Societies have developed particularly cruel methods for punishing crimes over the centuries. Although many of the most gruesome punishments have been eradicated, there remain examples of legally-authorized punishment in some parts of the world which can be included among them.
The majority of these punishments represent different forms of capital punishment, which is still practiced in countries like the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and Iran. Figures from Amnesty International estimated that in 2013, at least 778 people were executed around the world for criminal offences. But brutal punishment does not necessarily have to result in death. Mental or physical punishment, which has a long-lasting or permanent impact on the rest of someone’s life, can also be administered with severe cruelty. The following list of ten extreme punishments provides several examples:
10. Firing Squad
Amid the bloody conflicts of the First World War, any sign of unwillingness to fight among the soldiers was not tolerated by any of the countries involved. The penalty for anyone caught fleeing the battlefield was to be shot for desertion. Regardless of the cause, whether through cowardice, mutiny or shell shock, the sentence was carried out. Over 300 soldiers were shot by the British army during the war, and the French and German armies also carried out such executions. The main reason for enforcing this extreme measure was to prevent similar feelings from spreading to broader sections of the army, which the leadership feared could seriously undermine their ability to carry on fighting.
9. Burned At The Stake
Crimes including treason and heresy were frequently punished during the Middle Ages by burning the offender alive. In England, the punishment was applied to women for acts of high treason, while men were hung, drawn and quartered. If carried out by a particularly ruthless executioner, it was possible for the victim to remain alive for a considerable period of time in excruciating pain, as the fire worked its way up their body. The sentence was handed down to many well-known individuals, including Joan of Arc in 1431, after her capture by English forces. Italian scientist and philosopher, Giordano Bruno was also similarly put to death in 1600, for heresy by the Catholic Church, which feared his defense of the now universally accepted position that the sun, rather than planet Earth, is at the center of the universe.
The practice of boiling convicted criminals alive in a number of substances has been utilized at several stages in human history. The unfortunate individual would either be placed into a vat of water, oil, tar or boiling lead, or lowered into it from a height. During the reign of Henry VIII in the 1500s, boiling was a punishment reserved for those accused of poisoning others. In 1531, Richard Roose, a cook, was accused of poisoning food that was meant to be served to the Bishop of Rochester. A decade later, in 1542, a maid by the name of Margaret Davy was also boiled to death for poisoning her mistress. The law was rescinded in 1547.
7. Hung Drawn & Quartered
The vicious practice was enshrined in English law for centuries for those found guilty of high treason. It involved being dragged on a pallet by a horse to the place of execution, hung by the neck, but cut down before death, followed by the dismemberment of the body. The parts were usually sent to different areas of the city, or even the kingdom, to set an example of the fate that would befall those who committed similar acts. The punishment was first introduced in 1241 for William Morris, who had been convicted of piracy. Perhaps its best known victim was Guy Fawkes, who was put to death in this way along with his co-conspirators, after their failed attempt to blow up the houses of parliament.
Although more primitive versions of the machine are known to have existed, the guillotine made its appearance on to the modern scene suddenly, during the French Revolution, which began in 1789. It became the means for thousands to be put to death during the terror which swept Paris from 1792. The killing machine took its name from a lawmaker, Dr Guillotin, who proposed its use during a national assembly debate in 1790, to deal with enemies of the people. While dying in such a way would be considered barbaric by today’s standards, at the time, the guillotine was thought of as a humane instrument because it did its job quickly. Many famous historical figures were executed under the machine’s blade, including the revolutionary leaders Danton and Robespierre, and King Louis XVI of France and his wife Marie Antoinette, who the revolution had overthrown.
To all Christians, this incredibly cruel method of killing is forever associated with the death of Jesus. It was one of the most long, tortuous and drawn out execution procedures, with victims sometimes living for up to three days before they perished. Crucifixion had been around for some time before the time of Jesus. During the slave uprising against the Roman Empire led by Sparticus in 71 BCE, approximately 6,000 of his followers were crucified along a 200 mile route as a warning after their defeat in battle by Roman forces. Crucifixion continued to be used over the following centuries in several parts of the world, and even remains on the statute books as a possible punishment in some states today, at least in theory. The last reported crucifixion was in Saudi Arabia, in March 2013.
Despite being an ancient practice going back thousands of years, death by stoning remains a legal form of punishment today in a number of countries, particularly in North Africa and the Middle East. An example of this is provided in the 2008 Iranian criminal code, where it is specified that in the case of stoning for adulterers, men are to be buried up to their waists and women up to their chests before the punishment begins. The most recent case of stoning being adopted into law by a country was in October 2013, when the Sultan of Brunei unveiled it as a sentence for adulterers. In Northern Nigeria, it is also the sentence handed down for sodomy. Beyond its use in real life, stoning has featured in works of literature for thousands of years. In one of the best known Greek tragedies, Oedipus asks to be stoned after learning that he has killed his father.
3. Electric Chair
When it was introduced in 1888, in the United States, the electric chair was hailed as a modern, humane alternative to previous methods, much like the guillotine had been a century earlier. But even from the first case in which it was used, in 1890 in the execution of William Kemmler for murder, there were concerns about the extent of suffering it inflicted. The first shock he received lasted around 18 seconds, but according to eye-witness reports, his body still twitched half a minute later. A second shock lasting 70 seconds was then administered, after which it was possible to see smoke coming from the body, along with the smell of burning flesh. The chair remains in use in several US states. It has come in for sharp criticism due to a growing number of executions, which have been botched since the early 1990s.
This is the practice of removing or permanently disfiguring body parts as punishment for criminal deeds, and the only penalty on this list that is unlikely to end in death. It has appeared in various forms in previous centuries, including the practice of branding and removing ears, lips and noses. It was favored in England during the 17th century, as a punishment for puritans and other opponents of the existing order. In North America, theft of animals was punished by branding cheeks and cutting off ears in the 1800s. We still experience instances of mutilation in criminal justice today, above all, in countries adhering to an interpretation of Islamic law under which thieves can have their hands cut off.
This method of execution has been around in many forms for centuries, with one of its most famous victims being Mary, Queen of Scots, during the period of Elizabeth I in England. In its modern form, beheading is still imposed as a legal punishment in Saudi Arabia. By October 15th this year, 59 people had been beheaded in 2014. Some of the crimes of which they were accused included apostasy, sorcery and adultery. Amnesty International, which campaigns against Capital Punishment, also reported that at least one child under the age of 18, has been executed this year. The practice has not only been criticized for its brutality, but because often the evidence used to convict individuals has been extracted through torture.