The bloody history of torture in the name of punishment for crime is the greatest stain on the history of justice and law within the human civilization.

The legal history of England, Canada, the United States of America, Australia and, for that matter, virtually all members of the United Nations, is full of examples of awful punishment inflicted on those found guilty of crime.

Today, cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by most modern democracies. Even infliction of the death penalty is done as humanely, painlessly and as quickly as possible. Torture is widely prohibited.

Orthodox Islam

MuhammadThere are, of course, exceptions to this, many inspired by a rigid adherence to some ancient religupoius trext such as the ancient Islamic penal code, based on the teachings of Muhammad (pictured), or its interpretation by some states, including a grossly disproportionate infliction upon women or the poor.

One one-time translation of Iran's penal code, which seem to disappear from the Internet as fast as they are posted, appears to be as follows (for a conviction of adultery):

"Members of the police or prison guards must initially dig the location for execution of the verdict .... and prepare some amount of stones (rocks) of specified sizes... The executing judge will initially inspect the preparations and, upon satisfactory inspection, he will order the execution to proceed.

"The verdict will be executed by the order of the executing judge, unless the charge of fornication of the convict is proved by statements of the witnesses, and witnesses have run away at the time of stoning or, if fornication is proved by confession of the accused, but (s)he can manage to escape from the hole in ground in which (s)he was buried. In these two cases the verdict will not be executed and the execution judge will issue the order to suspend the verdict."

In Saudi Arabia, circa 2013, executions are still public affairs where spectators get into a frenzy while a sharp blade is brought down onto a convict's neck. Hand are chopped off thieves and caning is a public and painful sentence. Worse, as this May 21, 2013 treport from Amnesty International:

"Saudi Arabia must halt a “disturbing” rise in death penalty usage that has resulted in at least 47 state killings in the country already this year, Amnesty International urged after six more people were executed today. Five Yemeni men were beheaded and crucified this morning in the city of Jizan, while a Saudi Arabian man was executed in the south-western city of Abha."

The Now and Then

Of course, one could argue that the implementation of the death penalty in American states such as portrayed in the film Dead Man Walking, and complete with cheering crowds at the prison gates, is not that far off from the scenes in Riyadh. If anything, it shows how dangerously close we still are to our past lives of legal horror.

In the not-so-distant past of those nations which have derived their law from Europe, lurk horrible punishments, neither fiction nor fancy, but inflicted on human beings, the pain, execution and mutilation often the subject of public derision or, worse, cheer.

We are not exaggerating. What follows is not for the faint of heart. We present it not to shock or offend and we apologize if we do; but to educate the world on legal history and to show where we have come from in the hope that we may better be able to understand that the society that we have today is not the result of chance but of hard-fought development, sometimes through revolution, of the law and its punishments. We should never forget from whence we came and the legal changes for which our forefathers, fought and, in some cases, paid for with their lives.

Ironically, it is law such as those constitutional which today stand to protect us from tyranny and despotic government the kind which fosters and promotes inhumane torture as a form of punishment.

If any defence is to be made of the barbaric practices of the law's past it is that medieval society needed a justice system that inspired fear. "Government cannot exist," once argued a British Attorney-General in defending the pillory, "unless offences are presented to a court of justice (and) the full measure of punishment is inflicted upon them. Let us preserve the restraint against licentiousness."

Capital punishment itself is as old as humanity. The Babylons, Hammurabi, decreed the death penalty for crimes as minor as the fraudulent sale of beer. Egyptians were killed as punishment for disclosing sacred burial places.

The Romans inflicted capital punishment by pushing the accused from a high cliff. Crucifixion, such as that inflicted on Jesus Christ, was another popular form of punishment. The idea was to nail the convict to the cross and to let them die slowly, from asphyxiation, shock and heart failure.


crucifixionIn case you wanted to know: "crucifixion suspends the victim by the arms (specifically, the transfixed wrists) with the body weight not only disjointing the limbs and causing intense and extreme agony by the stretching and tearing of ligamentatious and other connective tissues, but mainly from shock, secondary to two etiologies:
  • First, asphyxiation: the chest cavity is over-expanded and the victim, while able to inspire, cannot expire the breath. Second, cardiac tamponade: fluid builds up in the pulmonary loop, increasing back-pressure on the right side of the heart; fluids build up in the pericardial sac, leading to their own complications.
  • A second killer is shock secondary to the pain levels encountered. If the feet are nailed, either a vertical presentation from superior to inferior through the arches of the foot, this pain alone is intense and agonizing, sufficient to cause brief unconsciousness and certainly more than enough to cause neurogenic shock; then when the victim is placed in an upright position and they have to straighten the legs to relieve the suffocation due to suspension by the nailed wrists, this brings the weight of the body on the small surface area supported by the nail, bringing agony to an all time high.

