Humans are capable of wondrous things. Our capacity to think and create has built societies and cultures that are still marveled upon thousands of years later. From the wheel, to the steam engine, to the telephone and the internet, humanity has always possessed a knack for exceeding the reach of what is possible. Sadly, for every positive use of creative thinking, their are as many negative ways in which humans have managed to outdo themselves. The way mankind kills each other is every bit as astounding, horrific and creative as the way mankind manages to flourish. In particular, conjuring ways to implement the death penalty for a perceived treacherous act has been an equally gruesome example of mankind's capacity for creativity. With that said, there may be 1,000 ways to die, but when it comes to executions, these ten top the list for their sheer barbarism, widespread public implementation, and, sadly, ingenuity.
Perhaps a surprising way to start this list, considering the Guillotine seems like a rather humane form of execution given the plethora of more barbaric ways men have created to torture and kill each other. A razor sharp blade severing the head from the body almost instantly does seem humane in comparison to the rest of this list. But, consider this; during many executions by Guillotine, the head was severed so quickly the velocity of the blade apparently had little impact on the brain itself, not causing a loss of consciousness in the victim. There have been reports by those witnessing executions where people have called out the prisoner's name after the head was detached, and in a few instances the prisoner made eye contact with members of the crowd, moving their eyes and even focusing their pupils. Having your head detached from your body and being alive long enough to realize this afterwards lands Guillotine firmly on this list at number 10.
9 Damnatio Ad Bestias
A form of capital punishment originally implemented in Asia dating as far back as the 6th century BC, Damnatio Ad Bestias was later brought to Rome around the 2nd century BC. This method of execution was one in which those condemned to die were killed either in the gladiatorial arena, or thrown into a cage with animals, usually lions. The execution was reserved for Rome’s worst criminals, such as enemies of the state, early Christians among them. Those sentenced to die were left to defend themselves against the lion (or sometimes even bears, leopards, tigers, panthers and bulls), without any weapons, and most often even without any clothing. Even if a prisoner did manage to defeat one of the beasts, new beasts would be set upon the arena until he was executed. Needless to say, this method of execution further solidifies ancient Rome’s reputation as bloodthirsty and cruel.
8 Death by Sawing
Being eaten alive by a wild animal is bad enough; being sawed in half while hanging upside down is a whole new level of sadism. Particularly when the sole reason for being hung upside down is to keep enough blood flowing to the victim's brain to keep it functioning, thus keeping the victim conscious long enough for them to feel every awful blade. Reportedly employed all over Asia and Europe, spanning from the Roman Empire, Spain, the Persian Empire, Ottoman Empire and even Russia, some of the tales told of death by sawing are clearly legend, but if even one person were executed in this fashion, it’s a guarantee to be on this list.
7 Burning at the Stake
Often associated with the burning of witches, particularly in Salem, Massachusetts, being burnt at the stake has been one of history's most oft preferred methods of execution. Nearly all civilizations since antiquity have utilized this brutal method of dispatching suspected heretics, deviants and witches. By binding the condemned to a large wooden stake with flammable wood beneath it, the accused literally burns alive. Slowly. If only one victim was bound and burned at a time the flame would burn hot enough to cause immense pain and torture leading to death. Because the more the merrier when it came to ancient execution, many times more than one heretic would be bound to a single stake at a time. With more people burning at once, the flame would burn hotter, thus resulting in those ‘lucky’ enough to be bound together often dying of carbon monoxide poisoning long before the full effects of the flame took it’s toll on their bodies.
6 Ling Chi
Death by slow cutting. Sounds like being a criminal in China right up until 1905 would have been a worse idea than it even is today. British politician Sir Henry Norman witnessed a Ling Chi execution and describes it in his book The People and Politics of the Far East:
“The criminal is fastened to a rough cross, and the executioner, armed with a sharp knife, begins by grasping handfuls from the fleshy parts of the body… and slicing them off. After this he removes the joints and the excrescences of the body one by one-the nose and ears, fingers and toes. Then the limbs are cut off piecemeal at the wrists and the ankles, the elbows and knees, the shoulders and hips. Finally, the victim is stabbed to the heart and his head cut off.”
