Contrary to popular belief, beheading by way of the axe was not a quick and easy mode of execution. Most heading axes were heavy and ill-balanced, designed to crush their way through flesh and bone rather than cut cleanly. As a result, it often took more than one or two strokes for the task to be completed, and often a small knife was used by the executioner to finish the job by cutting away the bits of muscle and connective tissue after the bulk of the neck had been destroyed. Still, condemned European nobles preferred this method to hanging because it was more akin to being slain in battle.
Not just reserved for cannibalistic tribes, boiling was actually on the records as a legal method of execution in England during the reign of Henry VIII. It was used mostly for those who murdered by poison. The first victim of legal boiling in England was Richard Rouse, a cook. Boiling was also popular as a slow torture-execution among various sects. Victims could be submerged in heated water, oil, pitch, wax, or even molten lead.
A dreaded torture device that rendered the victim's legs to bloodied, useless pulp. The method was to bind the legs tightly together using rope, metal bands, or a wooden splint. The executioner would then drive wedge-like boards between the legs using a heavy mallet. This action crushed the bones of the legs.
A rarely-used but nonetheless terrifying execution device that literally roasted the victim to death as he lay cramped inside a large metal bull. A fire was lit beneath the beast, heating it gradually. The original Brazen Bull was fitted with flute-like structures in its nostrils so that the screams of the victim would sound like the bellowing of a bull.
Also known as "scold's bridles", these contraptions were locked around the heads of nagging women or blasphemers. Some designs were harmless and intended only to bring about shame to the wearer. But other versions included spiked bits that would piece the tongues and mouths of the unfortunate wearer.
Often thought to be a method of execution reserved only for witches and heretics, burning at the stake was also a popular way to dispose of condemned females. This was on account of decency, as other methods used would publicly mutilate the bodies of the condemned and the magistrates felt that burning women would protect their modesty.
There were several methods for burning, but the best-known one was to tie the culprit to a stake and then set the wood around him on fire. Often the victim would be strangled into unconsciousness or death before the pyre was lit. Other methods were more akin to roasting the victim alive by suspending him in the air above the flames.
This type of punishment came in many different forms, all of which prevented the victim from feeding himself. The idea was to bring great shame to the criminal and cause him to depend solely on the kindness of others for his survival. Unpopular criminals who could not find a friend to feed and care for him during his time in a collar would likely starve to death.
A fundamental of torture methods, compression is based on the idea of making sure the victim is kept in the most uncomfortable position possible. The most common of compression tortures involves confining the victim to a small cell or box that makes sitting, standing upright, or reclining impossible. Other methods involved binding the victim with rope or metal bars in a manner so that his knees would be forced against his chest, or his joints would be forced in unnatural positions.
The best-known of ancient execution methods, crucifixion involved tying or nailing the victim to either a tree or a wooden structure and leaving him exposed to the elements for a slow death. Victims of crucifixion often died of asphyxiation when the weight of their hanging bodies put too much strain on their lungs. Other sufferers would perish from exposure to heat, cold, or animals. If nothing else, the agonizing death of dehydration and starvation would take its toll.
A common method for ancient civilizations to do away with their unwanted citizens if they were situated near a lake or river. Methods would vary, sometimes it was done by hand or the villain would be tied to a heavy object and thrown into the water. More interesting methods of drowning involved tying the victim into a large sack along with live snakes, dogs, or other dangerous beasts before throwing the sack into the water.
The first of the "modern age" execution methods. The electric chair came into existence only a few years after the development of residential electricity and was first used in New York. While alterations regarding the placement of the electrodes and even submerging the hands in saltwater have been tried on the design, the standard has been by using electrodes on the calf and headpiece to deliver the shocks to the victim. The chair itself is not electrified, but rather made of heavy wood.
Elephants, Lions, Vipers, and Other Beasts
Both domesticated and wild animals have been used over the ages to do the dirty work of executions. Perhaps the most famous examples being those of the Roman Games where victims were thrown to lions, bears, and other ferocious beasts. Trained domestic animals, such as elephants, were also used to literally stamp the life out of a condemned prisoner. Often animal-execution victims were dragged behind a galloping animal.
