Skip to main content
Medieval torture chamber

Bizarre, brutal and absolutely barmy punishments from history - Part IV


In this fourth serving of history’s strangest and severest punishments, we bring you eight more methods of meting out justice that will leave you intrigued and repulsed in equal measure.

Read at your own risk…

1. The Grisly Execution of Richard Gwyn

On a wet October day in 1584 at the Beast Market in Wrexham, Wales, teacher (and later saint) Richard Gwyn was butchered in front of a crowd for the crime of denying the supremacy of Queen Elizabeth I.

Gwyn’s gaoler, Mr Coytmore, was a dab hand at hanging local thieves, but he’d never been called upon to carry out such a barbarous killing as hanging, drawing, and quartering. Until now.

After being dragged on a sled to the execution site and strung up, a merciful Coytmore tugged on Gwyn’s legs in the hope of giving him a quick death but the sheriff ordered Gwyn to be cut down immediately.

Coytmore made too small a hole in Gwyn’s abdomen and then proceeded to spend ages slowly pulling out the poor man’s bowels through the tiny opening. Gwyn woke up as Coytmore was pulling his organs out of his torso with his hands, readying to burn the entrails before Gwyn’s face, as the law required. Gwyn then looked down at his horribly mutilated body, with blood and guts spilling out, and screamed out: ‘Holy God, what is this!?’

After Gwyn was decapitated and quartered, his head and the four pieces of his body were displayed on castle gates around Wales.

2. The Neck Violin

One peculiar punitive measure from medieval Germany was known as the ‘neck violin’, or ‘shrew’s fiddle’. For people guilty of scolding, rowing, or scrapping with their spouses or neighbours, the violin might be got out.

The violin was essentially a lockable hinged wooden board in the shape of a violin, with three small holes in it. The victim had their head through the larger hole, locking around the neck, and two smaller holes at the front held them by the wrists. There were even tandem versions, locking two people into one long violin.

In some areas they would be forced to do a few laps of the town on a fixed route, and in some cases the violin would have been weighed down by a very heavy stone, adding physical torture to the public shaming.

3. Pitchcapping

In the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the British regularly used pitchcapping on captured Irish rebels. Variations of torture and execution involving a hot liquid being applied to the body date back to the ancient world, but this brutal mode of molten mutilation dates back just two and a quarter centuries.

Boiling pitch would be put into a crude container and then attached to the victim’s scalp (shaved bare beforehand), covering it like a diabolical, agonising cap. Then the cap, once stiffened onto the prisoner’s head, would be torn off, taking large chunks of the poor captive’s scalp with it. Commonly an ear was also cut off the victim.

4. The Crank Machine

The clever Victorians took their love of technological innovation into every sphere of life – and prisons were no exception. Examples include the penal treadmills, the flogging machine at Newgate, and the ‘crank machine’.

The crank machine was a box that was used in prisons for punishment by way of tedious, pointless, hard labour. The machine was filled with sand and the prisoner was made to turn a crank handle on the side of the box which forced cups to rotate through the sand. Typically, the con would be compelled to crank for six hours per day, completing up to 15,000 tough, monotonous turns. The peak of the crank machine was in the 1890s, and the last were removed in the early 20th century.

5. Sawing Through the Middle

There are cases of execution by vertical sawing being used as a state-sanctioned punishment across the world over many centuries, from Persia in the 5th century BC to Cambodia in the 1970s.

Simon the Zealot was hung upside down and sawn from the groin downwards, possibly in Persia, in the 1st century AD.

When Sikh martyr Bhai Mati Das was executed in India in 1675, two men used a two-handled sword to cut the victim in half while he was alive, starting with the skull.

In 1705, an official named Melec was condemned to death for rebelling against Ismail Ibn Sharif, the Sultan of Morocco. Melec was to be sawn in half. His executioners started the sawing between his legs and worked their way up. Melec was still awake when the saw reached his belly. The executioners then pulled out the cutting tool and started sawing from his skull to meet in the middle. Amidst the continuing shrieks from Melec and the crowd (including 4,000 of his followers who all screamed and wailed throughout) chunks of flesh were thrown about and blood was sprayed everywhere, according to a contemporary account.

6. The Jougs

Embedded in the wall of Duddingston Kirk near Edinburgh is a short chain that has a metal collar on the end. This is just one of many surviving examples of ‘the jougs’, a bizarre form of punishment used in Scotland from the 16th century to the early 19th century. It was occasionally used in England - there was one in use inside Wakefield Cathedral, and there is an account of a similar device being used on a crim in London in 1553.

Like the pillory and stocks, the purpose of the jougs was to allow the local community to see and shame the criminal. Used to punish a range of petty offences, from public drunkenness to falling asleep in church, and disobedience towards a parent. In 1649, a maidservant in Wigtown, Scotland was made to stand for an hour in the jougs for assaulting her mistress.

The offender would have to stand in jougs for a certain amount of time, often one or two hours. The jougs in Scotland were usually fixed to a church door, church wall, tree, or market cross.

7. Death by Tree

Surely one of the most viciously inventive and horrific punishments in history is this penalty from Middle Ages Germany, which is quite literally gut-wrenching.

A 1401 law from the town of Oberursel near Frankfurt stipulated that anyone caught stripping bark from a living tree would have their stomach cut open and one end of their intestines taken out and nailed to the tree. The victim would then be marched round the tree, the entrails wrapping around it, until he had no ‘part of the gut left in his body’.

This monstrous form of execution may have been used by certain tribes in Eastern Europe in the medieval era. In 1248, a Teutonic knight was seized in the Baltic region and then killed by his captors in this way.

8. The Dog Punishment

Surely one of the strangest punishments on record is this barking mad penalty from medieval Germany. If a noble was found to have stirred up trouble, then they may have had this form of ruff justice imposed on them.

The erring aristocrat would be forced to carry a dog on their shoulders over a considerable distance, typically between two towns. The object of this canine-carrying castigation was to expose the offender to public mockery, and no doubt throw physical pain into the bargain, as some dogs can weigh 12 stone or more.

The sources don’t say whether the punishment pooch would have been alive or not!

This punishment was imposed on 11 noble counts by Frederick Barbarossa, King of Germany, in the middle of the 12th century.