Torture of witches

The torture of witches is the various acts of torment and persecution used against the accused during the witch-trials in Early Modern Europe. Varied from non-physical, to extremely painful and even death, these tortures were used primarily to coerce confessions from the accused and perhaps cause them to name their co-conspirators. The torture of witches quickly began to grow after 1468 when the Pope declared witchcraft to be crimen exeptum and thereby removed all legal limits on the application of torture in cases where evidence was difficult to find.[1] With the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum in 1487 the accusations and torture of witches again began to increase, leading to the deaths of thousands.


1 Non-Physical Torture
2 Types of Torture Used
3 Death

Non-Physical Torture

In Early Modern Europe, in Italy, it was found particularly effective to deprive an accused witch of sleep for periods of up to forty hours. The induced insomnia would eventually cause the prisoner's mind to cloud, eventually leading to the breaking of their will. Without damaging the body, countless confessions were given to the authorities so the young woman could finally be allowed to get some sleep. This technique was also used in England, but without a limitation on time.
Accused witches were also forced to watch the trials and tortures of their fellow accused. Upon witnessing the horrible treatment of their peers, some would confess in order to spare themselves of equal treatment.

Types of Torture Used

Scold's Bridle

A punishment used primarily for witches in early modern Britain, in this form of torture, the head of the accused was locked in an iron cage causing spikes to be driven partially into or completely through the tongue.[3] This method was implemented in an effort to hinder her from interacting with the devil, muttering curses or attempting to spread her unholy beliefs.

Dunking Stool

As the name suggests, this was a stool that was placed in a cesspool or stagnant pond. The accused were forced to sit on the stool and it was lowered into the water, the fear of drowning often brought forth confession; however, at times the subject would refuse to confess and as such would eventually drown in the water. It was believed that if the accused were guilty then they would float upon the surface of the water, their body trying to reject God's holy water. If the accused were innocent then they would sink and drown.

Pricking and Piercing

One of the most widely used forms of torture was using a red-hot pincher to sear the flesh and mutilate the accused. It was said that witches had a spot of insensitive skin on their body where the devil had touched them, known as "The Devil's Mark". In Britain and France there were even professional "Prickers" that specialized in finding the devil's mark on the body of the accused. A famous witch pricker named Kincaid used to strip his victims, bind them hand and foot, and then thrust his pins into every part of their bodies until, exhausted and rendered speechless, they failed to scream, then he would proclaim that he had found the devil's mark. Another example of mutilation through Piercing was that of Anna Pappenheimer in Bavaria in 1600. As if the pain of the red-hot pincers was not horrible enough, the pincers seared off Anna's breasts, and as the torture continued, her breasts were forced into her mouth and later the mouths of her two children. The breasts were often targeted because of their importance to the female gender and the large amounts of nerve endings led to extreme amounts of pain.

Sexual Humiliation

In one such torture, the chevalet, the accused was to sit on a pointed metal horse and have weights strung from their feet causing the victim to feel increased pressure on their genitalia, perineum, or anus.
Another sexual humiliation torture was the sitting on red-hot stools in order to ensure the accused would never perform sexual acts with the devil ever again. In one documented case on April 29, 1592 at Chamonix, a woman known as Perronette was forced to sit on a red-hot stool for three minutes before being burned at the stake.


The famous "witch's-chair", contained hundreds of spikes and needles that would pierce the skin of the accused everywhere their skin touched the chair. While being interrogated, the accused was strapped into the chair and if her responses were not deemed satisfactory, the straps would tighten, causing deeper penetration of the skin. It was not; however, limited to witchcraft torture, and despite its name, was a commonly used torture device from the Middle Ages.
There were the gresillons known as pennywinkis in Scotland, which crushed the tips of fingers and toes in a vice-like device.
The Spanish Boot, or "leg-screw", used mostly in Germany and Scotland, was a steel boot that was placed over the leg of the accused and was tightened. The pressure from the squeezing of the boot would break the shin bone in pieces. An anonymous Scotsman called it "The most severe and cruel pain in the world".
The echelle more commonly known as the "ladder" or "rack" was a long table that the accused would lie upon and be stretched violently. The torture was used so intensely that on many occasions the victim's limbs would be pulled out of socket and at times the limbs would be completely torn from the body. On some special occasions a tortillon was used in conjunction with the ladder which would squeeze the genitals at the same time as the stretching was occurring.
Similar to the ladder was the "lift". It too stretched the limbs of the accused, this time however the victim's feet were strapped to the ground and their arms were tied behind their back before a rope was tied to their hands and lifted upwards. This caused the arms to break before the horrific portion of the stretching began.


Witches were even tortured in their deaths, not afforded a quick and sanitary demise, the majority of witches were burnt at the stake, though a great many were strangled or garroted before burning. This torturous death, in Britain, was used only for women who committed one of the two most unforgivable acts, treason or witchcraft.
In his Salem Witchcraft, W. F. Poole estimates the death toll of witches in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is about 200,000. The witch hunts were so rampant, Montague Summers reports in his Geography of Witchcraft, "In the year 1586 the diocese of Trier was so scoured and purged of sorcerers and witches that in two villages only two women were left alive".

