Throughout history, both recent and ancient, the desire to correct or control human behavior has led folks to devise some truly weird punishments. In this list, we profile some punishments that are not only sometimes disturbing, but may leave you scratching your head because they are just too weird and in some cases, remarkably creative.
10. Drunkard’s Cloaks
The drunk tank is a staple of American cultural narrative, but historic England and parts of America had an alternative. Drunks were forced to wear an outfit, in some cases a barrel, and then march in their town as an advertisement of the dangers of drunkenness. Popular for curbing indulgence by being both awkward and foolish looking, the cloak took on some admittedly ridiculous forms. English illustrations show various hood-like and barrel derived outfits popular following the passage of the Ale Houses Act 1551, while an American account from 1862 describes a person wearing the drunkard’s cloak as follows…
“A wretched delinquent was gratuitously framed in oak, his head being thrust through a hole cut in one end of a barrel, the other end of which had been removed, and the poor fellow loafed about in the most disconsolate manner, looking for all the world like a half-hatched chicken.”
Ralph Gardiner’s England’s Grievance Discovered recalled, “men drove up and down the streets, with a great tub, or barrel, opened in the sides, with a hole in one end, to put through their heads, and to cover their shoulders and bodies, down to the small of their legs, and then close the same, called the new fashioned cloak, and so make them march to the view of all beholders; and this is their punishment for drunkards, or the like.”
9. The Cangue
A little known 17th century Chinese punishment, the Cangue was a contraption that forced people sentenced to wear it to beg for food, which would have to be fed to them directly to their mouth, as they would not be able to reach their mouth with their hands. Historical photos show the remarkably large and unwieldy contraptions, consisting of ramshackle sets of boards held together by cross pieces to make square wood flats resembling shipping pallets. A hole in the center accommodated the “prisoner’s” neck. The victims would have to beg for food, given the sheer impracticality of maneuvering to get one’s own food or drink.
The Cangue was used in Hong Kong for a variety of petty offences according to the book Reluctant Heroes: Rickshaw Pullers in Hong Kong and Canton, 1874-1954, authored by Chi Ming Fung. The Cangue is described as a short term punishment that also allows the crime to be listed on the board for the public to see.
8. The Slumlord Sympathy Squat
The timeline of landlording in New York City once saw a perplexing rental court case lead to an even more unusual punishment. An elderly landlord, Florence Nyemitei, simply didn’t take the proper measures to see her tenants in safe accommodation. She pled guilty to violations that amounted to a $5,000 fine and was required to place $15,000 aside for repairs. She refused, thus City Court Judge JoAnn Friia took some inspiration from a movie she liked to deliver a little bit of justice that literally hit too close to home.
Nyemitei was fined $10,000 and sentenced to move into the building she had abandoned with the tenants, leaving them without heating, hot water, and the electricity in the building’s common areas. For 60 days, Nyemitei was to spend a minimum of four nights per week in the cold, dark building. If Nyemitei wanted out of the awful situation faced by her tenants, the solution was simple: Just fix the building, ASAP.
7. The Animal Trials
If European history isn’t strange, we cannot know what is. Some of European legal development included some literally inhuman punishments because the subjects of punishment, following actual legal trials and orders, were not humans at all. Welcome to the weird and wacky history of animal trials. In European cities and villages, courts from time to time contained creatures such as pigs, a frequently offending species, put on trial for murder, in one case, and being sentenced to death.
Such a punishment might occur when animals had harmed someone, of course sparking outcry from owners fearing economic losses from farm animal destruction. Writer EP Evans authored a book awesomely titled The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906, and other, even more farfetched examples of the strange and senseless legalization of the animal world include orders for mere insects to vacate a village. Just try enforcing an injunction against a bug.
Going back to pigs, one swine was described as being punished by a prosecuting attorney for eating a child, while a French pig was hanged in 1394 based on a religious violation, namely “sacrilegiously eating a consecrated wafer.”
While many ancient punishments involved public spectacles or other embarrassing or hazardous fates, a most sinister penalty involved being quite hidden from public view. Immurement is a disturbing punishment that has historically involved imprisoning a person not in a normal cell but in a space far too small to allow normal movement. This could consist of standing or sitting room only. Examples of immurement “facilities” include structures such as the notorious yet iconic Tower of London. The name immurement comes from a Latin origin which refers to being walled in, with a widespread historic origin.
