Humans, historically speaking, are horrible.
A lot of time and energy has gone into thinking of ways to harm or kill each other. When researching ‘Torture Devices in Medieval Europe’, I also came across loads of gruesome methods of execution used throughout history. Some of these haven’t existed for hundreds of years, whereas some were outlawed less than 150 years ago.
Here are 7 of the worst methods of execution in history.
7. Execution Method: The Catherine Wheel/Breaking Wheel
Bet you didn’t know they named your favorite firework after a method of execution.
The Breaking Wheel, or Catherine Wheel, was a torture and execution device used from ancient times to the 1800s in Europe. Although it also provided a horrifying form of punishment, no one survived, meaning it’s more appropriate to describe it as a drawn-out method of execution rather than a torture device.
First, they would strap the offender to the wheel in a crucifix position as it slowly revolved. As it turned, they’d hit the victims’ limbs with a hammer, breaking them. Finally, they’d be tied to the wheel in this position and left, bound and helpless before eventually succumbing to death. All the while eaten alive by carrion. What a pleasant way to go.
6. Execution Method: Blown from a Gun
Execution via ‘blown from a gun’ was used by British Colonials in 1800s India to execute spies and rebels.
Remember in cartoons where they’d shoot someone out of a cannon? Well, death by ‘blown from a gun’ isn’t quite the same but it’s pretty damn close. Only there’s a lot less confetti and a lot more… blood.
You also don’t shoot off into the air, sparks trailing behind you. Well… not quite. They tied the accused to the mouth of the gun so their back rested against the muzzle; they’d pull the trigger and… BOOM! The person’s top half would explode in a grisly display of human fireworks.
5. Execution Method: Death by Saw
Although existing for many centuries prior, Death by Saw is most commonly associated with medieval Europe.
The methods of sawing varied according to time and place, but one of the most common appeared to be sawing the victim down the middle, either beginning at the head or rectum. They’d be painfully cut in two; just like splitting a cheese string.
4. Execution Method: Crushed by Elephant
This method was prominent in Asia because… well; that’s where the elephants are. They were owned by royalty, well trained, and could inflict torture and pain prior to executing the accused.
There were different ways a ruler might order death by elephant. Some were quick – crushing the head under one of their giant hooves, for example. Others were more drawn out. Some elephants had sharp implements affixed to their hooves and knew how to kill their victims slowly, cutting them to pieces. Others again simply crushed their victim, breaking their bones agonizingly before going for the final kill.
There’s evidence of historic rulers in India taking delight in using crushing by elephant as public entertainment, and some disturbing first-hand accounts of how they utilized the elephants for this purpose.
One of the worst demonstrations of this execution method was written in 1814 in The Percy Anecdotes, a collection of historically significant first-hand anecdotes from across history:
“About eleven o’clock the elephant was brought out, with only the driver on his back, surrounded by natives with bamboos in their hands. The criminal was placed three yards behind on the ground, his legs tied by three ropes, which were fastened to a ring on the right hind leg of the animal. At every step the elephant took, it jerked him forward, and every eight or ten steps must have dislocated another limb, for they were loose and broken when the elephant had proceeded five hundred yards. The man, though covered in mud, showed every sign of life, and seemed to be in the most excruciating torments. After having been tortured in this manner for about an hour, he was taken to the outside of the town, when the elephant, which is instructed for such purposes, was backed, and put his foot on the head of the criminal.”
I will never watch Dumbo the same way again.
3. Execution Method: Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered
Hanged, Drawn and Quartered was exclusively used in Medieval England and was the popular form of public punishment for men who committed high treason. One of the most famous victims of this brutal execution method is Braveheart’s own Sir William Wallace.
Arguably one of the worst methods of execution; it was highly public, beginning with strapping the accused to a board that was dragged behind a horse through the city or town toward the execution site. The public nature meant many would witness the punishment, and add to it by hurling objects at the prisoner. By the end of the journey, most would have suffered broken bones and other injuries.
We haven’t even got to the hanging, drawing, and quartering yet. When arriving at the execution site, the prisoner would be unstrapped and then hanged by the neck until nearly dead.
When it seemed they were approaching the point of death, they’d move onto the ‘drawn and quartered’ portion of the execution. First, the victim would be cut down before being brutally disemboweled and their manhood removed – all whilst still alive to feel it.
Finally, after death, the prisoner would be ‘quartered’ – their body chopped into 4 pieces, with each piece sent to different parts of the country so they could not be reunited in heaven.
2. Execution Method: Rat Torture
Fans of Game of Thrones will remember the rat torture scene in series 4. In the show a bucket with rats inside is strapped to the prisoner’s torso, the executioner then heats the bottom of the bucket with a flame, forcing the rat to flee… into the prisoner’s body.
But there’s actually only one historical record of rat torture being used this way. The various other methods used across time and country were more common, most notably it was a form of execution in South American dictatorships in the mid-late 1900s (that’s pretty damn recently).
As well as leaving prisoners to get nibbled on by rats in infested cells, a popular and gruesome form of ‘death by rat’ was used in Argentina where they would insert the rat into a person’s rectum or vagina through a tube so the victim would be eaten alive from the inside out.
1. Execution Method: Lingchi, Death by a Thousand Cuts
This particular method of execution may be more familiar than some others because of its popularisation in the media.
In films it’s depicted as occurring to a still living human, slowly tortured over days with thousands of tiny cuts to the body, until they eventually bleed out or die from their injuries.
Cinematically dramatic? Sure. Realistic? Not quite. In reality, in all but the most extreme cases, Lingchi was performed on the body after death. But the worse the crime, the more punishment took place whilst you were still alive.
Originating in 900s China, they didn’t outlaw it until 1905 -the same year as its last recorded use. Historical texts have shown in the Yung dynasty (1271-1368) there was an average of 100 cuts inflicted, but during Ming dynasty (1368-1644) this had drastically increased to over 3,000 incisions.
Depending on the crime the process could be quick(ish), over in 20 minutes, or slow and drawn out. Wealthy families would often pay for a quick death for their loved ones. What a lovely way to go, in the arms of your family…