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Death by burning

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Stake.

Burning of three witches in Baden.
Death by burning (also known as burning alive or burning to death) is death (often execution) brought about by combustion. As a form of capital punishment, burning has a long history as a method in crimes such as treason, heresy, and witchcraft. This method of execution fell into disfavour among governments in the late 18th century; it is now considered cruel and unusual punishment in the USA.The particular form of execution by burning in which the condemned is bound to a large stake is more commonly called burning at the stake. According to the Talmud, the "burning" mentioned in the Bible was done by melting lead and pouring it down the convicted person's throat, causing immediate death.


1 Cause of death
2 Historical usage
3 Modern burnings
4 Portrayal in film

Cause of death

If the fire was large (for instance, when a large number of prisoners were executed at the same time), death often came from carbon monoxide poisoning before flames actually caused harm to the body. If the fire was small, however, the convict would burn for some time until death from heatstroke and loss of blood plasma.

When this method of execution was applied with skill, the condemned's body would burn progressively in the following sequence: calves, thighs and hands, torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest, face; and then finally death. On other occasions, people died from suffocation with only their calves on fire. Several records report that victims took over 2 hours to die. In many burnings a rope was attached to the convict's neck passing through a ring on the stake and they were simultaneously strangled and burnt. In later years in England some burnings only took place after the convict had already hanged for half an hour. In many areas in England the accused woman (men were hanged, drawn, and quartered) was seated astride a small seat called the saddle which was fixed half way up a permanently positioned iron stake. The stake was about 4 metres high and had chains hanging from it to hold the condemned woman still during her punishment. Having been taken to the place of execution in a cart with her hands firmly tied in front of her she was lifted over the executioner's shoulder and carried up a ladder against the stake to be sat astride the saddle. The chains were then fastened and sometimes she was painted with pitch (a black tar-like liquid) which was supposed to help the fire to burn her more quickly.

Historical usage

Stained glass window depicting Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer.
Perillos of Athens invented the Brazen bull, a hollow brass container in which the condemned would be locked as a fire was set underneath. This would cause the metal to become red hot while the condemned slowly roasted to death. The bull was first used on Perillos, the bull's inventor; though he was released by the Tyrant Phalaris, the device continued to be used through ancient Greece and Rome.[dubious – discuss]
Burning was used as a means of execution in many ancient societies. According to ancient reports, Roman authorities executed many of the early Christian martyrs by burning, sometimes by means of the tunica molesta, a flammable tunic.
Also Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, one of the Jewish Ten Martyrs executed for defying Emperor Hadrian's edicts against practice of the Jewish religion, is reported to have been burnt at the stake. As narrated in the Talmud, ben Teradion was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death. However, the executioner - moved by the Rabbi's proud and stoic stance amidst the fire - removed the wool and fanned the flame, thus accelerating the end, and then he himself plunged into the flames.
According to Julius Caesar, the ancient Celts executed thieves and prisoners of war by burning them to death in giant "wicker men."
North American Indians often used burning as a form of execution, either against members of other tribes or against white settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Roasting over a slow fire was a customary method.
Under the Byzantine Empire, burning was introduced as a punishment for disobedient Zoroastrians, because of the belief that they worshipped fire.
The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) ordered death by fire, intestacy, and confiscation of all possessions by the State to be the punishment for heresy against the Christian faith in his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying the decrees of his predecessors the Emperors Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius.
In 1184, the Roman Catholic Synod of Verona legislated that burning was to be the official punishment for heresy, as Church policy was against the spilling of blood. It was also believed that the condemned would have no body to be resurrected in the Afterlife.[dubious – discuss] This decree was later reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, and numerous spiritual and secular leaders through the 17th century.
Civil authorities burnt persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition, including Giordano Bruno. Burning was also used by Protestants during the witch-hunts of Europe.
Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), St Joan of Arc (30 May 1431), Savonarola (1498) Patrick Hamilton (1528), William Tyndale (1536), Michael Servetus (1553), Giordano Bruno (1600) and Avvakum (1682). Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley (both in 1555) and Thomas Cranmer (1556) were also burnt at the stake.
In Denmark the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Especially Christian IV of Denmark encouraged this practice, which eventually resulted in hundreds of people burnt because of convictions of witchcraft. This special interest of the king also resulted in the North Berwick witch trials with caused over seventy people to be accused of witchcraft in Scotland on account of bad weather when James I of England, who shared the Danish kings interest in witch trials, in 1590 sailed to Denmark to meet his betrothed Anne of Denmark.
Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trent, was the last person to be burnt at the stake for heresy in England in the market square of Lichfield, Staffordshire on 11 April 1612.

