More of History’s Strangest Punishments

If there’s one thing mankind has mastered during its history it’s punishing those who break the rules. In every culture and every generation we’ve seen some of the most creative, and oftentimes cruel, methods of correcting behavior. Some punishments have graduated to levels of almost unbelievably complicated, vicious, and surreal weirdness. We covered 10 of them already, and we found a whole host of additional ones.

10. Crushed by Elephant

If you were to make a list of all the animals that you don’t want to have standing on you in the world, probably somewhere near the top you’d put elephants. Full grown African elephants can weigh in the neighborhood of six tons. It’s safe to say that if an elephant stepped on you, you would die fairly quickly after experiencing a flash of agony. That’s exactly why it was used as a punishment once.

There’s evidence that being trampled by elephants was used as a punishment in Ancient Rome, but much more frequently it was used in India and throughout Southeast Asia. The practice lasted for several centuries and only really fell out of favor with the British influence through India in the 19th century.

The process wasn’t just as simple as having someone lay on the ground in front of a stampeding elephant. Elephants can be trained to a variety of tasks and torture was actually one of them. Elephants could be trained to break human limbs one at a time by wrapping their trucks around them. Once the victim was suitably crippled by this, the elephant could go for the head and crush the skull finishing them off.

Any number of crimes from theft to tax evasion could get you the elephant treatment. There were also a wide variety of different methods. In Sri Lanka, the elephants would have sharpened tips added to their tusks so that they could gore and disembowel victims. In Vietnam the victims would be tied to stakes so they couldn’t move as the elephant’s rushed and then crushed him to death.

9. The Blood Eagle

The truth of how Vikings lived will probably never be fully known. Fiction has obscured a lot of the facts surrounding life for these Nordic warriors, and the written accounts they left behind were known to be exaggerated from time to time.

To this day there is still debate about whether the blood eagle, one of the most insidious and gory Viking punishments ever devised was real or fictional. According to at least one tale the king of Northumbria fell victim to this brutal method of execution.

The victim would be tied down with their bare back exposed. An eagle with outstretched wings would be literally carved into their flesh. At that point an axe would be used to cave in the ribs along the spine and then they’d pull them back along with the flesh to create what appeared to be a pair of bony, bloody, flesh-covered wings.

Supposedly the victim was still alive at this point and they would then have a salt solution rubbed into the wound. Not content to just leave it at that, the final step involves pulling the victim’s lungs from the wound and flapping them over the bloody, bony wings so they could sputter a few times before the person died.

You can see why some people wouldn’t believe this was ever a real thing, because it seems unlikely that anyone could live that long if it did happen. Also it just seems rather complicated to pull off in the first place.

8. Poena Cullei

There’s still some debate about whether Poena Cullei was ever enacted exactly the way it’s been described in some texts, as it seems as though there were a number of ways this could play out. In its most vicious yet baffling form, this punishment involves being put into a sack alongside a number of live animals and then tossed in a river.

Poena Cullei translates to ‘punishment of the sack,’ which makes sense. Said to be a punishment for the crime of parricide, which is killing your parents, the victim would be put in a sack and in at least one description was accompanied by a viper, a rooster, a monkey, and a dog.

Presumably, if this punishment was carried out the way it’s described, the victim would be bitten and clawed viciously by the animals as they all fought to escape drowning. There is some question as to whether this ever happened for real based purely around the practicality of it all. Would it be possible to get not just a human, but a dog, a monkey, a snake, and a rooster all in a bag at the same time and then seal it without any escaping or hurting the person trying to put them in the bag in the first place?

7. Public Shaming

For the most part, modern courts dish out fairly predictable sentences to criminals after they’ve been convicted. Fines, jail time, and community service seem to be par for the course for most crimes committed these days. But judges are allowed some discretion in how they dole out punishment, and some of them have pushed that to the outer limits.

Starting in the early 2000s, public shamings began gaining in popularity again as punishments. Though this idea had existed throughout history, they weren’t entirely common and certainly not in the American judicial system until the press got wind of some novel ones.

A judge in Memphis allowed the victims of one thief to go to the thief’s house and take whatever they wanted while neighbors gathered around to watch. Texas judge Ted Poe forced some criminals to shovel manure as a punishment, feeling that people’s self-esteem was just too high.

Other popular punishments have included making people stand on busy street corners with signs proclaiming the crime they committed, and occasionally labeling themselves as idiots. In one very famous case a slumlord was forced by a judge to live in his own run-down apartment building as punishment for being a terrible landlord.

6. Scold’s Bridle

A Scold’s Bridle was essentially a muzzle for humans. A face mask made of iron with a framework that would keep it attached to your head, it was a way to publicly humiliate somebody because everyone would see you wearing it, and the idea was to apparently shut up women who were considered gossips.