The disturbing custom is most vicious, as it causes the victim to not only be trapped in a small space, but to die slowly from starvation, thirst, and changing temperatures. Lack of sleep due to inability to get into a restful position counts among the consequences of some immurement incidents. In addition to being used as a bizarre form of capital punishment, immurement in structures has also been a macabre good luck charm – a human sacrifice.
5. Stigma Badges
Committing a crime is embarrassing enough. Yet some ancient cultures went much further than the modern world to ensure that a criminal, or someone designated a public enemy for whatever reason, was sure to be recognized and often persecuted further, on the spot. In Europe during the middle ages, shame badge enforcers became remarkably creative as they went about devising new symbolic punishments.
As one example, “heretics” would wear a yellow cross. Not only criminals or dissidents would be targeted – Jews were forced to distinguish themselves from Christians by the Fourth Lateran Council. Furthermore, shaming could be achieved with a surprisingly wide variety of wearable items, ranging from hats, to “uniforms,” to jewelry, and of course, actual badges. A different but comparable penalty involved those doing “penance” for deeds punished during the Inquisition being made to wear badges that identified wrongs and signified their steps to regain good standing with the church.
4. White Sheet Confessions
Among the horrors of ancient punishments, the most innocent and amusing, yet admittedly strange, might be the White Sheet Confession. Barefoot and looking for all the world like a cartoonist’s depiction of a ghost, a person carrying out the “ordeal” of White Sheet Confession would have to waltz about draped with a white sheet, barefoot, proclaiming their wrongdoing before asking for permission.
A vast array of social offenses, “sins,” and misdeeds might warrant such a temporary fate. Serious crimes were on occasion involved, especially in a Royal context, but for the most part a confession was for an everyday person who was responsible for an act of gambling, drunkenness, or unfaithfulness in marriage, and so forth.
3. The noseless exiles of Rhinocolura
A city so strange and disturbing that some have imagined it to be a myth, “Rhinocolura” — as it was called by Greeks — was actually a real historic city that was set up as a truly bizarre penal colony. The city was in Egypt, close to Gaza, and established by an Egyptian king as a place to exile convicted thieves.
The thieves first had their noses cut off, giving them a bizarre and distinctive appearance before being sent to the walled city. The thieves were left to sort things out among themselves. If there was an escape, the immediate recognition as a noseless outcast would prevent the thief from blending back into mainstream society.
2. Shame Mask
Shame badges may have been bad enough, but just try wearing a shame mask. The metal masks, used in medieval Europe, were for the most part used by rulers focused on achieving a blatantly sexist and outdated aim – outing and shaming women who did not “obey” their husbands, were accused of witchcraft, or otherwise did not follow prescriptive social rules put in place by a rigid society. Made from iron, the masks often displayed grotesque caricatures that were intended to depict the alleged wrongdoing of the wearer.
In countries as diverse as Scotland and Austria, the masks became part of the social order to the point where museums have ample supply of the strange creations. “Offenders” made to wear a shame mask (German – Schandmaske), or “Scold’s Bridle,” would be made to wear the device for up to 24 hours and endure public ridicule, sometimes, while chained captive but vulnerable to mob violence. Other uses of shame masks include rare cases of child or man punishment, and against slaves accused of rebellion in the Americas.
1. Damnatio Memoriae
An official act of forgetting, Damnatio Memorie, or ‘damnation of memory’, saw Roman citizens who were of importance, especially an official from the government or emperor, be fully stripped of their social recognition. While 25 emperors of Rome were deified following their passing, a shocking 26 were subject to what is now known as Damnatio Memoriae.
These unfortunate individuals, seen as enemies of Rome, had their names removed from inscriptions, coins marked with their likeness recalled, and even their laws taken out of regulatory frameworks. The very recollection of the person would be greatly impeded by their encompassing dismissal from thought, consciousness, and public recall. The damnation of memory proceedings required Senate approval prior to an individual being sentenced to being forgotten.