Worst Punishments in Human History
Let's explore some of the worst punishments in the history of mankind!History
You’re probably familiar with a lot of different punishments, from detention to jail time. You might have even heard about barbaric historical sentences, such as hanging, burning, and stoning.
But as dreadful as they were, humans throughout history have come up with even more twisted and terrible ways to punish alleged wrongdoers. From burning bulls to bug buffets, let's explore some of the worst punishments in the history of mankind.
Roman Punishment of the Sack
Have you ever been in a cramped spot with someone you don’t like? Maybe shared an elevator with that one annoying co-worker? Well, it could always be worse; that annoying co-worker could also be an angry, venomous snake!
The ancient Roman “Poena Cullei” or “Punishment of the Sack” involved placing the victim into a large canvas sack. At this point, a dog, cat, monkey, rooster, and snake would then also be tossed into the sack, before the sack itself was thrown into a river.
The idea behind Poena Cullei was that as the sack slowly filled with water, the frightened and aggressive animals inside would tear each other, and the unfortunate victim stuck in the middle, apart! The exact animals thrown into the sack varied from punishment to punishment.
This nasty punishment was most often meted out to those accused of parricide, which is the crime of slaying one of your parents. This barbaric punishment fell out of style in the 3rd Century CE in Rome, only to be reinstated by Emperor Justinian 200 years later, where it remained in use for another 400 years!
If you were told you were going to be experiencing the boats in ancient Persia, you might expect a pleasant trip lounging along the Karun River, lazily eating dates. In reality, however, you’d actually be in for one of the most disgusting experiences imaginable.
Devised in the fifth century BCE, scaphism, also known as the boats, was a punishment that started off sweet, literally. The victim was fed a large amount of sweet honey and milk or cream.
Things got considerably less comfortable after that, however; if the victim was lucky, they would be tied up inside a boat. If they weren’t, they’d be placed inside a boat before another upturned boat was placed on top of them, so that their arms, legs, and head were sticking out.
The boats were then pushed into a lake or swamp, and this is where things get nasty. The sickly mixture of milk and honey would eventually cause the victim to vomit or relieve their bowels.
In addition to being gross and causing dehydration, the sugary contents of the victim’s excretions would also attract insects incredibly quickly.
Over the next few days, the victim would slowly starve while their body was consumed inside the boat by flies, maggots, and any other awful swamp creature you can imagine. If you’d done something really bad, your boat would be pulled back ashore so you could be force-fed more milk and honey to drag out this process even longer!
Plutarch, a Greek essayist, recorded an instance were a Persian soldier killed a nobleman and survived 17 days of scaphism before succumbing to his punishment. And you thought an hour of detention after school was a cruel sentence.
Throughout human history, wherever people have gathered in large numbers, rats have followed: living in our homes rent-free and eating our delicious trash. In modern times, rats are employed as test subjects in scientific research, but if we jump back a few hundred years, these pernicious pests were proliferators of pain!
In the 17th century, the Dutch would place a rat on a prisoner’s abdomen before securing a pot or half-cage over the rat. The pot would then be heated and the rat, eager to escape, would begin to burrow through the prisoner’s skin.
Of course, this isn’t the only way we humans have utilized rats to hurt each other. Of all the awful places you could end up in Medieval England, the Tower of London had to be the worst. The infamously gruesome prison made use of a special rat dungeon, which wasn’t intended for imprisoning criminal rats.
The waters of the nearby river Thames would often rise in the rain and sweep the rats of the city into the dungeon, where they would scare and even nibble on the chained-up prisoners.
Around the same time in Germany, rats were being starved and then placed in a cage, which would then be fastened around the victim's neck. You can probably imagine what the cramped, hungry rats did next.
The Brazen Bull
If you’ve ever had to use public transportation on a hot day, you might have some idea what this next punishment is like. King Phalaris ruled over what is now Sicily between 554 and 570 BCE and was known for his cruel and, potentially even cannibalistic, tendencies.
The story goes that he was keen to create a new, nauseating torture device. To make it he commissioned the one guy in town more messed up than him; an inventor named Perillos, who created the Brazen Bull.
The device was a bronze statue of a bull with a hollow and large interior. The victim was to be placed inside the dark, cramped statue before a fire was lit underneath it. As the statue slowly heated up, the victim would be cooked alive inside.