5 Blood Eagle
What’s a list about executions without at least one mention of the Vikings? Mentioned in the Norse Sagas, the Blood Eagle is a particularly brutal form of execution the Vikings practiced on particularly dishonorable victims. The ribs would be cut from the spine, broken to resemble bloody wings and then the victim’s lungs would be pulled out through the back, by hand. Salt would then be poured on to the wound, onto the lungs specifically, while they still gasped for air, fully exposed outside of the victim's back. The condemned would die of suffocation soon after the lungs were pulled out, if not from massive blood loss and shock beforehand.
If one wanted to be made an example of, you’d imagine there would be a million better ways than being caught as a criminal and being flayed. Flaying is when the victim's skin is cut away from the body, while the victim is still alive, with the purpose of not only torturing the condemned to death, but also to keep the skin intact. The skin was in fact the most important part of the execution; keeping it intact was paramount so as to use it as a warning to those who may dare cross a king or an empire. While the victim of the flaying would inevitably die a horrifically painful death from blood loss, shock, hypothermia or infection, his skin would be nailed to various places of the kingdom to ensure all those with treachery on their mind thought twice. Ancient Assyrian leader Ashurnasirpal II sums up the purpose of flaying eloquently:
“I have made a pillar facing the city gate, and have flayed all the rebel leaders; I have clad the pillar in the flayed skins. I let the leaders of the conquered cities be flayed, and clad the city walls with their skins…”
The most famous mode of execution known the world over, crucifixion was a very common form of execution used primarily by the ancient Romans. Though other ancient cultures practiced crucifixion, the Romans perfected it thanks to the sheer number they meted out. Crucifixion was saved for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. A condemned Roman citizen would not be crucified unless for crimes of utmost seriousness, such as high treason. It was reserved for the lowest of the classes of Rome, the non-citizens of conquered territories and slaves, because it was considered the most shameful and disgraceful way to die. Following a prolonged period of beating and torture, the condemned was forced to carry his own cross in public to the location of his execution. Once there, the victim was either nailed or tied to the cross where they would hang for up to several weeks. When death finally came it was usually by suffocation, or exposure. Humiliating and brutal, is it any surprise another method of execution on this list was widely practiced by the Romans?
2 Hanged, Drawn and Quartered
If you’ve seen Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart you have an idea about what being drawn and quartered is all about via Gibson’s character’s execution at the end of the film. The film spared viewers many of the gory details. Primarily an English method of execution in the middle ages, this one is particularly vicious, and probably could have even been number one on this list. Though used in the 1200s, this method of punishment became a statutory penalty to all men convicted of high treason against the English crown as of 1351. The accused was first tied or fastened to a horse and dragged to the place of his execution, of course, in public, where he would then be hanged to the point of near death, only to be spared for the really painful part. Upon being freed from the noose, he would promptly be disemboweled alive, with his insides concurrently being lit on fire, and then be separated from all four limbs either by horses or blade, and beheaded. Upon his death, the body parts and head would be placed across England as a warning to those who also may have had treason in mind.
The bestial bloodlust of Vlad Tepes of Romania and his penchant for impalement ultimately top this list. Though utilized elsewhere well before his time, Vlad the Impaler, as he came to be known, not only perfected impalement, he relished in it. It has been said that the road to Vlad's capital of Wallachia, Romania was a virtual "forest" of 20,000 impaled and decaying corpses, and that he preferred to take his meals outdoors and watch those he had condemned to die suffer on the stake while he ate. No wonder the nickname stuck. In some ways similar to crucifixion for its humiliating public nature, but far more brutal, impalement involved driving a large wooden stake into the victims’ groin area or chest, thus suspending them in the air as the stake was driven into the ground. Depending on the punishment of the individual, one could die relatively quickly if a vital organ was intentionally pierced, or hang for days as the body slowly slid down the stake, causing interminable pain. The worst criminals always suffered the worst of fates, and for days could be seen impaled by a stake, praying to those passing by for mercy and to release them of this mortal coil. For utter barbarity, impalement concludes this nefarious list.