17 Brutal Punishments of History

We all know that the human capacity for inflicting pain on others has no limits. If you did not know this then pick up a book or, better yet, turn on the news.

Thankfully, the world has become a much more humane place over the past several decades and I think that we can all agree that that is a great thing. If you do not believe this to be a good thing then, please, immediately stop reading and go seek professional help – I do not want to be held responsible for giving you any gruesome ideas!

I know how torturous it can be when you lose wi-fi signal or have to endure, yet, another one of your friend’s stories about how unfair life is because her “serious” boyfriend of three weeks decided to dump her just as she was being overlooked for a promotion at work. I get it; you have my sympathies. But after reading this list of seventeen of the most terrible punishments in history you will be super grateful that two minutes without Facebook on the bus is the worst of your immediate problems.

1. The Brazen Bull


The Brazen Bull, sometimes known as the Sicilian Bull, was a bronze statute of a bull with a cavity large enough to fit a person inside – you know where this is going don’t you? Designed by the ancient Greeks on Sicily, the bull held the condemned prisoner locked inside as a fire was lit beneath it. The bronze bull would heat and the unfortunate soul inside would be slowly roasted alive while screaming in agony. The bull was specially designed to amplify these screams and make them sound like the bellowing of a real bull.

2. The Rack

THe Rack

One of the most famous torture devices to make the list, the rack was a very popular torture device made of a wooden rectangular frame. The limbs of the convicted would be attached to either end of the frame with chains, and with the help of pullies and rollers they would be stretched until they either became useless or were completely torn from the body. Originally used in antiquity, although we are unsure which civilisation first conceived such a monstrous contraption, it was recorded that Alexander the Great used it. The rack gained popularity in western Europe in the Late Middle Ages when it was first introduced to England in 1447, although the French added to the torment by sticking spikes to the rollers.

3. Crucifixion


Ah yes, the crucifixion! Just about everyone on the planet knows about this particularly cruel form of punishment. Jesus Christ was the most famous victim of crucifixion but it was widely used throughout Roman times and the 6,000 rebels of Spartacus’ Slave Revolt unlucky enough to not be killed in battle were crucified along the Appian Way (a road spanning 200 kilometres)! Although principally practised in antiquity this barbaric method of torture has, sadly, not yet been thrown in the trash heap of history. Several Islamic states still use crucifixion as a legitimate form of execution. It is a deliberately slow and excruciating execution where the condemned person is tied or nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until they die, which usually takes days.

4. Guillotine


Probably the most humane form of execution on this list it was still very brutal. Although not actually invented by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the guillotine has bore his name ever since he proposed the idea for a more humane (and equal) form of execution for Revolutionary France. The contraption was used as the standard form of execution in France until the country abolished the death penalty in 1981; the last execution occurred in 1977. The guillotine was made of a razor sharp blade attached to a rope which dropped onto the victim’s head, severing it from their body.

5. The Tub

The Tub

Known as the punishment of ‘sitting in the tub’, the convicted would be placed inside a wooden tub with only their head sticking out. It doesn’t sound all that bad, eh? Quite pleasant compared to the previous punishments on the list really. Wait for it! The executioner would paint the victim’s face with milk and honey, and soon flies would begin to feed on them. Being fed regularly, the prisoner would end up swimming in their own excrement and after a few days, maggots, worms ad other lovely creepy crawlies would feast on their body as they decayed alive. Not so pleasant after all.

6. Rat Torture


If you have ever read George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four then you will be aware of the terrifying prospect of rat torture as the book’s protagonist, Winston Smith, discovers when subjected to the terror of Room 101. If you have not read it then I highly recommend it. Anyway, back to rat torture. This chilling torture technique involved a cage with one open side strapped to the victim’s body (often the chest). The cage would then be filled with rats and the metal cage would be heated. The rodent’s natural instinct led them to flee the intense heat. Where could they possibly flee to? Through the condemned of course. In order to escape they would burrow through the victim’s body with fatal results.

7. Breast Ripper

Breast Ripper

Here’s one for the ladies. Though women were subjected to much of the torture techniques found in this list, this one was designed specially for them. Used to cause major blood loss, the metal claws, which were often red hot, would be placed on the exposed breasts as the spikes penetrated beneath the skin. The claws were then tugged at, causing large chunks of flesh to come off with them.

