Even more bizarre, brutal and absolutely barmy punishments from history

A convict with dirty feet has a ball and chain attached to both ankles
Our ancestors throughout history had some pretty unique and gruesome forms of punishment | Image: Shutterstock

Recently we let you know about some of history’s most bizarre and brutal punishments, which included everything from being slowly crushed in an iron coffin to cows carrying out executions. Well, it turns out our ancestors were even barmier than we first thought, and we’ve uncovered nine more absolutely outrageous punishments from the past. Please try to enjoy, this is not for the faint of heart!

It’s grim up north! – The savage punishment of Alberico da Romano

After making an enemy of the Pope in 1259, nobleman Alberico da Romano of northern Italy soon found himself in the custody of merciless troops loyal to the Papal States. And they were clearly not fans of him.

While clad in heavy chains he was forced to watch all his six sons, some of them very young, hacked to death in front of him. Pieces of their bloodied flesh and limbs were then thrown in his face.

The women and girls of his family were forced to walk naked through the enemy Venetian camp. Their breasts and noses were cut off and they were burnt alive. The condemned aristocrat was even forced to lend a hand in executing some of his family members. Alberico himself had his flesh torn from his body with red-hot pliers, to the applaud of onlookers, before being dragged by a galloping horse through the city of Treviso until he was dead.

Hot foot it out of there – The bishop’s BBQ boots

Typically, the idea of the medieval torture device known as the Spanish Boot was to crush the victim’s legs. One sinister variation involved using the boot as a vessel for boiling.

Perhaps the most famous case is that of Irish martyr Archbishop Dermot O’Hurley, who got on the wrong side of Queen Elizabeth I. He was tortured and executed for treason in 1584.Poor Derm must have really annoyed the powers that be, as they ordered a custom-made metal boot. They then shoved his foot in, filled it with oil and salt, and placed it over a roaring fire. When the boot was removed apparently most of his foot’s flesh decided to stay inside the red-hot shoe. Ouch!

Unsurprisingly, this nearly killed Dermot, but he never gave the government the names they wanted and was abruptly hanged early one morning on St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin.

Cat scratch fever - death by moggy

French midwife Louisa Mabreé was convicted of murdering babies and condemned to die. She was placed in an iron cage above a bonfire. However, she wasn’t alone. Inside the cage with her were 14 cats. As the flames licked at the cage and slowly roasted its occupants, the crazed cats clawed and bit the woman to shreds in their agony. This grisly execution is depicted in a famous painting from 1821.

Thirteenth-century Byzantine emperor Theodore II Laskaris punished a noblewoman for having refused the hand of a pal of his. She was placed in a large sack up to her neck and the bag was filled with angry cats. The killer kitties were riled up by executioners poking and prodding them.

A prickly reception - The robot queen of Sparta

Ever hugged a statue by mistake when drunk, thinking it was a real person? No? Oh, neither have I. Apparently, a good number of men in Ancient Sparta did, though. With painful consequences.

King Nabis, who ruled Sparta from 207 to 192 BC, created a robot version of his wife, Apega. This mechanical queen was made of iron and fitted out with nails and spikes to the arms and chest. He would entice drunken Spartan men into the robot’s lair, and they would see the fake queen, arms outstretched, and lurch forward to embrace her.

Once in the hug position, the arms would then close around the victim, crushing and stabbing them. Nabis would then leap out and demand money from the bleeders to be released. Charming man!

Scraping a living – Torture and death by comb

Iron combs were used for centuries to comb wool or other materials before weaving into fabric. But in classical antiquity, these combs were sometimes put to a more sinister use – torture and execution.

Essentially it would be a bit like having a sharp garden rake dragged over your skin, slowly scraping it off. Famously, Croesus, King of Lydia in the 6th century BC, had an adversary scratched to death by comb.

The Romans also used the iron comb as a torture device, including on several early Christian martyrs, such as Febronia of Nisibis. In 304 AD she was brutally combed and mutilated before being beheaded.

The elephant in the room – medieval India’s tusked executioners

Public execution by elephant was something that took place in different parts of Asia and Africa but perhaps most notably in India, where this form of capital punishment was known as Gunga Rao. This method of mammoth mutilation began in the early part of the last millennium and continued well into the 19th century.

The big grey beasts were well trained. If the prisoner was to be executed outright, the elephant was commanded to instantly pulverise them. If the authorities wanted the felon to suffer then the elephants would stomp on their arms and legs, one by one, shattering and mangling them.

Elephants in 17th century Delhi were also trained to chop up the guilty to pieces. This was achieved by way of large blades fitted to the tusks of the elephant and some skilled work from the beast. Three centuries previously, a traveller witnessed an elephant doing the same thing to a convict in Delhi and throwing the dismembered body parts into the baying crowd.

Fine by me – Anglo-Saxon injury laws

If you wanted to deck someone in 9th century England the kind of beating you’d lay down would very much depend on your budget. This is because the Anglo-Saxon kings of this time had a complicated system of punishment by fines for certain offences.

If you belted someone in the mush and broke one of their front teeth, including canines, you’d be fined six shillings. A molar on the other hand was valued at just one shilling. However, King Alfred saw an opportunity to make some extra cash and increased the fine for punching out a molar to 15 shillings.

If you were really angry with someone and wanted to give them a good going over, aim your blows at their ribs, as they were quite cheap at only three shillings a pop.

Just make sure you avoid the eyes. Blinding someone would set a Saxon bloke back 50 shillings.

The old ball and chain – Medieval Germany’s treatment of quarrellers

In 14th century Dortmund, two women convicted of fighting would be made to carry very heavy stones, attached to chains, the length of the city’s main street. The first woman to do it would be forced along by the other with a stick and needle. Then the second would have to do it, the stones mounted on her shoulders, and the other taking over the goading with the sharp object.

In some German cities, the stones were carved to resemble a woman’s head with a protruding tongue, and in other places, the objects were shaped like cats. A parade would often accompany the women, sounding cow horns and handbells.

It’s all gone pear-shaped – The pear of anguish

The Pear of Anguish, on display at several museums across Europe, looks like a medieval torture device but many historians are not convinced.

As its name suggests, it is a pear-shaped metal object that typically has spoons, blades, and spikes that fan out when the device’s screw is turned. These instruments were supposedly used in the Middle Ages for torture by being inserted into any of the victim’s bodily orifices.

They would then be opened with the screw or key and the spikes and spoons of the device would expand inside the prisoner’s body, tearing it to shreds and causing extreme pain. This was intended to punish and extract information but would often result in death.

Written by:

James Brigden