There is ongoing controversy about the use of the death penalty in the modern world. There are fewer and fewer countries in the world that still practice it, mostly due to humanitarian reasons, but this certainly was not the case in the past. The death penalty has been practiced in just about every place on earth throughout the history of time, with varying levels of formality.
Sometimes it was prescribed by a court of law as a punishment for a criminal act. Sometimes it was used to get rid of political prisoners or prisoners of war. Other times it was simply a way to get rid of your enemies, without much in the way of a trial. There were even times when a group of people would simply turn on someone in their midst, submitting to them to cruel and torturous deaths for what seem now like arbitrary reasons.
There have also been a lot of different methods used for execution. Even during modern history, we can witness methods such as hanging, the electric chair, lethal injections, and so on. These days, the emphasis – at least in the civilised world – is on finding a method which causes the least possible amount of pain or distress for the one sentenced to death. But we have not always been so kind to our condemned. In the past, the emphasis was more on ending their lives in the cruelest way possible – usually as a deterrent to others. Here we have gathered the 15 most gruesome death penalties ever enacted.
15. The Blood Eagle
If you have seen The History Channels’ Vikings, then you know all about this gruesome method of execution already. The Vikings were keen to use this death penalty for those who were seen as real traitors. The back of the prisoner is cut open to reveal their ribs, which can be broken and separated. This is done as quickly as possible so that the victim experiences the whole thing while still alive. The rib cage opens out behind them to look like the wings of the eagle, though obviously stained with blood. As a finishing touch, their lungs are pulled out and laid on top of their shoulders. It was a very painful way to die, but would be over relatively quickly – especially once the lungs were out. In some cases, blood loss and cardiac arrest could have the victim dead even before this stage. It was difficult not to cry out, but if they managed it, they may have been seen to redeem themselves somewhat in the eyes of the gods.
14. Death By Cannon
This death penalty was applied in the 18th century, though had cannons been developed earlier, there’s no doubt that it would have been introduced earlier as well. As executions go, it was relatively fast and therefore perhaps not too painful for the victim. However, there would have been a certain psychological element brought on by the pomp and ceremony of the thing. It was the British troops who devised this death penalty, and so it was often used for their captured enemies. The chosen victim would be strapped across the mouth of a cannon, normally with the middle of their bodies across the mouth itself due to the height of the devise. The cannon would then be lit, and fired. The prisoner’s body would be blown apart immediately, and scattered across the field. The important thing with this method would have been to check there was no one in the way of the cannon ball’s later path once it had exited the body.
13. The Gridiron
Fire was a key component of many tortures in antiquity, and this was one more such. The prisoner would be taken and laid over a metal framework which was designed to withstand heat – much like a device that you might use to barbecue meat. The hot coals underneath them would then be stoked up into a heat that was unbearable for the human body. The skin would start to blacken and peel, and would gradually come away. Then the flesh underneath would literally melt away from the victim’s bones. This was normally done with the prisoner strapped in place across the whole gridiron, so that their whole body was melting and dripping onto the coals at once. Needless to say, there was no way back from this one. It was a little crueller even than being burned alive, as death would come much more slowly and the victim would feel the pain for longer.
12. Boiling Alive
Boiling alive is closely associated with Henry VIII, but it has been in practice for many hundreds of years and in many civilizations. There were plenty of different ways to do it. Normally, the victim would be stripped naked and lowered or thrown into a cauldron of boiling water. Sometimes the water would be cold, with it gradually heating up to boil them alive once they were in. If you wanted to torture information out of them before killing them, you could use a rope system to control the heat that they experienced – perhaps boiling just their feet or hands until they gave the information you needed, and then plunging them in fully. In ancient times, different liquids were also used, such as oil, tar, acid, wax, wine, and molten lead. The severe scalding would destroy the skin, tissues, and muscles, and then open up the major arteries to finally cause death.
The Holy Roman Empire particularly liked this one, though we can’t say why. It was used commonly as a method of capital punishment then, and even if you wanted to stop after it had been begun, you very likely couldn’t. There was no last-minute commuting of the sentence once you were strapped up. The victim’s limbs would be tightly bound to wooden bars attached to the harnesses of horses, one animal standing at each of the arms and legs. At the given sign or command that each of the bindings was in place, the restless horses would be kicked into action. All four would start to race in different directions. The pressure from all sides would rip the limbs away from the body of the prisoner, resulting in death by blood loss or sheer shock. The limbs were then paraded around as a warning to others not to act up in the same way.
10. Sawing In Half
This was a very cruel punishment which really sounds like something out of a cartoon rather than real life. The process involved the victim being hung upside down from a tree or a gallows, with their legs roped up separately. A saw would then be held by two executioners who started by placing it at the person’s crotch. They would begin to saw from there and would cut the victim completely in half. Sometimes they would only cut up to the abdomen to ensure a longer and more agonizing death. The brain would continue to receive sufficient blood flow to stay alive because they were upside down, particularly if the executioners stopped before the main arteries in the abdomen. This way, the victim could sometimes stay alive for several hours. In China, a more “humane” version was practiced, where the condemned was sawed in half from the top – causing death after just a few seconds.
9. The Rat
You may have heard of this one in certain works of fiction, as it seems to be very inspiring for some authors. It was used in China originally, and was often called the most brutal torture ever devised. Not least because even if you gave up the information which was wanted, you were almost certain to die anyway, and it was often used as an execution method rather than simply torture. A large bowl with a couple of rats inside is put on the victim’s naked stomach, and then red-hot charcoal is placed on top to heat the inside. The rats try to dig their way out through your flesh rather than burn to death, and they gnaw their way to the outside. Even if the rats were removed from your stomach, you would normally succumb to either internal bleeding or sceptic shock – after all, rats aren’t known for their dental hygiene.
