WARNING: not the weak of stomach. (I promise to write a funny one next time)

I have been thinking about suffering and, in a morbid mood, I started looking up some of the most barbaric ways we human beings have treated each other over the ages. One of the most horrifying is the means of execution that have been used throughout history. What follows are the ones I find the most stomach-turning (a lot of the information culled from Wiki).

1. Crucifixion: Everyone knows that this was the means of Christ’s execution and was generally fashionable in Ancient Rome. Unlike typical depictions in Christian iconography, where nails appear driven through the palms on the crossbeam and through the feet crossed over one another in front on the upright, the nails were, in fact, typically driven through the wrists on the crossbeam and the heels on opposite sides of the upright. Crucifixion was agonizing (hence the term excruciating) and could last several hours before the victim died of any combination of the following: blood loss, hypovolemic shock, sepsis and asphyxiation. Sometimes, “mercy” was shown by breaking the legs with a heavy club causing the body to sag, sometimes onto a sedile, or small seat attached to the front of the cross. A short upright spike or cornu might also be attached to the sedile, forcing the victim to rest his or her perineum on the point of the device, or allow it to insert into the anus or vagina. Death was thereby hastened but in unimaginable pain.

2. Hung, drawn and quartered: From 1381 until around the turn of the 18th Century, this was the ultimate punishment in England and, due to its incredible harshness, was reserved only for men convicted of the crime of High Treason. First, the victim was “drawn” to the place of execution (sometimes dragged behind a horse by the feet). He would then be “hung” by being hoisted up into the air by a noose around his neck and left to dangle until close to death by strangulation. At this point the victim would be cut down, revived and bound to a block on his back in order to be disembowelled. Skilled executioners could prolong the removal of the intestines and other organs without the victim losing consciousness from shock or loss of blood. During the disembowelment, typically the victim’s genitals were cut off and often, along with the removed entrails, burned in front of the victim’s eyes. Finally, the head was cut off and the rest of the body “quartered” (i.e. half the torso and left arm; half the torso and right arm; right leg; and left leg). The body parts were then usually mounted on stakes and displayed in public as a warning to others. To get an idea of just how horrible a death this was, women convicted of High Treason were not hung, drawn and quartered. Instead they received the more merciful sentence of being burned alive at the stake…

3. Burning at the stake: When a large fire was used to burn the victim, death would be much quicker, and by carbon monoxide poisoning, before the body actually burned. However, when a small, controlled fire was used by a skilled executioner, the condemned’s body would burn progressively in the following sequence: calves, thighs and hands, torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest and face. Eventually, sometimes as long as two hours into the execution, the convicted would die of any combination of heatstroke, shock, blood loss and/or the thermal decomposition of vital body parts. This form of execution is obviously akin to being boiled alive, the worst variation of which involved immersing the victim in a cauldron of water or oil which was subsequently gradually heated until boiling point. The method of torture here was obviously severe scalding. After fifth degree burns were suffered by the victim, the skin would be destroyed leading to the breakdown of subcutaneous fat. Death would finally result when the muscles were exposed and major arteries and veins exploded.

4. Stoning: The victim is buried in a pit up to the waist (if male) or neck (if female) and then pelted with stones by a crowd of volunteers (i.e. the execution is not carried out by a “professional” judicial executioner). Eventual death is caused by blood loss, shock and brain haemorrhaging. The duration of the execution depends on the size of the stones used – obviously, if it is intended for the victim to suffer for a prolonged period of time before death, then smaller stoned are required. Today, stoning is still a state sanctioned punishment in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and some states in Nigeria. While not in the law books, many instances of stoning to death have occurred in recent times in Afghanistan and Somalia. For example, in October 2008, 1000 people gathered in a Somali football stadium to watch a girl, Aisho Ibrahim Dhuhulow, stoned to death for adultery. It turned out the girl had only been 13 years old and her crime was having been gang-raped by 3 men.

5. Impalement: This punishment was standard fare in North Africa throughout the Middle Ages and it involved mounting the victim on a lengthy stake buried in the ground, the point entering the anus or vagina until it exited through the mouth or throat. Unbelievably, the impaled person could live for more than a day in this state until death occurred as a result of blood loss and/or organ failure. Of course, through the ages, victims were executed by having any number of horrible things inserted violently into bodily orifices – e.g. the hot poker was popular in the Tower of London. Also, rumour has it that an ancient Chinese Queen would execute male prisoners by making them drink plenty of water before inserting a glass tube through the length of the penis and shattering it with a hammer. Finally, there is “The Pear”, an intricately- decorated, elongated pear-shaped device inserted into the mouth, rectum or vagina and then “opened” by a screw mechanism that made its pointed “leaves” expand resulting in severe and fatal internal mutilation.