A relatively newer method of execution, though considered archaic in the Western world but still used frequently in the East. Firing squads are generally composed of groups of 3-8 marksmen who fire at the victim at short range. Some countries include a final coup-de-grace by firing a bullet into the head of the prisoner after the squad has shot a volley. Today, some places omit the squad altogether and just dispatch the criminal with a single bullet to the brain.
Flaying & Mutilation
Also known as being "skinned alive", this horrific execution method has been performed in a variety of different ways. Some variations include the amputation of body parts as the executioner literally whittles his victim down to a bloody pile of organs and appendages. The dreaded "Death of a Thousand Cuts" is an example of this.
Garroting has been used to describe two distinctly different methods of execution. The Spanish garrote employs a rope or iron collar that is secured around the victims neck and gradually tightened until a small knife or metal nub at the back of the neckboard severs the spinal column. The other definition of garroting is a method of strangulation where a rope is passed around the victim's neck, then through a bar behind the neckboard which is then turned by the executioner like a steering wheel until the victim chokes to death.
Another of the more contemporary execution methods. While lethal gas was used in earlier times (such as the infamous Nazi death camps), the development of a compacted "gas chamber" wasn't put into use in the USA until the early 1980s. Gas chambers are basically airtight rooms with heavy chairs bolted to the floor in order to accommodate one or two prisoners at a time. Operated by a lever outside the chamber, the cyanide pellets are then dropped into shallow pans of acid and become the lethal gas.
Another execution method akin to burning, but much slower and excruciating for the victim. To die on the gridiron is to be literally broiled to death. Gridirons were generally metal frames to which the victim was bound, then a fire stoked beneath them. Alternatives to this design were metal chairs that were heated by fires beneath the seat platform.
The famous French decapitation device that was used extensively through both the French Revolution and during the Nazi reign in Germany. The guillotine is different from its predecessors because it used a locking lunette collar to hold the victim's head in place, as well as a collapsible bascule platform on which the victim's body could be secured and moved into position with a minimal of struggling.
A forerunner of the guillotine, this device was used by the town of Halifax and used as a favorite means of dispatching thieves. The Halifax Gibbet worked by running a slightly curved weighted blade down two upright poles and onto the neck of the victim who was laid prone on the ground below. This device was designed so that executions were a group effort, and the blade was released by a rope that was pulled by several members of the watching crowd.
Perhaps the most commonly used method of execution in both the old and new world throughout recorded history, hanging was popular because it was inexpensive, easy to perform, and until later years, terribly cruel. While early victims of hanging would strangle to death for 15 minutes or longer, the development of a high scaffold and a long drop with the aim of breaking the neck instantly turned the gallows into a humane form of execution. However, there are still parts of the world today who prefer strangulation hangings.
An old method of execution made famous by Vlad III of Romania (Known as Vlad the Impaler), slow death by impalement has been used throughout history. While some methods involve piercing vital organs to bring about a quick death, more commonly the victim was slowly impaled by a pike with a rounded tip lubricated with oil so as to miss all the major organs and prolong the agony. Other methods involved hanging the victims on spikes that were positioned underneath their chins.
A horrifying execution device that literally skewered its victims with long metal spikes once the culprit was forced inside. Maidens came in different forms, but the most famous being the iron casket shaped as a woman. A trap door was often situated under the maiden that would be sprung to allow the mutilated victim to fall down a hatch, through a series of weighted knives to mince the corpse, and then down into a river to be washed away.
The most popular method of execution used in the USA today, as well as a few other countries. This method is also very highly controversial because of the involvement of medical professionals needed to oversea the proceedings and supply the drugs used. Typically, lethal injections are a "cocktail" of three different drugs administered in lethal doses... one to stop the breathing, one to paralyze muscles, and one to induce cardiac arrest. Often a sedative is given prior to the execution.