In the United Kingdom, the traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was to be burnt at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked, while men were hanged, drawn and quartered. There were two types of treason, high treason for crimes against the Sovereign, and petty treason for the murder of one's lawful superior, including that of a husband by his wife.
In England, only a few witches were burnt, the majority were hanged. Sir Thomas Malory, in "Le Morte d'Arthur", depicts King Arthur as being reluctantly constrained to order the burning of Queen Guinevere, once her adultery with Lancelot was revealed - suggesting that this was an inflexible and unalterable law. This might be related to the above, as a Queen's adultery might be construed as treason against her royal husband.
Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, first cousins and the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII were both condemned to be burnt alive or beheaded for adultery as the king's pleasure should be known. Fortunately for Catherine and Anne, even Henry would not go so far. They were both beheaded. Lady Jane Grey the nine days queen was also condemned to burn as a traitress but it was commuted to beheading by Mary I.
In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett introduced a bill into Parliament to end the practice. He explained that the year before, as Sheriff of London, he had been responsible for the burning of Catherine Murphy, found guilty of counterfeiting, but that he had allowed her to be hanged first. He pointed out that as the law stood, he himself could have been found guilty of a crime in not carrying out the lawful punishment and, as no woman had been burnt alive in the kingdom for over fifty years, so could all those still alive who had held an official position at all of the previous burnings. The act was duly passed by Parliament and given royal assent by King George III (30 George III. C. 48).

Modern burnings

One of the most notorious extrajudicial burnings of modern times occurred in Waco, Texas in the USA on 15 May 1916. Jesse Washington, a mentally challenged African American farmhand, after having been convicted of the murder of a white woman, was taken by a mob to a bonfire, castrated, doused in coal oil, and hanged by the neck from a chain over the bonfire, slowly burning to death. A postcard from the event still exists, showing a crowd standing next to Washington's charred corpse with the words on the back "This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe". This event attracted international condemnation, and is remembered as the Waco Horror.
Modern-day burnings still occur. In South Africa for example, extrajudicial execution by burning was done via a method called necklacing where rubber tires filled with kerosene (or gasoline) are placed around the neck of a live individual. The fuel is then ignited, the rubber melts, and the condemned is burnt to death.In Rio de Janeiro, burning people standing inside a pile of tires is a common form of murder used by drug dealers to punish those who have supposedly collaborated with the police. This form of burning is called microondas, "the microwave". The movie Tropa de Elite (Elite squad) has a scene depicting this practice
According to a former Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate officer writing under the alias Victor Suvorov, at least one Soviet traitor was burnt alive in a crematorium.During the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, a number of inmates were burnt to death by fellow inmates, who used blow torches.
At the end of the 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals were executed by being burnt alive inside the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea.
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, there were 400 cases of the burning of women in 2006. In Iraqi Kurdistan, at least 255 women had been killed in just the first six months of 2007, three-quarters of them by burning.
It was reported on 21 May 2008, that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.
On 19 June 2008, Taliban in Sadda, Lower Kurram, Pakistan burnt alive three truck drivers of Turi tribe after they attacked a convey of trucks loaded with food stuff and other basic needs & medicine in way from Kohat to Parachinar in the presence of security forces.

Portrayal in film

The Last of the Mohicans features a British redcoat being burnt at the stake by a Huron tribe, while the more recent Silent Hill has a female police officer consumed by flames while tied to a ladder. The latter makes use of computer graphics, while the former does not. Elizabeth also used computer graphics to enhance the opening scene where three Protestants are burnt at the stake. In the film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the innocent simpleton Salvatore (Ron Perlman) is seen to die horribly, burnt at the stake. The fate is also suffered by Oliver Reed's less innocent character in Ken Russell's The Devils. The film The Seventh Seal shows a woman about to be burnt at the stake. In 1492: Conquest of Paradise, several people are burnt at the stake. Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), though made in the late 1920s (and therefore without the assistance of computer graphics), includes a relatively graphic and realistic treatment of Jeanne's execution;[citation needed] his Day of Wrath also featured a woman burnt at the stake. Many other film versions of the story of Joan show her death at the stake — some more graphically than others. Tropa de Elite depicts an execution by burning in Rio de Janeiro. Fritz Lang's Metropolis involves a robot being burnt at the stake. In Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an innocent gypsy girl Esmeralda is almost burnt at the stake, but rescued by Quasimodo. In the 2007 film adaption and many of the musicals of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd throws Mrs Lovett into an oven and watches her burn briefly before closing the door, as revenge for leading him to believe that his wife was dead. The horror film The Hills Have Eyes graphically portrays a man being burnt to death while tied to a tree. In the 2006 film Final Destination 3, two teenage girls become trapped in overheating tanning beds and are burnt to death when fires erupt. In 2009, in the film adaptation of Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, the third of four kidnapped cardinals is burned to death, after previously being branded with the ambigram "fire"; later in the film the main villain commits self-immolation in St Peter's Basilica.

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