9 more bizarre, brutal and absolutely barmy punishments from history

Medieval torture room with stocks, lock chair and an axe
William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered after being convicted of high treason | Image: Shutterstock

In this third helping of history’s most bizarre and brutal punishments, we serve up nine more shocking, unusual, and downright weird methods of castigation from antiquity to the 20th century.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

1. Don’t Lose Heart - The Sickening Execution of William Wallace

The execution of Scottish national hero William Wallace was in reality even more lurid and brutal than depicted in Mel Gibson’s famous 1995 biopic.

After he was convicted of high treason at Westminster Hall on 23rd August 1305, Wallace was taken outside, stripped naked, attached horizontally to a wooden hurdle, and ‘drawn’ by two horses across the cobbled streets to his place of execution at Smithfield. Along the route, the masses of rowdy Londoners didn’t just throw excrement and pigswill at Wallace as he passed by, oh no – they also cruelly battered him with heavy sticks, lashed him with whips, and got the boot in where they could.

The Scottish knight was barely alive when the horses pulled him into the Elms, Smithfield. Still naked, Wallace was made to climb an especially high scaffold before undergoing the standard half-hanging.

Nearly dead, Wallace was taken down and emasculated (genitals sliced off). This was a typical part of the punishment for high treason for centuries and was not an unusual penalty for other crimes as well. King Henry I of England, for example, summoned some of his moneyers (official minters of coins) to Winchester on Christmas Day, 1125. Here he savagely punished them for making dodgy coins. One by one he had all 94 men emasculated and their right hands cut off.

Next, Wallace had a large, deep opening carved across his stomach. The executioner reached in and pulled out his guts for all to see, before chucking those onto a bonfire. Each organ was removed one by one and shown to the cheering crowd. Wallace would have been alive through much of this process. He was then beheaded and his body cut into four pieces, the bloodied bits being displayed around Britain.

The last person to receive the full horror of this ancient punishment, in use in England from the time of the Normans, was convicted spy David Tyrie in 1782.

2. Give it a Whirl – Riding the Whirligig

During the War of 1812, American officer Henry Dearborn was the commander of an army barracks in Albany, New York. Of the myriad measures he employed for discipline among his men was a bizarre punishment called ‘riding the whirligig’. One source says its origins lie in ‘military antiquities’, though doesn’t say when exactly this is.

This whirligig was a large cage that was attached through the centre to a post in the ground. The post was made to turn and would spin the cage at incredible speed. It was intended to humiliate the guilty person, and the carrying out of the sentence never failed to draw a large crowd of soldiers and camp followers. Typical injuries suffered included dislocated bones, cuts and bruises, and unconsciousness from the spinning. In many cases, severe mental illness resulted from prolonged rides of the whirligig.

3. A Place in the Sun – Execution by Drying

In 17th and 18th-century Jamaica, Dead Man’s Cay (later renamed Rackham's Cay) was something of a suntrap – in a quite literal and sinister way.

Convicted pirates unfortunate enough to suffer this form of execution were taken to a tiny island, locked into an iron cage, and suspended high on a post. Left here in the fierce Caribbean sun without food or water, they never lasted long. The cage would be tight enough to keep their skeleton in place after the body had rotted down.

4. To Kingdom Come - Blowing from a Gun

Famously used by the British in India in the 18th and 19th centuries, ‘blowing from a gun’ involved the condemned being tied to the front of a cannon so that their back was touching the muzzle. The field gun would then be fired, pretty much obliterating the prisoner’s body. One contemporary observer reported that a head was blown almost 50 feet into the air, the limbs landed 100 yards away, and the rest of the body was essentially vaporised.

Possibly the most recent use of this method of execution was in April 1930 in Afghanistan.

5. A Roomful of Ash(a) – Execution by Ash

The ancient Persians had a legal method of execution whereby a person was thrown into a chamber filled with ashes. Giant wheels stirred the ash up so that it created a storm of powered embers to choke the victim.

It was occasionally used elsewhere in ancient times, too. Menelaus, the Jewish high priest of Jerusalem, was offed by ash in 161 BC for displeasing Antiochus V. He was said to have been thrown into an ash-filled tower 50 cubits tall (about 23 metres) where he was asphyxiated.

6. In for the Long Haul – The Forty-Day Nightmare Punishment

One of the most brutal and repulsive judicial punishments ever devised is surely the ‘quaresima’. Concocted by Bernabò Visconti and his brother Galeazzo and issued as an edict when they gained power in Milan in 1354, the quaresima was a programme of horrendous public torture which lasted forty days. The brothers were kind enough to give the doomed fellows – traitors and enemies – a day off from the torture every other day. (Probably to ensure they only died at the end of the forty days).

The savage punitive scheme involved gouging out of eyes, the cutting off of noses, lips, and ears, the lopping off of arms and legs one by one, flaying, dislocating the joints, beating on the wheel, and stretching on the rack.

Bernabò, whose coat of arms was a snake devouring a man, wasn’t a terribly nice man (if you hadn’t guessed already). Two legates once brought him letters from the pope that he didn’t like, so he forced the hapless envoys to eat the letters, including the lead seals and silk ties. He once ordered an official to remove a man’s tongue, but only using his bare hands.

7. Pull up a Chair – The Repentance Stool

In Scotland in the 16th century, under certain circumstances, cheating spouses could be executed. However, one non-lethal alternative was the repentance stool. Resembling a bar stool, this seat was found in a church rather than a pub. Here the sinner would sit and be shouted at by the congregation as punishment. Typically, they’d be sat on the stool wearing a sackcloth known as ‘the repentance gown’.

In the 1560s, a clergyman in Scotland who’d admitted to playing away was sentenced to this punishment. For two Sundays he had to sit on the naughty step in his home church in Jedburgh and endure the wrath of his flock. A report of the use of this naughty step appeared as recently as 1884.

8. Your Neck of the Woods – The Cangue

If you were to travel back in time to China before the turn of the 20th century, you might see a miserable-looking bloke shuffling or crawling about with a big wooden board around his neck. This board was the cangue.

The cangue would be locked together over the convict’s neck, imprisoning his head for a given period. It was wide enough that he couldn’t bring his hand up to his face. Not only did he have to ask kind passers-by to scratch his nose for him, but he also had to rely on others to feed him. The community was left in little doubt about what the offender had done: his crime, as well as his name and address, were written all over the board, which could weigh up to 15kg.

9. New Kid on the Block – The Goat Torture

In medieval France, one effective method of extracting confessions was goat torture. Sitting on the ground and with their feet dangling on the other side of the stocks, the suspect’s tootsies would be covered in heavily salted water.

A goat would be brought up, which would lick the person’s feet. Doesn’t sound too bad? Well, goats have very abrasive tongues, and they really love salt, so the victim would have felt what could only be described as an extreme tickling. People subjected to this torture normally confessed!

Written by:

James Brigden