"The ankles were sometimes nailed instead of the arches of the feet; the lower body was turned so the knees pointed to the left, or the right, and were bent at about 90 degrees; generally a single very large nail was driven through the ankles, most commonly anterior to the tendon Achillis, with the same results.

"Victims would commonly sweat blood -- literally -- from the level of pain; as cellular autolysis occurred, exsanguination occurred through the pores of the skin."

The Romans dealt with those guilty of parricide in a unique fashion. There, the convict was sewn up into a leather sack with an animal and thrown out to sea (animal was included so that, in its attempts to escape, the criminal would be torn apart by its claws. For this reason, a dog, cat or chicken was preferred). The penalty for declaring bankruptcy was slavery or being cut to pieces; the option being with the creditor.

Middle Ages

There was no letup during the Middle Ages, where convicts were crushed under heavy stones or burned at the stake. Between the years 1500 and 1550 alone, over 70,000 state executions were carried out in England alone. As late as 1780, the British criminal law contained over 350 offences for which the punishment was death.

pillory1870 marked the end of the last vestige of barbaric punishment in England. At that time, the time-honoured punishment of being drawn and quartered was struck from the law books as the government's response to treason. Following conviction on the charge of treason, it was ordered that the prisoner be hanged from the neck and then cut down alive. His stomach was cut open and his intestines were pulled out and burned before his eyes, while he was still alive. Then his head was cut off and his body cut into four pieces. It was a custom to stick the heads of the dead on posts as a reminder and deterrent to others that may be inclined towards crime.

On eye-witness wrote, in October 13, 1660, that he:

"... went out to Charing Cross to see Major Harrison hanged, drawn and quartered, which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy."

The English law treated women differently for treason. They were burned alive.

Another English punishment, which prevailed during the reign of Henry VIII, was being boiled alive.

It is difficult to imagine a more barbaric form of "punishment" than abbacinare, which involves the burning of the eyes by red hot iron.

French law was no better. Burning at the stake was common. In carrying out the official court sentence of the assassin of Henri IV, the murderer's skin was torn off his chest, arms and legs with red hot pincers. The arm with which he had killed the King was burnt off and molten lead was poured onto the wounds. Finally, his body was torn apart by a team of four horses.

The pillory was a device that was used for hundreds of years. With it, a prisoner's head and limbs were pinned between planks of wood in the middle of the town square. Passers-by were invited to assault the prisoner or to throw things at the prisoner's head. One lady, in 1732, was convicted of inciting another to poison a man. She was sentenced to two days in the pillory. She barely survived the first day. She was pelted with eggs and other projectiles. On the second day, the guards found it difficult to get her head through the opening and, removing her head-dress, they found she had fashioned a concealed bowl to shield her skull. They removed it but it incited the crowd even more. According to eyewitnesses, she was pelted until her head bled profusely and only then did the crowd subside. She survived.

Conviction of a charge of forgery meant that a person had his ears cut off and his nostrils slit while in the pillory. The pillory was finally abolished in 1837.

The British had a special punishment for those who refused to plead one way or another in the face of a felony charge. Their bodies were pressed by great weights until they either agreed to plead or they died.

The penalty was recognized in the law books of the time and was called peine forte et dure. The prisoner was laid on the floor naked and his hands and feet were tied up and stretched in opposite directions, towards the four corners of the room. A board was laid on his chest. On the board, weights were laid. More weight was added "till he die or answer". This form of punishment lasted from 1406 to 1772.

The Public Square

Time, that soft but perpetually-moving machine creating space between today and the past, makes these events seem like just curiosities of legal history. But for those that follow this sort of thing, hall of horrors in the name of law and justice reach beyond the local law library and in some places, are matters of the public square.


  • Sources included Legal Lore: Curiosities of Law and Lawyers, William Andrews, Fred B. Rothman & Co., Littleton, Colorado, 1982; retired paramedic, W. K., Chauncey, Ohio and S. Holloway of the UK.
  • Painting of Muhammad of Byzantine origin; and that of the crucifixion is of the painting of the same name at the Louvre by Andrea Mantegna.