Onto the Golden Age of Piracy, and an improvised nautical method of execution bringing delight to legions of desperate, eye-patched and parrot-wielding criminals. Sailors are proverbially a tough bunch, and punishments on board vessels which were at sea for months at a time had to be especially cruel and instructive to others in order to maintain order. Keelhauling involved tying a wrongdoer to a rope that was then dragged under the ship (the keel), usually resulting in a drowning or, if the victim was exceptionally lucky, severe injuries from the barnacles under the ship that would usually become lethally infected.
But it wasn’t just pirates who practiced keelhauling, despite their reputation. Most navies in the eighteenth century resorted to the method, and in 1710 one English sailor’s keelhauling for blasphemy (of all things!) was recorded: ‘stripped of all his clothes except for a strip of cloth around his loins… a weight of lead or iron was hung upon his legs to sink him… thence let fall suddenly into the sea… passed under the ship’s bottom and after some little time, was hoisted up on the other side of the ship’. This was repeated several times, ‘after sufficient periods of breathing’.
4. Few could last long sitting on the Witch’s Billy Goat
A form of torture that could, potentially, be fatal was the Witch’s Billy Goat, so-called because it was used to extract confessions from suspected witches, who were believed to ride goats instead of horses. Also known as the Judas Cradle, the device was a wide and rough-hewn pyramid of wood on a stake, upon which naked victims were lowered with ropes. The point of the pyramid would enter the victim’s vagina, scrotum, or anus, and if sat upon for long enough could, theoretically, cleave them in two. The resulting agony more or less guaranteed a confession, true or otherwise.
The ropes and the pyramid’s width ensured that cleaving would take a long period of time, sometimes even days on end. The width of the pyramid also ensured that full impalement (more on which later) would be impossible, with the focus chiefly on gradually splitting the victim in half. Weights were sometimes tied to the victim’s feet if they were too light to suffer from the Billy Goat. Credited with the dubious honor of having invented the Witch’s Billy Goat is the Spanish Inquisition, but the word of the device’s efficacy saw it spread across Europe from the sixteenth century onwards.
5. Being Boiled Alive was even more horrible than it sounds
Another simple but effective means of killing people in the most excruciating manner possible, this widespread practice involved putting criminals in a cauldron of boiling water over a blazing fire and watching as they writhed in agony for hours. Being boiled alive would cook the victim’s body from the outside in, and modern accounts of people falling into hot springs suggest that they would be conscious for most of the ordeal. An added amusement for vicious onlookers would be the scent of cooking meat. The body would also turn red and blister, and breathing the hot air would be excruciating.
At least three people were executed in this way in England in the sixteenth century, all for poisoning others. The method was legitimized by an Act of Parliament passed by Henry VIII after Richard Rouse, the Bishop of Rochester’s cook, was found guilty of trying to poison his employer. Even the dull legalese cannot disguise the horror of Henry’s law: ‘all and every person or persons which hereafter shall be indicted and condemned by order of the law of such treason [poisoning] shall be immediately after such attainder or condemnation, committed to execution of death by boiling for the same’.
Rouse’s public boiling at Smithfield drew record crowds because of its novelty, but boiling alive was far more common on the continent. In France and Germany, coiners (people who shaved off pieces of coins and melted them into new currency) were boiled alive between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries. In Asia, the Japanese bandit Goemon Ishikawa (above) was boiled alive, and Bhai Dhayala, the Sikh martyr, was boiled alive in 1675 in Delhi for refusing to convert to Islam. Disturbingly, in 2017 the former ISIS commander, Abu Abboud al-Raqqawi, revealed that the terrorist group boils enemies alive in engine oil.
6. Being Flayed Alive was once more than just a parental threat
The expression ‘I’ll skin you alive!’, beloved of older generations for scolding naughty children, has a very disturbing, and very real, origin. This agonizing method of execution involved killing people by removing their entire skin. Depending on the individual involved, being skinned alive could kill victims through loss of blood, shock, hypothermia, or infection. Flaying enemies is recorded in the carvings of Iron Age Mesopotamia, from around 883 BC onwards. The Rassam Cylinder, carved in c.636 BC and now in the British Museum, describes a particularly grisly practice: ‘they stripped off their skins and covered the city wall with them’.
The abhorrent practice did not end with the Mesopotamians, however. Flaying alive has long been associated with religious intolerance, with the Torah recording how Rabbi Akiva was killed in this manner for preaching by the Romans. Amongst Christian martyrs, Saint Bartholomew is most famous for being flayed before his crucifixion. In 415, the Neoplatonist philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria was flayed alive by a gang of angry Christian monks for heresy. In a more secular instance, Pierre Basile, who shot the arrow that killed King Richard I of England at the Siege of Châlus, was skinned alive in 1199.
