The most gruesome methods of punishment or execution were often the simplest. Impalement, for example, required only a sharpened stake to cause a long and unimaginably painful death.
There is evidence from carvings and statues that impalement was used in Ancient Persia and Ancient Greece – 3,000 Babylonians were impaled when the country was invaded by Darius I.
In 17th century Sweden, it was used as a death penalty for members of the resistance by inserting the stake between the victim’s spine and the skin. It took four or five days for him to die.
Usually the stake was secured in the ground with the victim attached. Sometimes it would be carefully inserted through the body, avoiding the heart, in order to prolong the dying process.
The most famous users of impalement were Ivan the Terrible and Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler.
Though steeped in legend, there is enough evidence to support stories of Vlad’s cruelty, which was perpetrated on a grand scale.
One account claims he impaled an astonishing 30,000 people in a Transylvanian city.
He liked to arrange his victims in geometric patterns – rings of concentric circles set around the edge of the city, for example, with the height of the stake indicating the rank of the victim.
The corpses would be left to decay for months.
Vlad enjoyed the killings so much, he held elaborate banquets in their midst while his victims died slowly around him.
It’s not known for certain how much author Bram Stoker borrowed from Vlad’s life for his eponymous character Dracula. It’s likely that only the name and not the evil deeds were matched.
Russian ruler, Ivan the Terrible, was responsible for the murders of at least 30,000 men, women and children in his vengeance attacks on the city of Novgorod in 1570.
For five weeks, he ordered the most savage tortures and deaths to be carried out on the people he believed were traitors to the Czar, including plucking out ribs with red hot irons, boiling, roasting and impaling.
The story of how British soldiers wiped out Red Indian populations by giving them blankets infected with smallpox may provide colourful material for screenwriters and novelists, but historians doubt it ever happened.
In exchanges of letters between Lord Jeffrey Amherst, commanding general of British Forces in North America in the late 18th century, and Colonel Henry Bouquet, the idea was certainly discussed.
However, there is no evidence that the plan was actually carried out.
There is little doubt, however, about the ability of vindictive lovers to pass on the AIDs virus, the punishment for most of whom is simply to die of the disease themselves.
In 2003, Mohammed Dica, a father of three, became the first person in 137 years to be successfully prosecuted in England and Wales for transmitting a sexual disease.
The Inner London Crown Court jury returned unanimous guilty verdicts on two counts of ‘biological’ grievous bodily harm on two of Dica’s lovers.
In a similar case, a one-legged German sex tourist infected hundreds of Thai girls with the AIDS virus ‘because they were bad’.
Though police there believe wealthy fifty-four-year-old Hans-Otto Schiemann deliberately had unprotected sex with as many as five hundred women, they were powerless to prosecute him.
Schiemann waged his hate campaign to punish Thai girls because he believed they were responsible for infecting him and his wife with the disease.
“What he did was the same as murder,” said Sommart Troy of the Thai Aids Group.
Despite the name, this method of torture, often used in the Tower of London, comprised iron rings which were placed around the prisoner’s wrists and gradually tightened with a screw, not with a glove.
The prisoner was made to stand on a stool while the chains were attached to an overhead beam and then to the wrists. When the stool was removed, the victim was suspended in the air, his whole weight pressing on his wrists where the metal gauntlets cut into his flesh.
One prisoner recounts how his arms swelled until the flesh covered the gauntlets. He fainted and when he came round, his torturers were replacing the stool to support his weight until he recovered.
Then they removed it and let him hang again, on and off for five excruciating hours.
This horrific 18th century killing device is shrouded in legend and Hollywood mystique. Victims were put inside a tomb-shaped container, adorned with an effigy of the Virgin Mary. The hideous torture began when the doors were slowly closed, impaling the prisoner’s body on dozens of sharp spikes, placed strategically to avoid vital organs and ensure a lingering death. The device was so thick that no screams could be heard from the outside once the doors were closed.
The most famous of these dreadful devices was the Iron Maiden of Nuremberg which was about seven feet tall and three feet wide, with double doors. The prisoner was given the sacrament before being led towards the Madonna’s image on the box and where mechanical arms beckoned him to the deadly embrace.
