Although corporal punishment is seen as an archaic tool by most nations, some places like Saudi Arabia still employ the cruel and unjust method of punishment with such frequency that several days ago, a news headline read: “Indian Maid in Saudi Arabia has hand cut off.” The use of physical punishments to cause pain and disfigurement as opposed to deprivation of liberty is dying out but still has quite a few fans in the darkest portions of the world. Throughout man’s history, we have found the most painful ways to punish one another for perceived and real crimes. Here are some of history’s worst methods of corporal punishment.
Earlier epochs were big on public shaming utilizing devices that punished the individual by humiliating and degrading said person on a societal level. Bilboes, much like shackles for the ankles but made of solid iron, were attached to a post where the offender would be secured with their feet above their head.
Added humiliation to the offender included being barefoot while punished, signifying a lower socio-economic standing. This form of corporal punishment was most popular in England and the American colonies. Later, bilboes would be used in the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic, where the particularly strong slaves would be fastened for the duration of the trip.
9. Cucking & Ducking Stool
In most instances, members of the population that are at the lowest of the totem pole find themselves victim to the worst forms of punishment. Women were forced to endure some of the worst forms of corporal punishment including the Cucking and Ducking stools. Another form of public humiliation, records of the use of the Cucking and Ducking stool go back as far as the 13th century. They were primarily used against women for back-talking, scolding, or simply displaying a temper that men thought inappropriate.
The stool resembled a see saw, with the offender placed in a chair for all to see – the ducking stool took it a step further with the women then plunged into cold water “in order to cool her immoderate heat.” Later the ducking stool would be used in medieval times to identify witches – a rope would be attached to the accused’s waist and she was thrown into a river or deep pond. If the “witch” floated she was guilty and in correspondence with the devil, however if she sank she was deemed innocent. A lose, lose scenario if we ever heard one.
8. Bridles and Gags, aka Scold’s Bridle
Another appalling case of corporal punishment against women was the Scold’s Bridle. Similar to the cucking and ducking stool, the bridle was used against English women who were perceived to be rude, nags, or who spread untruths. It was an iron cage, often of great weight; the bridle covered the entire head with a spiked plate or flat tongue of iron to be placed in the mouth to keep offender from speaking or feel a sharp pain.
In order to fully achieve a level of public humiliation, the women would either be lead around town or attached to a post. In the cases where the women would be attached to a post in public square, they would frequently be victim to “painful beatings, besmearing with feces and urine, and serious, sometimes fatal wounding – especially in the breasts and pubes.”
7. The Pillory
Public humiliation was certainly a theme of the earlier epochs – the pillory was a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands. Used from the 1600s to the early 1800s, the pillory was able to humiliate the offender by holding the head in a tight grasp and thus up to the public gaze.
The public would exacerbate the humiliation by throwing “rotten eggs, filth, and dirt from the streets, which was followed by dead cats, rats” and “ordure from the slaughter-house.” In some cases, communities put offenders in the pillory during times of public market to increase exposure and thus humiliation. Rare cases saw the offenders killed by the objects thrown by the mob, other variations included nailing offenders’ ears to either side of the head hole or cutting them off for additional ridicule.
6. Breaking on the Wheel
In order for our list to be complete, the worst sort of corporal punishment, the one resulting in the offender’s inevitable death must be included. While the terms are usually separated, they are not mutually exclusive and in our cases, the pain and torture inflicted leads to the victim’s death. One of the most heinous examples that combine the two is the breaking of the wheel, also known as simply the wheel.
This form of punishment was essentially a torture device that broke the victim’s bones until they were dead. A symbolic form of corporal punishment – the breaking of the wheel had the victim attached to a large wooden wagon wheel with radial spokes and the victim was beaten with a club or iron cudgel, with the gaps in the wheel allowing the limbs to give way and break. The wheel’s circular nature was meant to symbolize eternity, further damaging the victim and their family.
Another form of punishment that sees in many cases the victim suffer in agony before death is impalement. One of the most gruesome methods on our list, impaling a traitor or enemy of the state somehow continued until the 20th century in the Ottoman Empire. Simply put, impaling is the penetration of a human by an object such as a stake, pole, spear, or hook, often by complete or partial perforation of the torso.
The reason impalement should also be viewed as corporal punishment is the survival time for its victims. Accounts hold that victims have lived up to eight days after being impaled; the social impact of such a statement cannot be overstated. Seeing a man live in agony for eight days would certainly keep us from revolting.
One of the most ancient forms of corporal punishment is bastinado or foot whipping. Evidence of its use has been seen across many cultures and its reference as a punishment is also described in the Bible. During the administration of the punishment, the victim is barefoot and the beating is focused on the arches of the foot but sometimes the heels and balls of the feet can be targeted also.
A cane or a crop is used to beat the victim and in many cultures it takes place in a public venue, continuing the theme of public humiliation. Bastinado was used extensively by the Nazi Regime and is continued to be used by oppressive regimes as a form of torture as it does not leave any physical evidence of a beating.
The most common and known form of corporal punishment is flogging, also called whipping or caning. It’s done across all cultures and also administered to men, women, and even children. The only difference is the instrument of use with some people using sticks, rods, straps, whips, and many other objects.
In severe cases, the backs of the victims were whipped to the point that skin was ripped off the bone. Flogging is also a method that was used at schools against children, and while it resembled more of a spanking – the use of a whip or switch left children in tears and has rightfully been outlawed in most civilized countries.
Sadly, mutilation is a form of corporal punishment that still exists today. As mentioned earlier, under Shariah law, thieves may be punished by having their right hand amputated. The use of mutilation as a punishment was much more common in previous centuries. Like many other examples on our list, the social component was extremely important to the punishment as victims were forced to interact in society after being branded or such.
Examples of said public humiliation include James Gavin of Douglas, Lanarkshire, had his ears cut off for refusing to renounce his religious faith, and Nebahne Yohannes, an unsuccessful claimant to the Ethiopian imperial throne who had his ears and nose cut off, yet was then freed. It’s interesting to note that while previous generations understood our connection to one another, in terms of public perception and existence, yet were willing to do such horrid things to one another.
1. Drawing and Quartering
The most unsettling punishment on our list is drawing and quartering, also called dismemberment. In these cases, the victim is tied to four horses that all pull in different directions. Probably the most famous case of its administration ties in all the motifs of our previous punishments. The victim was Tupac Amaru, a rebel leader in Peru, who led indigenous Peruvians against the colonial Spanish.
Not only does Amaru’s death by drawing and quartering demonstrate the use of such punishments against a lower tier of society, but the Spanish also used his dismembered body parts as a method of terror, putting his head on display. And although corporal punishments are not used with such high frequency as in previous centuries, the fact that women in parts of the world still are victims to mutilation based on religious laws demonstrates how far we still have to go.