7. Don’t let Christian symbolism render you immune to the horror of Crucifixion
The ubiquity of the cross and crucifix around the world has detracted somewhat from the reality of being crucified. The most famous victim of this form of execution was, of course, Jesus (if he existed – but let’s not get into that here), but scores of others also suffered the same fate. As in the New Testament account, the condemned would first be flogged before carrying the cross (or part of it) to the place of execution. There, their wrists would either be tied or nailed to the cross beam lying flat on the ground, which was then erected using ropes.
To ensure that the victim’s weight did not tear the wrists from the beam, a block of wood (suppledanem) would be provided on which to rest the feet, which were also tied or nailed in place. The condemned would be beaten from below (as in the New Testament), and sometimes honey was smeared on their face in order to attract insects. After days of being crucified, the victim would die from exhaustion, heart failure, pulmonary embolism, or asphyxiation. Crucifixion was saved for the worst criminals from the Ancient Greek period onwards, and provided a handy, visible dissuasion for would-be wrongdoers.
Crucifixion was outlawed in Rome by the Christian Emperor Constantine in 345 AD, but continued for centuries in other parts of the world. Even Christian France did not crucify its final criminal until 1127 when the assassin Bertholde was executed for killing Emperor Charles the Righteous. Although chiefly associated with Ancient Rome, there are also six references to crucifixion in the Koran, and it was employed in Japan and Burma in more recent centuries. Shockingly, several people have been crucified in Saudi Arabia in the current century, though robbers condemned to the punishment in 2013 had their sentence changed.
8. In England, those guilty of treason against the country, king, or queen were Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered
Medieval England had a system of execution determined by the offender’s social class. The punishment for murder was, well, to be murdered, but where a commoner would be hanged for the offense, an aristocrat would be beheaded. However, those guilty of high treason – that is, plotting against the ruling monarch or the country at large – would be hanged, drawn, and quartered. Although the punishment had its roots in the medieval period, the last person to be hanged, drawn, and quartered was Robert Emmet in 1809. Thus we can cite the 1660-sentencing of Major General Thomas Harrison for the best account:
‘[dragged] upon a hurdle to the place of execution, and then you shall be hanged by the neck and, being alive, shall be cut down, and your privy members [genitals] to be cut off, and your entrails to be taken out of your body and, you living, the same to be burnt before your eyes, and your head to be cut off, your body to be divided into four quarters, and head and quarters to be disposed of at the pleasure of the King’s majesty. Harrison was convicted of having King Charles I executed after the restoration of the monarchy.
The crime of treason was punished in the same way across social classes. Amongst the list of unfortunate victims executed in this way, the most famous are William Wallace for his role in the Scottish Wars of Independence, Hugh le Despenser for his alleged affair with Edward II, John Ball for his part in the Peasants’ Revolt, Edmund Campion the Catholic martyr, and Guy Fawkes for the Gunpowder Plot. The notoriety of the traitors, along with the ghastly spectacle of the punishment itself, ensured that such executions drew big crowds. Their heads were customarily placed along London Bridge as deterrents.
9. The Strappado would dislocate your shoulders and most likely kill you
Strappado torture has three variants, all unimaginably horrible. In the first, the victim had their arms tied behind them, with a thick rope tied around their wrists and attached to a beam or hook on the ceiling. The executioner would then simply pull on the rope so that the condemned was elevated upwards by the hands, causing intolerable agony and usually dislocation of the arms and shoulders, the shoulder sockets supporting the body’s entire weight. Weights could be added to the body to make the pain yet graver. Those who survived were often paralyzed or suffered irreparable ligament damage.
The second variant was the same, but for the incorporation of a series of abrupt drops from a great height. The victim’s fall being checked meant painful jerks which would usually break the shoulders. The third variant tied the hands to the front and attached a heavyweight to the bound ankles, resulting in dislocated legs, too. As the name suggests, the Strappado was an Italian invention and is believed to have been used to torture Niccolò Machiavelli and Girolamo Savonarola. The Strappado was also used by the Nazis in concentration camps during the second world war to punish the uncooperative.
10. Impalement has been used since Ancient Mesopotamia to kill people slowly
Impalement dates back to at least the Code of Hammurabi, a Mesopotamian law code from c.1772 BC. Broadly speaking, there are two forms of Impalement, the execution of someone by inserting a sharpened implement into their body. Longitudinal Impalement inserted a pointed stake into the victim’s anus so that it followed the vertical direction of the body, ideally so that the tip of the stake came out of the mouth, as in the illustration above, or chest cavity. Transversal Impalement saw the stake shoved through any part of the body to the other side, for example through the heart or stomach.
Depending on the type of Impalement and hence which internal organs were damaged, victims could survive anywhere from a few seconds to several days. History has many examples of leaders noted for their penchant for impaling enemies. Emperor Nero, for example, would make victims dig their own graves and plant a stake at the bottom before executing them. But history’s most famous impaler was, of course, Vlad Țepeș, ‘the Impaler’, who created a ‘forest’ of 20,000 impaled Turks to scare off his enemies, and once ate dinner whilst dozens of Transylvanian Saxons were impaled in front of him.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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?
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