Written by Kevin Jennings
While it is slowly fading out of popularity in the modern world, capital punishment has been a part of humanity’s attempts to govern its self for thousands of years, dating at least back to the Code of Hammurabi in the 18th century BC. Over 100 countries have now abolished the use of capital punishment, and these days they are limited almost exclusively to lethal injection, shooting, gas, electrocution, or in extreme cases, beheading. But with thousands of years to look back on, here are some of the strangest forms of execution that have been employed around the world, some much more recently than you might think.
Executions may seem cruel and unusual to our modern sensibilities, but they used to be fun for the whole family! Stoning was a public form of execution that saw the convicted tied up or otherwise restrained while onlookers would pelt them with stones. The condemned would be helpless to defend themselves, suffering on onslaught of blunt force trauma until they eventually succumbed to death. Stoning dates back at least as far as biblical times, but despite being so overtly cruel it is still used in certain parts of the world, most notably to punish adultery.
One prominent case took place in Somalia in October of 2008. Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow was viciously assaulted by three armed men. The 13 year old girl tried to report the incident to authorized, but she was arrested, declared to be 23 years old, and sentenced to death for adultery. Aisha was dragged into a stadium of roughly 1,000 spectators where she was buried up to her neck. After ten minutes of being stoned by 50 militants, she was dug up and examined by nurses. When they declared that the young girl was still alive, she was put back in the hole for her execution to continue.
Some of the witnesses tried to help Aisha, but anyone who did was shot dead.
Bamboo torture is reported to have been used as a means of execution in parts of Asia such as China, India, and particularly in Japan. While some of the evidence of this having been implemented is dubious and there is not a consensus on whether or not it was ever utilized to execute people, the MythBusters proved that it could actually work, so we’re going to cover it just in case.
Bamboo is sharp, strong, and grows very quickly. Some species can grow as fast as 4 centimeters per hour. Because of these characteristics of the plant, a prisoner could be firmly tied in place, suspended above a bamboo sprout. The plant would then rapidly grow until it punctured the back of the prisoner before completely penetrating their body and growing out the other side.
While we can’t say with absolute certainty whether or not this method was used, it makes sense as a more Eastern analog to crucifixion, both in terms of its cruelty and how long it could take before the prisoner would finally draw their last breath.
Once regarded purely as legend, the Viking “blood eagle” is now known to be anatomically possible, even with the tools available at the time. This is something that scientists could have discovered a lot earlier than 2022, however they likely didn’t want to try it because this method of execution is, simply put, rather gross. There are no direct, contemporary accounts of the blood eagle from the Vikings themselves, but there’s no contemporary account of anything else from the Vikings either as they did not keep written records. Given all the knowledge available, it seems likely that this brutal method of killing did in fact take place.
The blood eagle has a very literal name, as the goal of this procedure was to transform a human to look like that had eagle wings, and doing so would leave them covered in blood. It would also leave them extremely dead. First, the victim’s ribs would be broken off of their spines. While this is only the first of multiple steps, luckily it would almost certainly result in death so that they would not have to feel the rest of what was going to happen to their body.
With the ribs now detached from the spine, they could be turned around and pulled backwards, creating a pair of wings using the ribs and skin of the back. Finally, the lungs would be removed from the chest cavity and placed on the back, just for good measure.
From the French “mariage républicain”, this was a style of execution that took place in France during the Reign of Terror, a period during the French Revolution. The name seems to have developed as a sardonic joke intended to ridicule the concept of a Republican wedding, what would be referred to as secular wedding in today’s parlance.
These executions took place from 1793 to 1794 in the city of Nantes. A series of mass executions by drowning were ordered by French Revolutionary Jean-Baptiste Carrier. The drownings at Nantes saw Carrier command the execution of 4,000 civilians, mostly priests, women, and children. Most of these civilians were just drowned in the river Loire, but some were subject to the Republic marriage.
In these “marriages”, a naked man and woman would be tied together before being thrown into the river. It is unclear whether these pairs were actually married couples or just randomly selected, though it was likely the latter. While most accounts indicate that they were simply drowned, some describe the bound couples being run through with a sword, either before or in lieu of the drowning. Whichever specific method was chosen, there is no doubt that these couples all wished they could have had a nice, Christian marriage instead.
Poena Cullei is Latin for “penalty of the sack”, and was a type of execution first performed by ancient Romans. The earliest documented case is from circa 100 BC, and by the 2nd century AD it would be codified as the preferred form of execution for patricide. Unless there wasn’t a body of water nearby, in which case the criminal would be thrown to the beasts in the arena. This would remain the penalty for patricide until nearly 900 AD.
Roman law was extremely specific and often extremely cruel. Poena Cullei was a punishment used exclusively for patricide, and it delivered exactly what the name promised. The condemned was to be beaten with rods, then sewn into a leather sack contained exactly one dog, one viper, one rooster, and one monkey. No more, no less. No exceptions or substitutions, some restrictions may apply. The animals of course were all still alive when the bag was sewn shut. To ensure the success of the execution, the sack was then thrown into the depths of the sea. Those poor monkeys.
While this cruel and unusual punishment was eventually ended circa 900 AD, with patricides being punished by the much more humane method of being burned alive, this wasn’t to be the end of Poena Cullei. The punishment was brought back by the Germans in the 13th century, again as penalty for patricide. Their version, however, was much less stringent.