Nearly the entirety of the mask was superfluous to the intended purpose of it. The word “bridle” is what gives you a hint as to how this thing works, as it forced a bridle bit into the mouth of the person wearing it, not unlike when you rig up a horse for riding. With the bridle bit in place the person couldn’t talk. The entirety of the mask was there to both keep the bit in place, but also to humiliate the person wearing it.

The punishment dates back to the 1500s, but a lithograph produced in the 1880s shows the image of a woman wearing one of these masks with a sign on her chest bearing the word ‘scold.’ Back in the day, “scold” was a term for a woman who was considered a nag. The crime they committed was usually something like undermining their husband’s authority, slander, or complaining about something like being abused. Because the crime was the words that they spoke, the punishment was meant to discourage future words.

5. Trial by Ordeal

Trial by ordeal was a baffling form of punishment that was rigged in favor of the accusers, and pretty much guaranteed to punish the accused no matter what. There were three methods of trial by ordeal that the accused could undergo and each one ostensibly relied on supernatural forces to prove your innocence.

The Trial by Water is likely the most common one because modern society would be familiar with it from our knowledge of witch trials. The accused would be tasked with taking a drink of holy water, and then being tossed into a lake or river. If they were pure and innocent the water would accept them as good, and that meant they had to sink to the bottom. If they floated it meant the water was rejecting them as being guilty.

For what it’s worth, you didn’t necessarily have to drown to be innocent. You just had the sink. They would be willing to save you before you drowned and still consider you innocent; the only problem is that people do have a tendency to float.

Trial by Hot Iron involves heating one pound of iron over a fire and then having the accused  carry it a distance of nine feet.

Trial by Hot Water may have been the worst of all. A cauldron was set to boiling and a stone was tossed in. If the accused was innocent they would be able to reach in and pull the stone from the water.

There was even a special category of trial by ordeal for priests accused of wrongdoing. In this one, called Trial by Host, the priests had to take a piece of the host, the small piece of bread or cracker used to represent the body of Christ in Catholic ceremonies, and eat it. If he could swallow it without choking, that meant he was innocent.

4. Licked by Goats

If there’s one thing the internet has taught us it’s that goats are adorable and everyone loves them. That’s just because we don’t understand their sinister past full of torture and mayhem. There is some evidence, scant though it may be, that goats were once used as torturers.

The accused would be strapped down and their feet would be covered in something as mundane as saltwater. Goats would come in and lick the salt water from the accused’s feet. So far so good. In fact, this is been referred to as tickle torture.

While apparently it would tickle at first, over time the rough texture of the goat’s tongue would become abrasive and it would change from uncomfortable tickling to unstoppable pain.

3. Bambi

While this punishment seems to come from the same school as the humiliations that have been doled out in recent decades, it is a bit of a side step. The result here isn’t to humiliate or denigrate the criminal, it’s just to force them to experience a curious kind of torture.

In this case a man accused of poaching deer was sentenced by a judge to watch the movie Bambi. The poacher was convicted of killing hundreds of deer illegally, and he did get a prison sentence of one year. But on top of his prison time he was required to watch the movie Bambi once a month for his entire sentence. It’s not quite the same as playing Van Halen outside an embassy until Manuel Noriega gives up, but it’s in the ballpark.

2. Bread and Water

It’s an old cliche that when you go to prison you’ll just get fed bread and water to sustain yourself.  If you watch some old-timey movies or period pieces you might actually see this during prison scenes. The idea that it’s a real practice certainly seems unlikely, and even if it was it wouldn’t be going on in modern America, right?

As it happens, bread and water punishment was only outlawed by the US Navy in the year 2019. And this wasn’t one of those cases of cleaning up an old, obscure rule that’s been on the books forever but never used. It was actually abolished in 2019 in response to a particular ship and crew that had been enduring this punishment for ages.

The crew of the USS Shiloh actually referred to this ship as the USS Bread and Water on occasion thanks to the fact their captain Adam Aycock had a penchant for punishing sailors with this limited diet for seemingly any infraction. One sailor was sentenced to three days in the brig with bread and water for apparently lying about how bad the neighborhood his mother lived in was.

1. Trickery

Sometimes the best punishments are ones people inflict on themselves. Such was the case with one particularly deceptive merchant back in Ancient Rome. According to the story, the merchant had been selling glass jewels to customers while pretending that they were genuine, valuable stones.

As punishment, the merchant was brought into the arena in front of a crowd of bloodthirsty fans. A covered cage was rolled out and at this point you can assume the merchant believed they were about to be devoured by a lion or a tiger. The crowd was surely screaming for blood and the Emperor ordered the cage to be opened.

Rather than any fearsome beast, a chicken strutted out of the cage. The emperor explained that since the merchant had fooled other people, it was fair game to fool the merchant. Surely the merchant was relieved that this was the extent of their physical punishment, but for a moment there that person was probably as terrified as any human could possibly be.

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