It was a long and lingering torture, often lasting over several days, until the victim bled to death or died of asphyxiation. Copious amounts of blood would pour into the ground beneath the Maiden, which was often positioned over a drawbridge or river so the mutilated body could be dispatched without any physical contact being necessary. Sometimes victims were starved for weeks beforehand and paraded through the streets, being whipped by members of the public, leaving them weak and wounded before their worst ordeal began.
The Iron Maiden has made many appearances in films and books. Kurt Vonnegut describes her in Slaughterhouse Five and Roald Dahl’s novel Matilda mentions a similar device called the Chokey. Fans of the Addams Family TV show will recall an Iron Maiden in their spooky home, and Johnny Depp’s character in Sleepy Hollow found his mother’s corpse inside an Iron Maiden.
Prisoners thrown into jails during the 18th century could expect to be confined in body irons and left for months on end, unable to move.
Sometimes there would be a collar on the neck, a large ring for the waist and two rings for the ankles, which were connected by the heavy links of the chains.
The weight of all this iron meant prisoners couldn’t stand upright and they suffered intolerably from being permanently crouched.
To add to the injustice, prisoners were actually charged for use of the irons, as well as for admission to the jail, the bed, food, candles, plates and, if they were lucky, coals for heat.
Those too poor to pay were thrown into the rat-infested paupers’ section of the prison where conditions were abysmal.
Those with money could pay for lighter chains.
Either way, once the fetters had been riveted in place by a blacksmith, only the smith could remove them.
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Despite the often graphic nature of content, Thompson skilfully sweetens the bitter pill with her trade-mark humour and homely folklore, while pulling no punches with her accounts of the hell-on-earth life became for countless millions of victims.
The events her book describes in stark facts and disturbing descriptions are, though, less easy to comprehend than to imagine. It’s hard to believe that our fellow humans could inflict such pitiless savagery on others, and we shudder at the callous indifference – or even pleasure – of the mobs who witnessed their atrocities.
Unpalatable though most are, we need to know the truth of these appalling practices as a reminder of the depths to which humanity can sink in the name of perceived justice and morality, not only to prevent us forgetting them but to identify their continued use today. Punishment by public stoning, beheading, flogging and secret torture, for instance, is current.
In this voyage through the centuries, gruesome scenes from Medieval times sit side by side with incidents from contemporary life (sometimes humorous, sometimes sinister), while the inclusion of true-life stories turns bland statistics into heart-felt human interest.
This is an important book, both fascinating and frightening, which vividly documents many of history’s most shameful moments. Thompson succeeds in enabling her reader to feel the pain of the tortured, the despair of the condemned, the misery of the wretches left to rot in prison. It is sobering and shocking, and a powerful record of a bloodstained past we should never forget and a present that too often echoes the screams of the damned.
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An insatiable curiosity and natural flair for crisp, colourful writing have equipped international journalist Irene Thompson with the communication skills so vital in the quirky and demanding world of off-beat non-fiction.
Previous books include in-depth investigations of modern day ‘miracles’ and hair-raising escapes from death.
She worked on newspapers and magazines in London,
Hong Kong and the US, among other places. And her work with mass-circulation tabloid press developed a taste for the bizarre … hence The A-Z of Punishment and Torture.
Irene has been US-based education correspondent for the UK’s Daily Mail, editor of a monthly publication for British visitors to Florida, has written for the Ladies’ Home Journal, the Daily Telegraph, Hello!, Woman, Woman’s Own, the BBC’s Vegetarian and Good Food Magazine, Slimming, Real Homesnd Take-a-Break.
She now lives in the beautiful English county of East Sussex with husband, John, another veteran journalist and European editor of a mass-circulation US-based newspaper group.
Coming soon, a CoT Review of The A – Z of Punishment and Torture. The content for this post was scraped from BeWrite Books a truly nifty indie press. More on this release on Mr Marr’s blog and Mrs Thompson’s site.