The German version of Poena Cullei deemed the rooster to no longer be necessary. Furthermore, if monkeys were in short supply, the monkey could instead be replaced with a cat. Can’t find a snake, or simply too afraid to handle one? A painting of a snake was an adequate substitution. The sacks could also have two partitions to physically separate the prisoner from the cat and dog (and painting of a snake). This begs the questions of why the helpless animals were even still included in the sack.
Fortunately, this barbaric practice fell out of favour and hasn’t been used since the 1700’s, finally being abolished in 1761.
The breaking wheel, execution wheel, Catherine Wheel, or simply “the wheel” was a form of public execution. It was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, but it’s origins may go back much further, being based on a similar punishment that dates back to at least the 6th century. Because this was a public form of execution designed to entertain audiences and deter would be criminals, the Catherine Wheel was a play in two acts.
Convicted criminals, normally either robbers or murderers, would be set to be executed by the wheel. They would be referred to as being “wheeled” or “broken by the wheel”. In the first act, the convicted was tied to the floor of a public stage. The wheel itself was usually just an ordinary, spoked wagon wheel made out of wood. Sometimes, sharp bits of metal would be added to give it that little something extra. To make sure the wheel did its job, sharp timbers would often be placed under the joints of the condemned. On rare instances the wheel would be brought down on the criminal’s neck to end their life, and in even rarer instances the execution would begin that way. However, the traditional first act saw the executioner hammering the wheel down on the convict’s legs to shatter the bones. He would work his way up to the arms, and once the poor soul was deemed sufficiently incapacitated, it was time for act two.
For the second act, the now broken limbs could often be braided into the spokes of the wheel. If this was not possible, the body would be tied to the wheel instead. The wheel would then be horizontally erected onto a large mast to be left out for display. Sometimes the executioner may be permitted to decapitate the criminal, or they may even set the whole contraption on fire. The normal course of events, however, was to leave the body on the wheel for all to see, and to be preyed on by birds and scavenging animals.
As brutal as it sounds, this death sentence was not necessarily a death sentence. If the body were to fall off of the wheel, or if the execution failed in some other way such as the wheel falling off the mast or the wheel breaking entirely at any point during the execution, it was interpreted as divine intervention and the condemned would be set free. This could normally only happen after the first act had been performed to completion, so survival was not as pleasant as it sounded. Still, there exist volumes of literature on how best to treat the injuries of someone who survived their encounter with the Catherine Wheel.
Blowing From a Gun
If you’ve ever wondered what a firing squad would look like if they used cannons instead of guns, this form of execution is for you, sicko. Cannons were invented in China in the 12th century, so it should come as no surprise that “blowing from a gun” is most known for being used by British colonialists in India, especially during the rebellion of 1857. This form of capital punishment was excessive, to say the least.
The prisoner would be tied to a cannon with the small of his back resting against the muzzle. Soldiers would rarely load a cannonball into the barrel, instead just filling it with either gunpowder or grapeshot. What would happen next was all too predictable. The cannon would fire, launching the head straight up into the air, sometimes as high as 50 feet. The arms would fire high through the air to the left and right, landing some 300 feet away. With the torso completely incinerated or torn apart by grapeshot, what remained of the legs would drop to the ground.
This act was cruel enough, but the reason behind it was even more cruel. The British employed this tactic against Indian rebels because the complete destruction of the body prevented them from performing Hindu funeral rites on the deceased.
While it was most commonly employed by the British, the practice of blowing from a gun dates back at least to the early 1500s, and continued into 20th century Afghanistan as means of dealing with political opponents. On April 6, 1930, The New York Times ran the headline “Eleven Afghans Blow From Guns at Kabul.”
Blood is an important thing to humans; so important, that without it we’d die. To the Mongols, without blood we’d cease to exist at all. According to Mongul traditions, if a person’s blood spilled on the ground when being killed, the victim would cease to exist in the afterlife. In day to day warfare, this was not an issue. The Monguls were not concerned with saving the souls of their enemies. However, their traditional also stated that spilling royal blood would lead to horrendous natural disasters.
Because of this belief, they needed to come up with inventive and often cruel ways to dispatch of the ruling class whose territory they wanted to annex. One such method, employed by Genghis Khan’s grandson Hulegu, was to roll up the opposing ruler in a carpet and have him either trampled with horses or beaten to death by soldiers. That already sounds unpleasant, but there are much worse fates. One woman had all her orifices sewn shut, was wrapped in felt to ensure no blood touched the Earth, and was then thrown in the river to drown. They hoped that by sewing her shut, it would keep all of her bodily fluids inside.
These are some pretty extreme sounding examples, but what would happen in the event of capital punishment? The Monguls were very careful in their execution of other Monguls. Unless a crime was so heinous that the prisoner did not deserve to exist even after death, special care was always taken to ensure that no blood would be spilled during the executions.
This wasn’t necessarily a difficult task, a simple hanging should be a bloodless affair. But where’s the sport in that? The most popular method of bloodless execution was to hold a staged wrestling match. In addition to being much more entertaining, it gave the convicted a symbolic feeling of self-defense and agency, even though they knew the outcome was predetermined. No matter how the match went, the ending was always the same. The condemned would be lifted into the air by the executioner, then slammed down either on the executioner’s knee or onto a nearby rock, snapping the criminal’s spine and killing them instantly. Let’s just hope Vince McMahon doesn’t hear about this and use the idea for a new pay-per-view event.