History's Most Awful Punishments For Not Paying Your Taxes

by JR Thorpe

Ah, the smell the scent of desperation, W-2s and anxious calls to the IRS's office about whether your 14 pugs qualify as dependents. It must be tax season. If you're feeling particularly nervous about filing your taxes, though, take comfort in the fact that today, folks who make a mistake on their taxes only face audits or legal penalties — unlike the decidedly more brutal punishments meted out by past civilizations. Tax evasion has often been interpreted as an insult to the ruling power of a government, and many cultures were really not pleased with that. Tax time is stressful for everyone, but I think we can all still agree that getting irate letters from the IRS is frankly a lot better than having your ear cut off (more on that in a bit).

Tax evasion has a long and brilliant history, with societies developing new methods of combating it nearly as often as individuals have developed new methods of engaging in it. Humans have never, ever liked being taxed; Roman historians note that wealthy Roman citizens seem to have buried their gold and jewels to avoid paying luxury taxes, and the Greeks tried to solve the taxation problem by making rich people pay directly for fancy things for the populace, so that they could boast about how awesome they were. If all else failed and you were unlucky enough to get caught, though, an expensive audit would have been the least of your woes.

Ancient Egypt: Skipping Taxes Led To Public Canings & Being Burnt Alive

The ancient Egyptians had extensive taxation regimes — enough so that there were perpetual complaints, over the course of many dynasties, about how tax collectors were abusing their powers. However, the punishments for actual evasion were pretty brutal: we have images of what happened to tax evaders, and it seems that a lot of them were held down and caned repeatedly in public. The standard procedure, it seems, was 100 canings plus five sharp cuts for severe evasion situations.

If you really went wrong, however, according to the (occasionally reliable) historian Herodotus, the law from around 500 BC onwards dictated that you be put to death. Either you were burned or impaled, neither of which was helpful in giving you a body to enter the famously complex Egyptian afterlife.

Medieval Europe: Tax Evaders Went To Prison...But Rich Evaders Had A Better Time

The concept of imprisoning debtors really came into its own in medieval Europe, where debtors' prisons became the first established places in which imprisonment was levied as a punishment, instead of a massive fine or mutilation. Instead, people who owed taxes to the state were put in filthy places either until they could pay off the debt, or simply for a fixed period of time. These debtor's prisons were conceived of, as a 14th century Italian writer noted, as a kind of "Limbo", the place in the afterlife where, according to some kinds of Christian thinking, people who had died with various sins had to wait before finally ascending to Heaven.

The real issue with debtor's prison was that it was entirely down to the prisoner whether or not the stay was comfortable. Everything, from bedding to firewood to luxuries, had to be paid for by family and friends. Wealthy people could furnish their cells excellently and make themselves comfortable, but people without a penny to their name often contracted diseases or died while imprisoned.

Tang Dynasty China: If Your Dad Died While Serving Time For Tax Evasion, You Had To Take His Place

Tang Dynasty China had an intensely regulated tax code based around the equal-field system, in which they attempted to document the exact wealth, land and tax obligations of every member of every household (not an easy task when it came to an empire of 50 million). There were different categories of land given out to different ranks, and even the lowest-ranking peasants had to pay 2 shoulder-loads of grain, 20ft of silk or hemp, and 20 days of labor per year to the government.

The fact that this was done on a family-by-family basis is important, because not only did they throw tax evaders in prison, but they made it a family affair: sentences sometimes lasted years, and if the father of the family died in prison while serving out his sentence, his son was thrown in to live out the rest of it.

Renaissance Italy: Get A Monk To Lie About Your House To Dodge Taxes

Renaissance Italians in the mid-1400s dealt with a very particular kind of tax evasion scheme — the kind that involves monks. People in this period had to pay high property taxes, so they tried to get around it with a device that will be familiar to modern tax dodgers: they arranged with a local monastery or abbey to declare that their property, house or land had actually been given to the monks for their religious use. Religious institutions weren't taxed. Result: a neat little loophole.

The authorities dealt with it by bringing in a horde of lawyers who battled through red tape and slapped the monasteries with a "fictional and fraudulent" label, that meant everybody had to pay up; but the paperwork frustrated everybody and led to a lot of annoyed lawyers.

Early Edo Period Japan: Dodge Taxes, Lose An Ear

The pre-19th century Japanese were not kidding around when it came to their punishments. Starting from around the Edo period, tax evaders were no longer flogged...instead, they started having their ears removed. Mutilation was a fairly common type of punishment in the era: removal of a single ear and/or the nose was given as the accepted response for everything from theft to illegal gamblers, and the hands and fingers of pickpockets were often cut off. (If you were highly ranked, getting your ears mutilated could operate as an alternative to capital punishment.)

Ear removal could also be accompanied by having your face slashed and being ordered into exile; though typically it didn't involve another common punishment for other crimes in Edo Japan: a large facial tattoo. Either way, it makes an audit sound like a day at the beach.