The justice system was founded on the principle that every crime or injustice has a fitting punishment. In ancient and modern societies, punishments ensure that wrongdoers pay for their crimes. In most cases, these punishments included, and still include, paying fines and carrying out set tasks to make restitution. Worst-case scenario, public execution aimed to teach a lesson and deter future offenders. But in a few cases, especially in the Medieval era, punishments were so severe that they scared everyone that learned of and saw them. This list of top 10 punishments takes a trip across history, highlighting punishments that, in retrospect, didn’t fit the crime.
10 The Blood Eagle
In the middle ages, Norsemen and Scandinavian Vikings raided monasteries and coastal cities, inspiring fear for their bold exploits. As the most vicious raiding warriors, Vikings traveled worldwide seeking booty, killing, and taking victims as slaves. But while their reputation abroad was fierce, Vikings were a civilized community with set rules for punishing wrongdoers back home.
The Blood Eagle is one of the most famous Norse execution traditions that is still just as shocking to date. A son carried out the Blood Eagle against a person who murdered their father.
In the Blood Eagle, the executioner opened the offender’s back. The ribs were separated from the backbone and twisted upwards to resemble wings. Then, the executioner pulled out the lungs and draped them over the wings, after which the executioner added salt to the wound for maximum pain. The pain inflicted by the ritual punishment was unimaginable, and offenders eventually succumbed to their injuries.
9 Lingchi – “Death by a Thousand Cuts”
Chinese history is full of tales of mighty empires, exploits, and triumphs that made the nation great. However, there is one brutal practice from the ancient Chinese that is frightening to fathom. The punishment was called Lingchi or Slow Slicing. It was reserved for major crimes like treason and mass murder.
As the name suggests, lingchi, also known as “Death by a Thousand Cuts,” was a brutal punishment where the executioner took their time killing a lawbreaker. After being tied to a post, the condemned was cut into portions. Then, bit by bit, the executioner removed segments to reveal underlying tissue.
Since Chinese law never specified a particular approach for conducting the punishment, it varied from one region to another. In some places, the accused suffered over 3,000 cuts, while in others, the process took a few cuts and time. Either way, time varied depending on the officials and how much pity they felt for the accused.
8 Execution by Elephant
Elephants are majestic and proud creatures, and while different cultures revere them, others found new ways to make them useful in society. Unfortunately, “useful” in this case means a tool of punishment. And while elephants are majestic, they are also very large and strong. Executioners made sure “death by elephant” was as dramatic as possible.
In South and Southeast Asia, elephants trampled the accused to death. In India, punishment by an elephant is known as Gunga Rao. It was reserved for people who committed major crimes like rebellion, tax evasion, and theft. In these cases, the elephants crushed the accused methodically, starting from the lower limbs and moving upwards. In Thailand, the punishment had more flair as the elephants were trained to toss the accused in the air. In Vietnam, wrongdoers were tied to a stake, and the elephant charged at them, crushing them in the process.
7 Death by Cannon Fire
Cannons were powerful weapons used by armies to crush their enemies from long distances and break down walls when needed. In Punjab, troops used cannons to execute rebellious personalities and inspire fear under British control. Though effective, it was an unpopular approach.
In this ruthless style of punishment, victims had their hands and feet tied to the front of cannons, with their buttocks covering the mouth of the cannon. When the executioner fired the cannon, the accused died on the spot, leaving only pieces behind. Since the technique was brutally raw, everyone near the cannon was covered with blood and guts each time it was fired.
Sailing was an exciting and rewarding career choice back when water travel was the only way to move around the globe. But you best stay on your boss’s good side. To punish disloyalty, captains used a method called Keelhauling.
Keelhauling was a punishment perfected by the Dutch army, one that could be meted at any time while at sea. The punishment, which could be fatal or not, required that the offender be tied with rope, after which the captain dragged them underwater from the ship’s left to the right side.
The punishment was severe since while being dragged under the ship, the keel or ship’s bottom could tear the person apart, and in most cases, they would drown. Yet, if one survived keelhauling, the torture left them with horrible scars that marked them for life.
5 Drawn and Quartered
As cruel punishments go, drawing and quartering are the most unusual techniques ever, ones that struck fear into spectators. In this punishment, the executioner ties the victim to a horse. The horse drags them to the gallows, where the execution will happen.
At the gallows, they are then hung, beheaded, or disemboweled. The quartering involved splitting the accused in fours by tying the body to two strong horses. The stallions are forced to run in opposite directions, tearing the body into pieces in a most dramatic fashion.
The spectacle associated with this punishment was to provide ultimate humiliation to the wrongdoer and great entertainment to onlookers. The punishment was popular since it was rare and used sparingly, reserved for those guilty of treason.
4 Death by Boiling
Boiling is a process associated with cooking or even industrial processes, but in the 1500s, executioners used it for punishment. In this execution method, prisoners were placed in large containers filled with boiling water, oil, wax, and even wine. They were left there until they died.
Death by boiling drew out the victim’s suffering for as long as possible. The Roman Emperor Nero was a boiling champion. Under his reign, many early Christians, then considered rebellious, were boiled in oil.
In England, during Henry VIII’s rule, boiling was a punishment for those guilty of treason or killing their husbands or masters with poison. Since death by boiling was fascinating, it was done in public where a huge metal container was set on a massive fire as citizens watched a human be boiled alive. The process for one person could take as long as two hours.
3 Torture by Rats
Fans of Medieval films and shows like “Game of Thrones” know the torture by rats punishment method all too well. Governments used this punishment to coerce confessions or teach the victim a lesson. A victim is tied down, and a bucket is put upon their bare stomach or chest. Then, a hungry or even diseased rat is thrown inside the bucket.
The executioner heats up the bucket with the rat inside. As the rat realizes it’s trapped, it starts nibbling the victim’s flesh to escape. Often, the frenzied rat eats its way into the flesh while looking for a way out, and in the process, it causes unimaginable pain and stress.
While surviving the punishment was possible, it left the sufferer with wounds that took a lot of time to heal. While rats are innocent rodents, creative executioners found ways to make them lethal weapons.
2 Poena Cullei – Sewn in a Bag
Families are the most important social units, and in Roman society, parricides or the killing of parents or near relatives attracted severe punishments. The standard punishment for parricide among Romans was called Poena Cullei, which translates to Sewn in a Bag.
Executioners first beat the condemned with rods until they were weak and bleeding. Then, the individuals were sown in a leather sack with a rooster, snake, monkey, and dog. This unique combination guaranteed that there would be chaos within the leather sack.
As if that wasn’t enough, executioners then threw the enclosed sack into the sea. If the accused didn’t die from being attacked by the animals, drowning in the sea completed the job. In cruelty and severity, this is one ugly punishment!
As seen in our not-so-pleasant list, ancient peoples had lots of creative methods to kill people guilty—or accused without evidence—of murdering royalty. But, no other punishment method surpasses scaphism, also known as The Boats. You could call it bittersweet—you’ll get the joke in a minute.
Scaphism involved the trapping of an individual between two small boats or tree trunks. The executioner would bind them to ensure they couldn’t free themselves. For scaphism to work properly, executioners chose to put the victims in swamps. Still, water is home to many bugs and small animals—perfect for torture.
The next step of the punishment was a little strange. The victim was force-fed with milk and honey—this is where the bittersweet joke comes in—a mixture that was intended to cause diarrhea. Executioners applied the remaining mixture to the accused’s exposed skin to attract wild animals, insects, and rats. Most times, the accused died from being eaten alive, exposure, dehydration, and their wounds.