If that wasn’t enough to tip you off that Perillos was a serious sadist, consider the fact that the bull’s nostrils were connected to the statue’s interior. This meant as the victim struggled, their screams would reverberate out of the statue, mimicking the cries of a raging bull.
Even Phalaris, the infamously cruel tyrant king, took one look at the Brazen Bull and was shocked by it. As punishment for basically doing what he was asked, Phalaris had Perillos entombed inside his own creation and a fire was lit underneath.
After getting a good few chuckles in, Phalaris let Perillos out, apparently assuring him it was all just a harmless joke. Changing his mind yet again, Phalaris then had Perillos tossed off a cliff. Talk about indecisive!
According to some accounts, Phalaris was later burned alive in the very Brazen Bull he commissioned during an uprising. So, let this be a lesson for everyone watching: if you invent a gruesome method of execution, don’t be surprised when it’s turned against you.
Chinese Water Torture
Let’s take a break from physical harm for a moment to investigate psychological torture. Chinese water torture is a form of punishment and interrogation that involves restraining someone’s arms and legs before placing a bucket full of water above their head.
The bucket has a small, pin-prick sized hole in the bottom that drips water onto the victim at regular intervals. The victim is usually positioned so the drops hit them on the forehead which, along with your fingertips, is one of the most sensitive areas of the body.
While this may not sound so bad at first, it could last for weeks. As the process goes on it becomes more and more maddening, because the victim is unable to think or concentrate on anything other than the constant dripping.
Thoughts become incoherent, other sensations fade away, until all that’s left is the hammering feeling of water drops. In some instances, the victim would be told the water contained poison that would deteriorate their mind over time, compounding feelings of anxiety and paranoia.
In all likelihood, the Chinese are getting undeserved flak as the pioneers of this punishment, as its use was first documented in Italy. In the late 15th century, Hippolytus De Marseilles wrote that the punishment was inspired by the way natural water would slowly erode stones over time.
It’s thought the word “Chinese” was added simply to make it seem exotic and mysterious. Since then, it’s been utilized all over the world, from the American Civil War to Spanish Inquisitors in the 16th century, who also experimented with forced drinking as punishment.
An Elephant Never Forgives
You have to feel bad for elephants. All they really want to do is chill out by the watering hole with their buddies, but because they’re so big and weird looking, humans have used them for everything from circus performances to weapons of war, and even for executions.
The most infamous and well-known employment of elephant executioners comes from medieval India and was known as Gunga Rao. If you consider that an Asian elephant typically weighs around 8800 pounds, as much as nine grand pianos, it doesn’t take long to figure out how they could be used to end a life.
Gunga Rao involved the victim placing their head on a wooden stake as an elephant was slowly marched towards them before squishing the life out of them with their enormous feet.
Gunga Rao was not employed conservatively and was the punishment of choice for everything from thievery to tax evasion. This is perhaps why it captured the imaginations of medieval travelers to India, though elephantine executions actually dated back to the classical era.
They were also employed in ancient Rome, Carthage, and Macedonia. In one instance after the death of Alexander the Great, Macedonian regent Perdiccas sentenced dozens of insurrectionists to a hefty trampling!
And while this straightforward smooshing was devastatingly effective, there have been other, more creative forms of pachyderm punishment around the globe.
In Thailand, elephants would fling victims around like ragdolls with their powerful trunks, whereas in Sri Lanka they’d be gored with their menacing tusks. The Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta wrote of an incident of Gunga Rao in which the elephants were wearing sharp instruments on their feet and tusks to aide in the execution.
Our next punishment is known as white torture, or sometimes white terror! To understand white terror, however, we first need to understand solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is a form of punishment frequently used against prisoners today that involves placing them in a small cell devoid of human contact or activities.
In the United States, solitary confinement is used to reprimand behavior as major as starting fights, but also as minor as having extra rolls of toilet paper in your cell. Most solitary cells are just 6x9 feet in size, smaller than a standard car.
Keep in mind this imprisonment can last for days, weeks, or months, resulting in extreme distress and psychological damage. Because humans are naturally social animals, our brains often invent stimuli when they’re deprived of it.
Extended solitary confinement is known to lead to hallucinations, paranoia, depression, nightmares, disassociation from your body, and even physical pain and nausea. One inmate in solitary for 23 days once said; “One night I heard someone screaming far away… then I realized it was me.”
