10 Horrific Ways to Die

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The state of Nebraska recently executed a man using, for the first time, an opioid called fentanyl. The execution has garnered considerable scrutiny by the press, as the execution was a bit unusual. For starters, the legislature of Nebraska voted to abolish the death penalty in 2015, only to have it overturned by a plebiscite in 2016. To further complicate matters, drug-making companies have refused to sell their products to states that execute criminals, thus making lethal drugs incredibly expensive and hard to obtain.

The constitution of the United States prohibits the government from engaging in cruel and unusual punishment. Over the years, activists have used this prohibition to outlaw certain types of execution methods and, indeed, stigmatize execution itself (your correspondent, for example, is against the death penalty). Yet a quick study of history shows that the American Founders had other, much more brutal, methods of cruel and unusual punishment in mind when they introduced the Bill of Rights to the American people.

Here are the 10 most brutal execution methods in history:

10. Crucifixion. We might as well start off with the most famous form of execution. Governments, local, imperial, and everything in between, would crucify criminals by either nailing their limbs onto a cross or simply tying said limbs to a cross. Then, the cross would be hoisted up and the criminal would be on display for all to see. Sometimes, the agent in charge of carrying out the execution would break the legs of the criminal with a big stick. Sometimes, the agents of the law would stab the criminals as they hung from their cross, not to kill the criminal but to make him (or her) more uncomfortable. Plenty of ancient societies used crucifixion for punishment, which is almost understandable, but you’d think this form of punishment would be outlawed by now, right? Wrong! The Japanese used crucifixion as an execution method as late as World War II, and the Soviets are rumored to have crucified German civilians on the Eastern Front, but crucifixion didn’t end then, either. In Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates, crucifixion is one of the many privileges these governments set aside for themselves. The Islamic State has crucified enemies, too. Crucifixion has also been used by the Burmese government on pro-independence rebels, and by the Ukrainian government on pro-Russia rebels. Yikes.

9. Sawing. Sawing people to death was actually a really popular form of execution in the ancient world. The Romans, Persians, Jews, and Egyptians all sawed people to death. Methods varied, but the most horrendous type of sawing was the one where lawmen would string criminals upside down, spread eagle and saw them from the anus or vagina to their abdomen, where they would then bleed to death slowly. Because they were upside down, the blood rush to their heads would keep the criminals conscious throughout the whole horrific process. Sawing people as a method of execution disappeared not with the end of ancient times but in the 1820s or ‘30s, with the weakening of the Ottoman Empire (the Turks were particularly vicious toward Armenian Christians) and the conquest of Vietnam by the French (Vietnamese Buddhist rebels are reported to have sawed Christian converts).

8. Boiling, drowning, and the Sicilian Bull. Waterboarding, an well-known form of torture today, is nothing compared to some of the water-based methods of torture and execution in the past (this is no excuse to support waterboarding by Western governments, of course). One of the earliest forms of execution was the Sicilian Bull, also known as the brazen, or bronze, bull. In ancient Greece, a hollowed-out bronze bull was equipped with a door and had a space underneath the legs for firewood. The governments of ancient Greece would then start a fire and wait for the brazen bull to get red hot. Then the criminals would be tossed through the door and locked inside. The bulls were said to be built so that the screams of the criminal would, thanks to some excellent acoustic engineering, sound like the sound of a bull. The Sicilian bull fell out of favor in Roman times, when the empire was still persecuting Christians, but water-based execution methods were still being used. Most criminals were simply tossed into a vat of boiling water, or into a vat of cold water that was slowly brought to a boil. Simon Schama’s magisterial account of the Dutch during their Golden Age (17th century) includes a description of the drowning cell, a room that criminals were thrown into before being filled with water. If the criminal wished to avoid drowning, he would have to utilize the pump in his cell to get rid of the water, which flowed into the box at a pace that kept the criminal working hard to avoid death by drowning.

7. Breaking wheel. This awful method of execution, known also as the French wheel or the Catherine wheel, involved strapping a criminal to a spoked wooden wheel and breaking all of the bones in his or her body (starting with the legs). The origins of this method of execution are unknown, but it is believed to have been invented in the Holy Roman Empire (what is now Germany) during the Middle Ages. Aside from breaking the bones of convicted witches or suspected sectarian enemies, the breaking wheel was used by slave-owners in the New World to crush rebelliousness well into the 19th century. Oh, and the bone breaking was only the first part of a two-part act. After all of the bones were crushed with a mallet or hammer, the body of the still-alive criminal was transferred onto a second wheel and threaded through the spokes before being hoisted up into the air for the passersby to view at their pleasure. The birds and other scavengers that eventually came to pick the meat of the criminal’s bones ensured, according to medieval superstition, that the said criminal’s soul never reached heaven.