8. Republican Marriage

Republican Marriage2

Another “ingenious” method of execution developed during the French Revolution, the Republican Marriage was a little less humane than the guillotine. It involved binding a naked male and a naked female together and then throwing them into waters to drown. What happened when there was no river or lake nearby, I hear you ask? Well, the soldiers would just run the victims through with swords and bayonets. This was the preferred method used to execute priests and nuns; what a crime!

9. Spanish Donkey

Spanish Donkey

From Revolutionary France to the Spanish Inquisition. The Spanish Donkey may just be one of the most brutal punishments ever conceived by mankind. The victim sat astride, naked, on a vertical wooden board with a sharp V-wedge on top of it. The torturer would then add varying weight to the victim’s feet, allowing gravity to do what it does best, until finally the wedge sliced through the body.

10. Saw Torture

Saw Torture.jpg

Similar to the Spanish Donkey (in that it involved splitting a human being in half) was saw torture. You really would not like this one. The unfortunate victim would be suspended by his or her feet. This allowed the blood to rush to their head so that they would be conscious for most of the execution. The victim was then sawed in half, from the groin to the head. Simple.

11. Flaying


Flaying was a form of torture popularised by the Assyrians. It literally means to skin: as in “skin you alive”. Lovely. Depending on the amount of skin removed from the victim, it was a punishment that could leave you either dead or a heavily scarred (emotionally as well as physically) cripple. Similarly, some were punished by having chunks of their flesh removed – Shylock did not make a demand out of the blue, after all.

12. Death by Burning

Burn Stake

Deliberately causing death through the effects of combustion has a long lineage as a form of execution. Many societies throughout history employed its use for various crimes, such as treason; witchcraft; sexual transgressions; heresy and the Japanese, with a wry sense of humour, used it to execute arsons. This was a crowd favourite as it made for a grand spectacle.

13. Impalement


Given his nickname, it should come as little surprise to discover that this was the favoured method of execution of 15th century Romanian ruler, Vlad the Impaler. The victim was forced to sit atop a sharp, thick pole. When the pole was raised upright, the victim’s body would be pierced by the point and would slide down the pole from their own body weight. This gruesome execution method could take days to kill (depending on where the pole had been placed) and it was reported that the Ottoman Sultan, Mehmed II once fled with his army at the sight of 20,000 impaled corpses rotting on the outskirts of Vlad’s capital city of Targoviste.

14. Judas Cradle

Judas Cradle.jpg

Closely related to both impalement and the Spanish Donkey was the Judas Chair. This gruesome punishment involved the victim sitting atop a pyramid shaped cradle. The victim would be pulled down using ropes with the intent of stretching the anus over a long period of time, slowly impaling them. To maximise the humiliation, the victim was usually completely naked and the device was rarely, if ever, washed. If the torture did not kill you then the infection that you would inevitably contract would.

15. Cement Shoes


A more modern form of execution, similar to the Republican Marriage, but more lonely at the end. The Cement Shoes were introduced by the American Mafia as a form of execution. The condemned would have their feet placed in breeze blocks (cinder blocks to our American cousins) and then have cement poured in. Once it dried, the victim would be thrown into a river, lake or ocean to sleep with the fishes.

16. Tongue Tearer

Tongue Tearer2

The Tongue Tearer was basically an oversized pair of scissors that was used to cut a victim’s tongue off. Usually reserved for a blasphemer or heretic, the mouth would be forced opened and the iron Tongue Tearer would catch the tongue with it’s rough grippers. Once a firm hold was maintained, the screw would be firmly tightened and the victim’s tongue would be roughly torn away from the mouth. So the next time you take the Lord’s name in vain, just think of how you would have been punished in an earlier age – don’t you feel fortunate.

17. Hanged, Drawn & Quartered


The punishment for treason in Medieval England was to be hanged, drawn and quartered in public. Lasting for hundreds of years (as late as the 19th century) as a form of execution, thousands met their grisly end this way. The victim was tied to a wooden frame and dragged behind a horse to the place of execution. They would then be hanged by the neck for a short period of time until near-death (hanged), followed by castration and disembowelment where the entrails and genitalia were burned in front of the still breathing victim (drawn). The condemned would then be divided into four separate parts and beheaded (quartered). One of the most famous men to be hanged, drawn and quartered was the Medieval Scottish resistance leader, Sir William Wallace. His quartered limbs were sent to Newcastle, Berwick, Stirling and Perth to serve as a warning whilst his head was set on London Bridge.



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