Though it’s hard to imagine, there’s actually an even more extreme version of solitary confinement; white terror. The victim is placed inside a stark, bright white room. Everything in the room is white and non-reflective, from the bed to the toilet, and even the victim’s clothes.
Bright lights are positioned in such a way as to eliminate as many shadows as possible, and make the victim feel as though they are trapped in a white void.
Even mealtime is no escape from the encompassing whiteness, as they are fed white rice from white bowls, which is silently slid through a hatch in the white door. These meals occur at random times so the victim is unable to gauge how much time has passed since their imprisonment. In the white room, it is hard to tell if it has been days or weeks since your last conversation.
Furthermore, silence is another awful part of this punishment. The only way prisoners can communicate with guards is to slip a white sheet of paper under their door, but even then, the guards are instructed to wear cushioned shoes that don’t produce any noise when walking about.
The effects of the white room are the complete, overwhelming deprivation of anything except one’s own mind, which quickly deteriorates. Just 15 minutes in the White Room is said to lead to feelings of paranoia and anhedonia, the inability to feel happiness.
White torture was supposedly invented by the CIA in the 1970s for utilization against the Viet Cong. Iran still uses white torture today, and one detainee put it thusly; “after three days I wanted words. Anything. Even swearing – even interrogation”.
Tarring and Feathering
If you’ve ever seen an old cartoon, you may be familiar with the practice of tarring and feathering. This old-timey punishment involved slathering the victim in hot tar before dumping a bag of feathers over them, making them look like a giant chicken.
The obscure punishment was first used in the 12th century by sea captains as a way of punishing thieves in the English navy. Centuries later in the 1760s it was rediscovered by Colonial Americans and became a favorite form of mob justice, usually employed against folks that had simply offended the sensibilities of a community.
Unlike other punishments discussed in this article, tarring and feathering wasn’t meant to end the victim’s life so much as hurt and humiliate them. Pine tar was often used as it has a relatively low melting point of around 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
This means the tar becomes goopy and sticky long before it becomes lethally hot but would also still be hot enough to cause burns and blisters. These blisters held the risk of becoming infected and causing worse problems down the line but also served as a visual indicator you’d been punished long after you’d de-feathered yourself.
Tarring and feathering was often carried out in a public forum before the victim was paraded through the streets, where they could be mocked by onlookers. Disempowerment, humiliation, and pain were the ultimate goals of this punishment.
Though the practice fell out of fashion as official state-mandated punishment, it turns out that it’s pretty hard to put a lid on mob justice. In America, there are reports of men who refused to serve in the first World War being tarred and feathered in the streets.
The barbaric punishment even popped up as recently as 2007 in Ireland, where someone dealing illicit substances was tied to a lamppost before being tarred and feathered by vigilantes.
Things are about to get steamy, because it’s time to talk about being boiled alive. Ever since people figured out they could boil a carrot to make it softer, awful tyrants have been doing the same to people.
The earliest records of lethal boiling come from Emperor Nero in Ancient Rome, with the victims primarily being Christians. In 1531, King Henry VIII of England passed an act decreeing poisoning as a crime punishable by boiling. This was probably because Henry had an apparent fear of poisoning.
Shortly after Henry died, Edward VI outlawed boiling, recognizing the Middle Ages were coming to an end and it was time to reign in the nasty stuff. But how nasty was it? Well, you could call it a death that retreats inwards, starting in your extremities.
This is because your arms and legs are the most exposed parts of your body, and contain lots of nerve endings, so pain begins in your fingers and toes and shoots inwards. After this, your skin, muscle, and fat begin to soften and liquify from the heat, fusing to your clothes.
This heat will then boil your organs from the inside as well as your flesh from the outside. You’ll also likely go blind fairly quickly, so you’ll be thrashing around in the dark. If you’re dunked into water that’s already bubbling, your brain can boil inside your head fast, which is strangely merciful.
If you’re placed into a liquid that’s slowly heated up, your body will try to adjust to the temperature change, which really drags things out, making everything slower and more agonizing. If your executioners know what they’re doing, this can take minutes or even hours, and you’ll be awake for most of it.
Maybe now you’ll feel a little more sympathy for those lobsters in the grocery store tanks. Thankfully this punishment isn’t employed anywhere in the world today, though people still accidentally boil to death today in hot springs and sewer accidents.
