8 Insane Ways People Used To Be Put To Death

by Lauren Holter

While today's society obviously has its issues, it usually seems pretty great in comparison to previous centuries, and even decades. Just the invention of the toilet is enough to make you grateful you don't live in medieval times, but when it comes to historical execution methods, things used to be pretty grim. These days, most execution practices are meant to be as quick and painless as possible, but that was not always the case — there are some insane ways people used to be put to death.

The death penalty as a practice has been traced all the way back to ancient China. The first recorded execution took place in the 16th century BC when a member of the Egyptian nobility was accused of having magical powers and was ordered to take his or her own life (if he or she was not nobility, the accused would have been killed with an ax), according to PBS.

The punishment of execution spread around the world and evolved over time. The American colonies' first execution was in 1608 when officials killed a Virginia man for plotting to betray Britain to the Spanish, and in 1612, Virginia governor Sir Thomas Dale created a law that made even minor crimes like stealing food or trading with Native Americans punishable by death.

Here are eight crazy ways people used to be put to death all over the world. Be warned: Some are pretty gruesome.


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Scaphism, also known as "the boats," is an ancient Persian method of execution that involved placing a naked person in a tree trunk with their head, hands, and feet sticking out. Their exposed skin was covered in honey and they were left floating in a stagnant pond, with the honey attracting insects that would eat and breed in their skin. The person would eventually die of starvation, dehydration, and shock.



The guillotine, a more well-known method of execution, began in the 12th century and was used in France for the last time in 1977. Although it was invented as a more humane way to end criminals' lives, a beheading is really pretty cruel.



In South and Southeast Asia, execution by elephant used to be a common way to put people to death. Elephants were trained to torture or crush people in public executions.


Used for capital punishment by the Papal states until 1870, mazzatello involved a masked executioner hitting the criminal over the head with a large mallet. Since this typically only knocked them unconscious, the executioner would also cut their throat with a knife.


During the Middle Ages, flaying was often used to torture and execute criminals and witches. An executioner would use a small knife to peel off the person's skin slowly, usually starting on their face. Most victims died before the peeling reached their waist.

Blood Eagle

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Nordic Vikings used an especially brutal execution method known as the "blood eagle." The victim would be placed face down and restrained so that an eagle with outstretched wings could be carved into their back. Then, the person's ribs would be removed from their spine one by one, with the bones and skin pulled out on each side to look like wings. To make it even worse, their lungs would then be pulled out and stretched over the "wings."

Breaking Wheel

Execution by breaking wheel was often used for more serious crimes during the Middle Ages. The criminal was tied to spokes on a large wooden wheel and as someone moved the wheel in a circle, a torturer would hit the person with an iron hammer, breaking their bones. After all their bones were broken, they were left on the wheel to die slowly.

Burning At The Stake

Historically, a popular form of capital punishment was burning at the stake, which involved burning someone alive. It was used in England to punish heresy and high treason through the 18th century.

Images: Smabs Sputzer/Flickr (1); A.Davey/Flickr (1)