6. Impalement. How about some more execution by anus methods? It stands to reason that in the whole history of mankind, cruel and unusual punishment must have involved plenty of orifice-based tactics, and that the anus is a particularly tender, taboo spot to torture. Impalement involved hammering a sharpened stick into a criminal’s body via the anus (or vagina) before then hoisting up the criminal and letting gravity pull the criminal slowly back down to the ground. The stick would eventually protrude through the victim’s head or shoulders or back, killing him, but not before he suffered hours of humiliating, excruciating pain as a sharpened stick tore slowly through his body via the initial point of entry through his body: the anus. This method of execution was found everywhere in the world at one point in time, but is often associated, at least in Western culture, with central and eastern Europe due to the fact that the wars there between, among others, the Germans, Austrians, Italian city-states, Ottomans, Bulgarians, Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, and Serbians were so brutal. Vlad the Impaler, a Romanian prince, got his name from his apparently liberal use of impaling as punishment.

Popular since ancient times (the Babylonians are said to have used impalement to punish their criminals), impalement had many variants. One differing method was to insert a meat hook into a criminal’s rib cage and hang him from the gallows from the hook. Another, used by the Dutch in Java, involved following the spinal cord rather than insertion via the anus, which prolonged the process of tearing through the body by many days. Yet a third form of impalement was so heinous it got its own name: the Judas Cradle. A stool with a spiked pyramid on top, the victims of the Judas Cradle were stripped naked, bound, and slowly lowered over the top of the pyramid until it tore into the anus. If the victims didn’t die from the blood loss, they would die from infection since Judas Cradles were never cleaned. It was rumored that Soviet troops used impalement techniques on Polish and German prisoners of war during World War II, but this execution method seems largely to have disappeared by the end of the 19th century.

5. Hanged, drawn, and quartered. This execution was reserved for the most treasonous enemies of the English monarchy. A traitor was of course hanged (almost to the point of death), drawn (on the ground, by a horse), and quartered, but that’s only the half of it. Enemies of the English crown also had their genitals removed and were disemboweled. The disembowelment involved removing intestines rather than vital organs so that the treasonous victim could suffer for hours, sometimes days, before being quartered. Several variants of this method can be found throughout the world.

4. Cutting off limbs/flaying. The English version of being hanged, drawn, and quartered involved removing genitals, but did any other society in history stoop so low? Um, yes. Not only have penises and/or testicles been removed and vaginas flayed, but they have sometimes been displayed as trophies, eaten, or converted into jewelry. Genitals aren’t the only limbs to have been removed over the years. Fingers and toes, tongues, breasts, eyes, ears, lips, nipples, noses, kneecaps, fingernails, eyelids, skin, and bones have all been forcibly removed over years by governments exacting punishment. Aside from the removal of genitals, flaying is probably the worst of the bunch. That’s when you beat somebody so hard that their skin comes off.

3. The rats. This is the one where a bunch of rats are placed on a criminal’s stomach, chest, or buttocks and covered with a pottery bowl, open side face-down. Then, hot charcoal was placed on the other end of the bowl, so that the rats would have no choice but to eat through the victim if they wanted to escape the heat. Rat torture is alleged to have been used as currently as the 1980s by military governments and intelligence agencies in Latin America. In 1980s Argentina, Jewish prisoners had a tube filled with starving rats forcibly inserted into their anus.

2. Scaphism. “The boats,” as the ancient Persians called it, involved placing a naked prisoner inside of a hollowed out tree trunk with only his head, hands, and feet exposed to the elements. Prior to being fastened down, the prisoner would be force-fed milk and honey, and more honey would be drizzled over his body, with an emphasis being placed on his (or her) anus or genitals. The whole idea behind the honey was that it would attract insects, who could gorge themselves on the prisoner. The prisoner would then be set in a stagnant pool of water and fed more milk and honey until he died. The milk and honey, though, would contribute to horribly smelling feces, which the prisoner could only wallow in. A combination of loneliness, insects burrowing into orifices, and soaking in urine and feces led to dehydration, “septic shock,” or starvation.

1. Burning at the stake. As bad as the first nine items on this are, there is nothing worse than being burned alive. While the stake was a popular form of execution during the Middle Ages, it fell out of practice as types of fuel other than wood became abundant and affordable. In the 1950s-60s, for example, mobs would sometimes douse African-Americans with gasoline and light them on fire as they lynched them. The Ottoman government would routinely burn Armenians by the dozens or hundreds if the latter were suspected of terrorism. Then there is the example of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, who would self-immolate to bring the their peoples' suffering to the top of the news cycle. Death by fire indeed.

Further thoughts

The brutality of these execution methods is only surpassed by the awe-inspiring fact that most of these methods have disappeared, and the few that do exist, in modified form, are frowned upon by the vast majority of humanity. Of all the gifts given to the world by the American experiment with democracy, perhaps the gradual elimination of cruel and unusual punishment from the globe is the most precious.


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