8. The Brazen Bull
This was a very particular execution device which was invented in 560 BC by Perilaus of Athens. A bronze bull is crafted with a hollow stomach and a series of pipes leading to the mouth. A door in the side allows you to shove a condemned person in there, and then a fire is lit under the bull’s stomach. The metal heats up until it basically cooks the victim, burning them to death. The pipes in the bull’s head convert the dying screams of the victim into a bellowing sound, just like a bull. Once it had cooled down, people would often scavenge the scorched bones and turn them into bracelets which they would sell. The irony of this device is that as soon as it was finished, Perilaus himself was forced inside to be executed in this way. Even the ruler he designed it for, Phalaris of Agrigentum, was said to have been killed in the same way in 570 BC.
7. Elephant Crushing
This death penalty really does exactly what it sounds like. It started in South and Southeast Asia – in other words, the regions that had access to Indian elephants. The animals would be trained to perform a few different things depending on whether the executioner wanted an instant death or one that was more drawn-out. They could stomp heavily on part of the victim’s body. For example, a leg would cause intense pain and injury, but not instant death. Stomping on the head, however, would be an instant execution. The practice gradually died out by the early part of the 19th century, but it was a common practice until then. Like some of the other executions on this list, the act would be a public spectacle, with many people on hand to see the gruesome death take place. To be fair, it’s not every day you get to see a trained elephant literally stomp a man to death under the directions of its handler.
If you lived in Ancient Rome, you would inevitably be drawn to an amphitheatre or coliseum. These were erected in towns and cities all across the empire, as a key place for entertainment. The Bestiarii were one of the most anticipated events, involving animals such as lions, tigers, and bears. They would be starved and then released into the arena in a frenzy. Prisoners, normally criminals or political opponents of those in power, would be stripped naked and forced into the arena with no armour or weapons. The game wasn’t over until everyone was mauled to death. There were some instances of fighters going into the arena against wild animals, but they were given weapons and armour, and went in for glory on a voluntary basis. Normally they would also be the best fighters out there, with a lot of experience and a fair chance of defeating the beasts. For prisoners, there was never any chance of survival.
5. Flaying Alive
Another word for flaying is skinning, which should help you to understand why this was so horrific. Developed in ancient times and used most commonly during the classical antiquity, it was used largely for dangerous criminals and prisoners of war. It was also common for Aztec human sacrifices. Normally the victim is tied up and then the executioner starts cutting the skin away from their face with a very sharp knife. Sometimes they would start at other limbs, but the intention was to keep the skin intact as much as possible. So long as blood loss was not too severe, a victim could remain alive for a long while, though the experience in itself would have been enough to cause heart attacks and loss of consciousness through shock. One famous victim was Hypatia of Alexandria, a mathematician and philosopher. She apparently met her end in 415 when a mob of angry Christians flayed her alive with sharp oyster shells.
4. Burying Alive
While it might not be as painful as other methods of execution, being buried alive was a seriously awful way to go. It’s the psychological part of it that is the worst: how many of us aren’t afraid of waking up in a coffin underground? In normal cases, it’s bad enough, as the victim fights with their last breath to escape. When it was done to truly make someone suffer, it was even worse. A tube would be used to keep fresh air in the coffin, so that the person was alive for days or even weeks in the darkness. They would slowly starve to death or succumb to dehydration. Perhaps worst of all is the lack of room to move: the victim could not even take their own life to end it sooner if they wanted to. They simply had to wait in the cramped and stifling darkness for death to come as they gradually became weaker and weaker.
3. Bamboo Torture
Unsurprisingly, this execution method originated in Asia. Despite being named a torture, it was in fact a death penalty, as there was no way to survive it. It was even reportedly used by Japanese soldiers during World War II, though we have no evidence of this. The victim is taken and tied down over a patch of sharpened bamboo which is just starting to grow. Bamboo grows quickly and is very resilient – strong enough to push through the body of the victim rather than turning to the side or failing to grow. It would eventually impale them to death over the course of several weeks. To make things last, the victims were often force fed and given water so that they would not die of other causes. It was perhaps the longest form of execution on this list, and you had to be pretty serious about wanting someone to suffer for a long time before ordering it.
2. The Boats
The ancient Persians came up with this horrendous execution method, also known as scaphism. The criminal would be placed inside a narrow rowboat with his hands, feet, and head sticking out. Another rowboat would be placed on top and the victim would be trapped. Then they were forced to eat large amounts of milk and honey, which cause diarrhea, with more of the mixture spread on the exposed parts of his body. Flies and other insects would come to the boats, which were set afloat on a pond or lake. The flies were attracted by the sweet mixture and the growing build-up of diarrhea inside the boat, and would start to eat and breed on their flesh. The prisoner would start to develop gangrene, and would be fed and watered daily to prolong their lives. Septic shock, starvation, or dehydration were the causes of death, but not before terrible pain and sickness was experienced by the victim.
1. Ling Chi
The most shocking thing about Ling Chi is that it was happening recently enough that there are actual black and white photographs of it taking place. They are far too gruesome for us to show here, but you may Google it at your peril. Ling Chi was also known as the death by a thousand cuts, because that’s pretty much what it entailed. It was banned in 1905 after taking place since the year 900 in China. It was reserved for the worst of crimes. A criminal would be tied in place and then a sharp knife would be used to remove small portions of his flesh at a time. The chest and thighs would be sliced off first, followed by gradual amputation of the limbs. Then the ears, nose, and genitals were removed. If the victim was still alive after 10 to 20 minutes of this, they would be either decapitated or stabbed in the heart to end their misery. Sometimes they would be drugged with opium first as an act of mercy.