History's most bizarre, brutal and absolutely barmy punishments

A drawing of a medieval torture device featuring spikes inside a coffin
Iron maidens were pretty gruesome but some of the punishments on this list are much worse | Shutterstock

Throughout history forms of justice have been dished out that can be described as brutal, irregular, and just downright bizarre. Here are 10 peculiar punishments from history that will make you wince, laugh, and maybe even vomit.

That’s gotta hurt – radishes and mullets

2,500 years ago, a man committing adultery in Athens might find himself before a crowd in the agora. There he would be subjected to a grim legal punishment known as Rhaphanidosis. This involved a radish being shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. Before the radish went in, the guilty man would also have all the hair from his nether regions removed with hot ash.

The Romans did a similar thing to adulterers but used a grey mullet, the fish not the hairstyle, instead. The Romans clearly hated adulterers, and anyone found guilty could be fined, raped, castrated, or executed.

Put a lid on it - the iron coffin of Lissa

In the medieval period, people clearly thought quick deaths were a bit dull and boring, as so many methods of execution were designed to prolong the screams of the condemned. One such mode of dispatch is known as ‘The Iron Coffin of Lissa’.

The prisoner was placed in an iron coffin and over the course of several days, they were forced to endure the agony of watching the lid slowly shut. Inching towards them almost too slowly to see, eventually, they would feel the cold iron touch their nose. Then it was more suspense coupled with great physical pain as it slowly crushed them to death.

Bang out of order - riding the stang

For centuries, rural Britain played host to a bizarre form of community punishment. In the north of England and Scotland, it was known as ‘Riding the Stang’, and in parts of southern England it was called ‘Skimmington Riding’. Whatever it was called there was one common factor, a boisterous rabble of rowdy villagers taunting and embarrassing the offender with an elaborate parade.

When a husband was known to have hit his wife, the young men of the village set out about creating the procession. The stang was a hurdle or pole on which a joker of the village would sit and be carried aloft through the streets. Pots and pans were banged, and whistles and horns were played. All the villagers would join in and typically the procession would move around the village before arriving at the home of the transgressor, who would presumably be peeking nervously through the curtains.

Sometimes the guy being carried around was part of the shaming crew, and on other occasions, it was the offender himself who was carted around. Some of the last recorded instances of ‘Riding the Stang’ were as recent as 1889.

A fate worse than death – the extreme execution of Balthasar Gérard

The execution of Balthasar Gérard shocked and sickened people across Europe, who were no strangers to all manner of gory public justice. He was dispatched in Delft, The Netherlands, in 1584 for slaying William of Orange. Gérard’s sentence was death preceded by torture, which lasted for 18 days.

First, he was flogged, had his hand forced into a vat of boiling oil, and honey rubbed into his wounds. A goat was brought in to lick the honey off, but the animal thought better of it. Then Balthasar’s limbs were stretched, and armpits branded. He was covered in hot bacon fat and his feet were shrunken by fire. Then the skin on his feet was torn off before a single arm was amputated. Over the course of the next two weeks, different parts of his body had the flesh torn by red hot tongs.

Before he’d had a chance to cool down, he was tied naked in the middle of a public square, and carts loaded with coal were placed around him. They were set on fire, creating a huge BBQ in which poor Balthasar was the meat. Barely alive, he was then bound to a cartwheel with his legs and one remaining arm smashed to pieces. He was left on the wheel writhing in misery for six hours.

The executioner took pity on Gérard and garrotted him, after which he was disembowelled and quartered.

Don’t have a cow - the bovine executioner of Halifax

Long before the famous ‘Madame Guillotine’ was causing a bloody mess in the French Revolution, a similar device was separating heads from bodies in a Yorkshire town. This was the Halifax Gibbet. Between 1541 (and likely earlier) and 1650 around 50 people were decapitated by the five-metre-tall machine.

Because nobody in Halifax really wanted the job of the official executioner, each termination by the gibbet was done slightly differently. Often people from the crowd would pull on the rope, and sometimes the victim of the criminal would do it. The executioners weren’t always human, though.

If the criminal had stolen cattle, then it was thought fitting to attach the release rope to a cow that would act as the headsman. Similarly, those caught thieving wool were killed by a sheep, and a horse would pull the rope to punish an equine crime. It offered a great opportunity for audience participation as the crowd would call out to get it running.

A barrel of laughs – the drunkard’s cloak

In 1655, a writer described seeing a bizarrely fitting punishment in Newcastle. Those considered nuisance drinkers were forced to walk the streets dressed in a barrel. The large barrel was made so that it could trap the boozehound inside, with holes for them to put their hands, feet, and head through. They would then traipse through the city to much jeering and laughing of onlookers while wearing ‘The Drunkard’s Cloak’.

Stick around – ordeal by knife

Many unusual and bloody punishments were doled out across Europe in the pre-modern era.

One such measure was an ordeal by knife. This was given to those convicted of attempted murder with a blade. The guilty hand was laid on a table and the fingers spread out. Then the assailant’s own knife was thrust so deep into the back of their hand that it would stick to the table. The convict was then ordered to remove his hand from the table, but without touching the knife.

Whip up a storm – the flogging and executing of inanimate objects

In ancient Greece, on the island of Thasos, there lived a grumpy sod who had a particular hatred of the famed Olympian Theagenes. He took his anger out on Theagenes’s statue by regularly whipping it. One day the statue fell on him and killed him. The statue was then formally prosecuted by the squashed man’s family and lobbed into the sea after being convicted of murder.

In 1591, a town bell in Uglich, Russia was banished to Siberia for simply doing its job. Following the murder of Tsarevich Dmitry, Ivan the Terrible’s last son, the bell sounded to raise the alarm. However, this led to a riot and several people lost their lives. The bell had its ‘tongue’ torn out and was whipped before being exiled. This story does have a happy ending though as it was fully pardoned in 1892.

In countries such as France and Switzerland, it was not uncommon for portraits to be punished in a person’s stead. There were cases of absent criminals’ pictures being whipped and even ‘executed’.

Knuckle down – the finger pillory

If you walk into St Helen's Church in Ashby-de-la-Zouch, Leicestershire, you will find a strange wooden object sitting there. It consists of two large pieces of oak going horizontally with an upright support. It has holes on the insides of the two planks and resembles a giant nutcracker.

This is a finger pillory. A pillory normally secures the head and hands, but this form would lock in place a single finger, bent sharply at the knuckle and held like that. It would have been extremely painful and was used as a punishment for petty church naughtiness, such as nodding off during a sermon.

The finger pillory was also used as a ‘Christmas punishment’ by the ‘Lords of Misrule’ of Tudor and Stuart England. The use of finger pillories died out in the 19th century.

Falling at your feet - the virgin kiss of Baden-Baden

One elaborate and nightmarish method of execution took place at a castle in the German town of Baden-Baden. This was known as the ‘Baiser de la Vierge’, the ‘Virgin Kiss’. The condemned would be chained up and winched down a deep shaft that ran from the castle keep deep into the rock on which the fort sat.

Here the criminal was confined to a dark dungeon. After hours of pain and suffering in a torture chamber, they were ordered to kiss a statue at the end of the room. Limping over to the bronze Virgin Mary, the doomed person would lean forward to kiss it. At this moment a trapdoor opened at their feet. They fell into a shaft lined with wheels edged with spikes that turned as they fell through.

Centuries later, bits of bone and fabric were still said to be visible on the sharp ends of this grisly contraption.