would slip his hand into the basket and draw a knife at random, like a diabolical raffle. He would read the knife’s inscription, and then slice the designated part of the body, before randomly selecting another blade.

The victim’s death could, technically, be instant. For amongst the knives (a thousand is obviously an exaggeration) was one instructing the executioner to stab the victim fatally through the heart. The executioner would have to keep the victim alive for as long as possible, which required near-medical knowledge of the limits of the human body. This also allowed an opportunity for bribes to be taken from friends and family to go straight for the heart. One modification of the execution was for amputations to be carried out rather than simple cuts, albeit in a prescribed order with a single knife.

20 Facts About Excruciating Methods of Execution and Torture in History
A protest against waterboarding to mark the visit of Condoleeza Rice, Iceland, 2008. Wikimedia Commons

20. Thank God we’re so civilized today… actually, what about Waterboarding?

You were just beginning to rest on your laurels, weren’t you? Unfortunately, even in countries which are not run by despots, torture still goes on, and Waterboarding is by far the most notorious example. Water torture is an ancient practice, which aims to threaten the victim with drowning to extract information. Waterboarding is a slight modification of the technique, in that it intends only to simulate the terrifying experience of drowning, rather than actually drowning the victim. In Waterboarding, all that is required is a strip of cloth, a bucket of water, a victim… and a badge of authority.

The cloth is lain over the victim’s face, who is inclined at an angle of 10-20 degrees. Water is then poured over their face to fill the mouth and nostrils, causing such distress that information is usually given up. In some cases, the victim is killed, but other severe injuries can include brain damage from oxygen deprivation, damage to lungs, and broken limbs from struggling against restraints. The long-term psychological impact is utterly appalling, too. Despite this, during the War on Terror, the US government repeatedly stated that it did not see Waterboarding as a form of torture.

Waterboarding is used in military training, and some people have described their experiences. Chris Jaco, a former military pilot, underwent Waterboarding as part of his training, aged just nineteen. ‘It felt like you were choking to death on water and couldn’t stop it from being that way’, he remembers. ‘I was throwing people off of me because it was so overwhelming… It was like, I can’t breathe, water’s going up my nose and my throat was basically filled with water.’ And that’s despite Jaco knowing that he wouldn’t actually be drowned by his instructors. Haven’t we progressed as a species?


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

Medium – The Brazen Bull: Worst Punishment In History

All That’s Interesting – Keelhauling — The Torture Method Where Waterboarding Meets Death By A Thousand Cuts

Ranker – A Step-By-Step Walk-Through Of Keelhauling, One Of The Most Horrific Punishments Ever Devised

Ranker – What Happens to Your Body When You’re Boiled to Death

Tudor Dynasty – Types of Execution and Victims of Henry VIII

Awesome Stories – Roman Crucifixion – Method of Execution

How Stuff Works – The ‘Hanged, Drawn and Quartered’ Execution Was Even Worse than You Think

Medium – The Wheel — One of History’s Cruelest Forms of Torture

Grunge – How the Catherine Wheel Became a Dark Form of Torture

Tales of Times Forgotten – Was Scaphism a Real Thing?

Grunge – Messed Up Things That Happened At The Tower Of London

Medium – Death by a Thousand Cuts

Abbott, Geoffrey. The Book of Execution: An Encylopedia of Methods of Judicial Execution. 1995.

Abbott, Geoffrey. Rack, Rope and Red-Hot Pincers: A History of Torture and its Instruments. 2002.

Cobain, Ian. Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture. London: Portobello Books, 2012.

Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Hamadé, Kassem. “World-Exclusive: ISIS Commander on the Run Tells of the Terror Inside the Terrorist Sect.” Expressen, October 11, 2017.

Kellaway, Jean. The History of Torture and Execution. London: Mercury, 2003.

Scott, George Ryley. A History of Torture and Death. 2008

Webb, Simon. Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain. Stroud: History Press, 2011.