This Won't Hurt a Bit: A Painlessly Short (and Incomplete) Evolution of Execution.

As long as there have been criminals, there have been governments thinking up novel ways to execute 'em. We don't know which of the following gruesome methods the Founding Fathers had in mind with that whole ban on "cruel and unusual punishment," but we know they had plenty to choose from.

Method: Crushing by Elephant
Deadly Debut: India, 4,000 years ago. (It's probably older, but recorded history doesn't go back that far.)


A wood engraving of an execution by elephant published
in the 1868 issue of Le Tour Du Monde. (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Pachyderms aren't natural-born killers. However, with a little training (often involving practice coconuts), they'll gladly stomp on the head of a criminal. The ancient ritual, which spread nearly everywhere elephants were found, was still in use as recently as the early years of British colonization. Crushings were usually public spectacles administered by abnormally large elephants - just in case the audience didn't find the sight of an angry Dumbo squashing a human head scary enough.

Method: Crucifixion
Deadly Debut: Nobody knows for sure. Somewhere in the Middle East, probably in the 7th century B.C.E.


"Crux simplex", a simple wooden torture stake, according De Cruce Libri Tres by Justus Lipsius (1547-1606) (Image Credit: Wikipedia)

Although forever associated with one particular execution, crucifixion was the capital punishment method of choice in much of the ancient world. Marcus Licinius Crassus probably set the all-time record for crucifixions when, after defeating Spartacus in 71 B.C.E., he had an estimated 6,000 of the gladiator's rebel slaves crucified along the Appian Way. Roman emperor Constantine the Great banned the practice in 337 C.E., but it cropped up again in the 16th century, in such places as Japan and Mexico. Today, Catholics in Iztapalapa, Mexico, crucify themselves annually as a devotional practice, removing the nails before the fatal damage is inflicted.

Method: The Brazen Bull
Deadly Debut: Siciliy, during the tryannical reign of Phalaris (570 - 554 B.C.E.)

An idea worthy of a Bond villain, the tactic involved shutting victims inside the belly of a hollow, life-size brass bull and lighting a fire below it, essentially turning the apparatus into an oven.

Legend has it that a reed-based acoustic mechanism made the victims' screams sound like a bull's bellow, while the smoke from inside blew out its nose. As for Phalaris, he eventually got an inside look at his own device when he was overthrown by Telemachus and became the bull's next meal. (Image Credit: Medievality)

Method: Ling Chi
Deadly Debut: China, around the beginning of the Song Dynasty (10th century C.E.)

Outlawed in 1905, the Chinese practice known as "death by a thousand cuts" involved binding a victim to a pole and carving into his or her arms, torso, and legs. Strangely enough, while "ling chi" translates to "degrading and slow," it's also the name of a fungus known as "the mushroom of immortality."

[Note: Image from a film by Taiwanese artist Chen Chiej-jen called Lingchi - Echoes of a Historical Photograph, interesting article in Taipei Times (warning: gruesome images)]

Method: Cave of Roses
Deadly Debut: Sweden, during the Middle Ages (circa the 13th century C.E.)

Snakes in a cave! Part execution, part nightmare, the Cave of Roses required locking victims in a dark cave filled with a smorgasbord of venomous creatures and other unpleasant creatures. With no way to escape and no way to see, the condemned knew it was only a matter of time before their movements provoked some creepy crawly to deliver a fatal bite. The Cave of Roses was finally abolished in 1772, and fortunately, Sweden grew a lot more enlightened with time. Exactly 200 years later, it became one of the first major European nations to ban the death penalty completely.

Method: Keelhauling
Deadly Debut: Holland, 1560 (when it became part of Dutch naval laws, though it was probably used earlier)


Keelhauling (Image Credit: Everyday Life in Tudor Times)

Man overboard! A punishment specific to sailors, keelhauling meant tying a man with rope, dropping him off the front of a ship, then dragging him "across the keel" from bow to stern. A long haul took several minutes, during which time the victim would drown (though being dragged along the barnacle-covered hull certainly facilitated things). Shorter hauls, conducted for less severe crimes, left sailors scarred but alive - a practice that became popular with pirates as well as government navies.

Method: Spanish Donkey (or Wooden Horse)
Deadly Debut: Spain, 17th century


Wooden horse (Image Credit: The Salacious Historian's Lair)

Used both for torture and execution, the donkey was a big hit in the Spanish military. A naked victim was forced to straddle the apparatus, which was basically a vertical wood board with a sharp V-shape wedge on top. Weights were attached to the offenders' ankles or feet, pulling them down onto the sturdy wedge until the victims split in two. Despite the name no (non-human) animals were harmed in the making of this device.

Method: Guillotine
Deadly Debut: France, 1792


Executioner assistants dismantling the guillotine inside the Santé prison after the execution of French mass-murderer Marcel Petiot in 1946 (Image Credit: The Guillotine Headquarters)

Believe it or not, this menacing machine was created as a way of making executions less painful.

Dr. Joseph Ignace Guillotin (who lent his name to, but didn't invent, the contraption) was actually an anti-death-penalty activist who suggested it as a more "humane" form of execution. And he was right - to a point. While it was France's last form of capital punishment, "last" didn't come until 1977.

The article above is reprinted with permission from mental_floss magazine (Jan-Feb 2007 issue).

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Enjoyed this article. I couldn't help but laugh at the first comment by "Noah"... does this person expect the internet to censor itself for his poor innocent children? Maybe if he could take his own head out of the sand long enough to READ THE TITLE before going to the site he would figure out what he was about to read (which isn't offensive in the least)
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I saw someone mentioned the bloody eagle, and I thought I'd elaborate. The bloody eagle is a method of torture/execution by the vikings. The ribs in the back or sometimes the front are cut and cracked so you can see inside. There are a few different ways for it to have the appearance of the "eagle" the first would be that the crack the ribs in a way that they stick out significantly in the back causing the apperance of wings. The other, even worse way, is to pull the lungs out the back of the person, stretching them out and then pinning them upward. Despite what many people believe the person did not die instantly. If they did the lung pulling version it was usually only after the lungs were stretched that the person died of suffication, though sometimes people died of blood loss before that point.
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Alex: I hereby knight thee

Noah: sentenced to be hanged, drawn & quartered for expressing concern for well being of your children

Biltmore: keelhaul the pirate

Raphaela: Impaled

Apologetic Swedes: drawn & quartered the 'European' way - by horses

No heads will be crushed by Dumbo because he's performing at the Circus

bwahahahahahahahahaha
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