A very primitive forerunner of the guillotine, this head-chopping device was operated by driving the blade down using a heavy mallet. Mannias eventually evolved into larger devices with weighted blades that more closely resemble the Halifax Gibbet, but the short drop required a very heavy blade to insure decapitation, and the axes would likely crush through the spinal column rather than slice through it.
Pillory & Stocks
Another punishment meant more to shame the criminal then to harm him, but being locked in a helpless position at the mercy of an angry mob often resulted in death nonetheless. Culprits clapped in the stocks would often have stones, rotten vegetables, or even dead animals hurled at them by the on-lookers. When the time to be spent in confinement was long, a victim might dehydrate or starve if a compassionate by-passer was not to be found.
Quartering - Method #1
A particularly barbaric method of execution that is not as easily accomplished as many might think. The idea was to tie each limb of the victim to a horse, ox, or other strong animal and then drive the animals away in different directions in order to tear the victim apart. In reality, it was not uncommon for victims to have their limbs severely dislocated but not entirely removed during the execution. Records tell of executioners asking permission to use knives to cut the tendons of victims to be quartered in order to accomplish separation of the limbs. In some cases, it was noted that the horses themselves fainted from exhaustion during the task.
Quartering - Method #2
A method that brought chills up the spines of traitors in England, the dread sentence to be "drawn and quartered" involved being hanged but cut down before death, then brought to a table to be castrated before having the stomach sliced open and being disemboweled while still alive. After the heart was finally removed, the head would be cut off and the body would be hacked into quarters to be displayed. In other parts of the world, much of the frivolities were dispensed with and the culprit was simply sawn into quarters while still alive.
A fearsome device used as both a torture method for interrogation and as a method of execution. There are many different versions of the rack, some being as simple as to suspend the victim into the air with taunt ropes, but all produced the painful torture of stretching the culprit to the point of dislocating the limbs. Some racks were equipped with spiked rollers which tore the flesh from the victim's back as he was being stretched across it.
Another forerunner of the guillotine, this head-chopping device required the victim to kneel before it and place his head between the two upright posts before the blade came crashing down on the neck.
One of the few ancient execution methods still in practice today. Stoning required the participation of a crowd to pelt the victim with heavy stones until death occurred. There are several methods of stoning. Some are designed to last a great amount of time as the stone-throwers try not to hit the head but rather batter the victim's body until he succumbs. More modern methods involve burying the victim up to his neck in the ground, then hurling the rocks at his head.
Akin to racking, suspension tortures are designed to dislocate the joints and cause great pain to the sufferer. The most common form being "strapeddo", where the hands are tied behind the back and then the body is hoisted up by the wrists. Often weights were gradually attached to the feet of a suspended victim in order to prolong the agony.
Second only to the guillotine, the sword was the preferred method of decapitation because it is much faster than the axe. Heading swords wielded by experts could often remove a head in one stroke with very little fanfare, although accidents and mishaps were not altogether unheard of. While European swordsman preferred their victims to kneel upright, many Asian executioners positioned their victims to kneel in a manner to require a downward stroke. The latter requiring far more discipline to prevent the blade from striking the ground after passing through the victim's neck.
An old form or torture that is still practiced in some forms today. The original methods involved covering the victim's throat with a gauze cloth that was slowly forced down the throat as he was forced to swallow great quantities of water. Afterward the cloth would be pulled roughly out, damaging the throat and stomach. The modern method, known as "waterboarding" simulates drowning and is used for interrogation purposes. With this method, the cloth is placed over the face but not allowed to go down the throat as water is poured on the face.
The Wheel Torture is a form of execution that is so named because of the method of displaying the body rather than how the culprit is executed. To be "broken on the wheel" meant to be tied down to either a cross-like structure or a specialized wheel with supports on the joints in the arms and legs. The executioner would then walk around and break each limb by smashing a heavy iron bar down on it. The shattered limbs would then be woven around the spokes of the wheel and the victim left to perish. Sometimes the executioner would be permitted to administer a coup-de-grace by bringing the bar down on the chest or neck, or strangling the victim beforehand.