Here’s a fact to soothe your nerves: as it turns out, many of the scariest-looking torture devices from the Middle Ages are fake! Shady museums and conmen began creating nasty contraptions in the 18th Century, which quickly captured the public’s imagination.
This means famously nightmarish medieval torture devices like the Iron Maiden and the Pear of Anguish are just props rather than actual torture implements. However, this next one is awful and real! Introducing the wooden horse, also known as the Dutch Horse or Spanish Donkey.
If the multinational names didn’t tip you off, the wooden horse was a punishment device popular across medieval Europe. The contraption consists of a long, square-shaped wooden beam held up by several legs for support. One of the corners of the beam would be positioned skywards, and the unlucky victim would be forced to straddle the beam.
The corners would uncomfortably dig into the victim’s crotch as well as the sides of their legs. On some occasions, weights were applied to the victim to drag them down more. The corners of the wooden beam could be quite sharp, but it didn’t matter too much if they weren’t, because victims would have to ride the horse for hours or even days at a time.
Though the wooden horse wasn’t lethal, it was extremely painful and restricted blood flow through the legs, which could cripple the victim. To add insult to injury, the wooden horse would sometimes have a mock head and tail at either end, and be long enough to support multiple people.
The Judah’s Cradle was a more personal version of the device, and featured a single large spike positioned on the seat of a chair. Talk about a pain in the butt!
Grotesque and uncivilized as it was, the wooden horse was still in use during the American War of Independence. George Washington himself claimed it was an excellent way to extract information from prisoners. It’s definitely one way to get someone off their high horse.
Pain in the Head
Our next story concerns the practice of Iconoclasm, and no, that isn’t a metal band made up of your desktop icons. Iconoclasm is the destruction of religious idols, texts, and monuments, and around the year 720, it swept across the Byzantine Empire.
The belief was that the Biblical second Commandment expressly forbids the worship of images and idols. This ideology continues in some ways today in Judaism and Islam, the two other Abrahamic faiths. At the time, however, not every God-fearing Christian was on board with Iconoclasm.
As it turns out, a lot of Christians in the ninth century liked their religious paintings, idols, and bumper stickers. Two such anti-iconoclasts were brothers Theophanes and Theodore, and they weren’t afraid to preach. They were so bold they even sought an audience with Emperor Leo V sometime in the 810’s asking him to kindly butt out of ecclesiastical matters.
He took that surprisingly well for an evangelical Emperor, sentencing the brothers into exile on a small island. When Leo was assassinated in 820 and the brothers regained their freedom, it wasn’t long before they ended up in front of the new Emperor Theophilus, who was decidedly less forgiving than Leo.
Theophilus subjected the brothers to two days of torture, in which a 12-line poem insulting them was carved into their heads with hot needles.
Neither brother accepted iconoclasm, with Theodore eventually dying in prison. Theophanes, however, was only exiled, and became a Bishop when icon veneration was eventually restored.
For their efforts, both brothers were canonized as Saints, Theophanes and Theodore the Branded. Funny that their images are now celebrated in religious art all these centuries later.
If you’re like me, there’s a good chance you’ve tried to get in shape only to head back to the sofa after a single squat. This exercise already sucks, and could you imagine doing it for hours in complete darkness? That’s the idea behind the Blackout Box.
This punishment and interrogation method was utilized by the CIA during the War on Terror. While former CIA executive Buzzy Krongard and even President Obama have admitted that the USA commits torture, some still prefer the term enhanced interrogation. The blackout box is a small box just barely big enough to fit a crouching human being inside.
Remember how awful and dehumanizing solitary confinement sounded? The blackout box is the most extreme version imaginable, locking a person into the darkest, tightest space possible. To cause stress, the high-pitched sounds of crying children are sometimes played inside the box.
In 2015, a journalist from the BBC underwent a blackout box demonstration, but after less than 15 minutes demanded to be let out. Less fortunate folks have been forced inside boxes less than 1.75 feet wide, 2.5 feet deep, and 2.5 feet tall, which is smaller than some dog crates, and is hauntingly depicted by their drawings.
Some have spent up to 250 hours in this box, that’s over 10 days. In one particularly vile instance, the captors discovered their victim had a fear of insects, and so they poured live cockroaches into the Blackout box while the victim was inside, leaving them to crawl over their body for hours. Surprisingly, suddenly being boiled alive doesn’t sound all that bad!