It seems that humans have been trying to think of creative ways to cause pain, suffering, and death for time immemorial. While the majority of the world has either abolished the death penalty or put a moratorium on it, several nations still execute citizens— the United States being one of them.
While most countries with capital punishment use more… “modern” methods, there are still several parts of the world where one or two of these methods haven’t been left in the past. Here’s a look at eleven unusual execution methods used in the past and possibly today.
1. The Reverse Hanging
This name could refer to two separate forms of execution. The first would involve tying a person’s hands behind their back and raising them off the ground by a rope. This would often result in excruciating pain and the dislocation of the victim’s shoulders. If left in this position, they would eventually die.
This method isn’t officially used by any government in the modern era, but it has been used by various rebel groups and governments as a form of torture. It’s not uncommon for the victims to die when subjected to this even if it isn’t the goal.
One of the most familiar methods of execution we’ve probably all heard of is stoning. In this method, members of the public typically hurl large stones at the victim until they die. While this method is extremely rare to see passed down from a government in modern times, it is occasionally used in the Middle East or Asia in more remote areas where punishments are often handled without government intervention.
One notable example of a government using stoning as a method of execution is Iran which has executed hundreds of people via this method over the last forty years. The morbid thing is that in Iran, men are first buried up to their waist in the ground before the stoning starts, while women are buried up to their necks. The accused is allowed to live if they can escape, and there are even records of this happening.
According to Amnesty in the link above, several women were also able to escape despite being buried up to their necks. Unlike the men, they were thrown back into the center of the stoning pit and executed anyways.
3. Being Crushed by an Elephant
Crushing the accused’s head with an elephant was a popular execution method in Southern and South East Asia, where Asian elephants were commonly tamed and found. The elephant would either toy with the accused until they passed away, stampede them to death, or even cut to pieces from sharp metal implements attached to the feet of the elephant.
Another popular method was to have the elephant step on the accused’s head until it was crushed. Elephants were used for executions until the middle half of the 19th century when the British Empire had put an end to this custom and many others in an effort to control and rule the local people.
4. Being Tied to a Cannon
This brutal method involved tying the accused to the front of a cannon and firing it. As you can imagine, it was quite effective. This method was commonly used in Portuguese Colonies such as Brazil and modern-day Sri Lanka, along with the British and their dark ruling of India.
George Carter Stent, who had witnessed this method, is quoted as saying, “the head is seen to go straight up into the air some forty or fifty feet; the arms fly off right and left, high up in the air, and fall at, perhaps, a hundred yards distance; the legs drop to the ground beneath the muzzle of the gun; and the body is literally blown away altogether, not a vestige being seen.”
5. Falling From Great Heights
Another method that has been used recently by Iran to punish homosexuality, it is as simple as it sounds. The accused would be taken to the top of a building or a cliff and simply thrown from it. Besides Iran, this method was also used by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the Roman Empire, and even the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Pinochet was infamous for his “death flights.” Rebels and others that opposed him were drugged and loaded into aircraft or a helicopter and dropped over the Andes Mountains or the Atlantic Ocean. Pinochet is not alone in these death flights as countless other nations and militant groups have used this method too.
This method has some discrepancies behind it, but it seems to almost certainly have been used by the Dutch navy at one point or another in the 17th century. Keelhauling involved dragging a sailor along the underside of a ship by rope. If it doesn’t sound bad, remember that the underside of a ship is covered in razor-sharp barnacles that can cut just as easily as a knife.
If the sailor didn’t drown or die from hypothermia, the lacerations and blood loss were almost certainly going to do the job. Depending on the crime, keelhauling could be used as a punishment or an execution method. If the accused were to be executed, they would be keelhauled multiple times until their death— with pauses in between to make sure they had time to regain their senses.
Associated with the Ancient Persians, scaphism was the act of force-feeding the accused a mixture of milk and honey, slathering them in it, and tying them to a boat. Another boat would be fitted on top so that their feet, hands, and head are sticking outside of it. Finally, they would be pushed out into the center of a stagnant pond.
The force-feeding would eventually cause them to defecate, attracting bugs and other vermin. Eventually, they would die of sepsis and exposure as they get swarmed with different flies and other bugs. The body would be left to be devoured by all manners of vermin and critters.
Ever seen those cages hanging around a castle in a movie or TV show with prisoners or skeletons inside of them? Well, that isn’t just a fantasy trope. Gibbeting was the act of putting a person on display as punishment for a crime, either alive or dead. Executed individuals were often put on display as a warning to anyone else who might consider going down the same path as them.
Occasionally, victims were placed into these cages or other contraptions alive and left to die from exposure, starvation, or any wounds they might have suffered before being placed in the gibbet. This is another form of execution that was commonly used throughout the world as it was quite effective at instilling fear into people.
Did you read that short story in English class by Edgar Allen Poe titled “The Cask of Amontillado”? The horrific idea of being chained to a wall and enclosed into a niche and encased brick by brick was actually something people had to fear back then— well, only if you were a criminal.
Immurement was where someone would be placed into an enclosed space without an exit and left to die. Whether they were walled in somewhere or dropped into a hole with bars for a ceiling, immurement was used all throughout the world but was common in medieval Europe.
10. Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered
A lot of people have heard the term “hanged, drawn, and quartered,” but many don’t know what it actually entails. The actual order for the execution method is drawn, then hanged, then quartered, but for some reason, hanged goes first in the actual phrase.
First, the accused would be strapped to a wooden board and drawn through streets by a horse. Sometimes, they wouldn’t be strapped to a board and instead would drag across the ground until they reached their place of execution. Next came the hanging, but it wasn’t to the point of death.
Instead, the victim would be revived or hanged just to the brink of death before being cut loose. Finally, they would be executed by disemboweling and quartering. This execution method was commonly reserved for traitors and was popular in medieval England.
11. Being Fed to an Animal
Lions, tigers, bears… and crocodiles? Letting people get eaten by various animals was definitely a popular method of punishment back in the old days, especially in Ancient Rome. While it’s debated if Christians were actually sentenced to be eaten by lions in the colosseum, there are definitely examples of other people being sentenced to death.