For those of you still reading, if any, you will probably find the next one the most disgusting.

6. The Tub: The punishment of “sitting in the tub” saw the victim placed in a covered wooden tub with only the head protruding. That is it. Except… the victim would be fed regularly (by force, if necessary) and, within a couple of days, he or she would be swimming in his/her own urine and feces. This would attract maggots and worms that would gradually devour the body over time. It is reported that one victim survived for 17 days. He literally decayed alive.

The last two are the worst for me because they prey upon my acute claustrophobic fears…

7. The Iron Maiden (NOT the band!):

The following is a depiction of the first recorded use of the Iron Maiden on August 14, 1515 : “A forger of coins was placed inside, and the doors shut slowly, so that the very sharp points penetrated his arms and legs in several places, and his belly and chest, and his bladder and the root of his member, and his eyes, and his shoulders, and his buttocks, but not enough to kill him; and so, he remained making great cry and lament for two days, after which he died.” Enough said.

8. Buried alive: Not much description is required here but the very worst nightmare for me, personally, would be to be locked in a coffin and lowered 6 feet under into a grave and listen to the dirt slowly getting shovelled on top of me in the cramped darkness. This is my Room 101 (You don’t? Read George Orwell’s 1984). Now, I should qualify this because, in the absence of a supply of air, loss of consciousness would occur within 2-4 minutes and death by asphyxia within 5-15 minutes. In this case, despite the 2-4 minutes of abject terror, I would obviously opt for this over any of the above means of execution. However, if I were buried alive and left with a supply of oxygen piped in from the surface I would go absolutely mad as, in this case, survival can last for days until the body succumbs to starvation, dehydration or hypothermia. I feel like throwing up just writing this and, honestly, would take any of the above executions over this.

Below is one of the most horrific photographs I have ever seen – Chinese civilians about to be buried alive by Japanese soldiers during the Nanking Massacre in 1937:

There is something so haunting to me about the expression on the face of the young man in the white shirt sitting on the edge of the grave. It is not resignation. It is not defiance. It is the most inscrutable expression on the face of a man who is about to be buried alive. I have stared at it countless times and my brain almost explodes when I try to imagine what was going through his mind.

Anyway, this litany of horror I have set out does not even, with the exception of the picture above, touch upon the hundreds of millions of human beings who have perished under ghastly conditions, or been terribly wounded, in the countless wars that we have raged against each other over the centuries (today, in 2011, there are still almost 30 wars being waged around the globe). It also doesn’t mention the countless millions who have died unthinkable deaths in the genocides we have perpetrated against each other – the apex of the capacity we have for abject hatred. Below is also one of the most horrific photographs I have ever seen – a young Jewish woman trying to shield her child from an Einsatzgruppen Officer about to execute them during the Holocaust:

It breaks me to even contemplate what I would feel if I tried to shield my 10-year-old daughter, Rhiannon, knowing that a maniac with a rifle was about to blow us apart and leave us in a deserted crater.

Why did I sit down and write this? I have been deeply unhappy for awhile now. My girlfriend moved out and then ended the relationship. It has been so painful for me seeing her everywhere in what was once our home. Everywhere I go in my neighbourhood reminds me of her. Basically, I miss her terribly and I have to fight against every instinct to call her or email her because I know she does not want to hear anything from me at all. On top of that, I have so far been unable to find a roommate which makes the loneliness in the evenings and on the weekends worse (not to mention putting me under financial stress). I recently posted on my Facebook that I am not built to live alone – and it is true. I do not need to live with a girlfriend – but i do need to live with somebody. All of this has exacerbated debilitating clinical depression and anxiety (caused by some childhood trauma) that constantly immobilizes me in what I want to accomplish and continues to do so at the age of 43. I have not only felt sad, lonely, depressed and frustrated. I have felt like I am really suffering.

So, as the dark clouds and rain rolled in for another dreary weekend, I put together this package of “real suffering”, mostly physical. Having done so, of course I chastised myself by comparing that kind of abominable suffering with the following facts of my own situation: I live in the best city in the world in one of the very best countries in the world, I have a cush (albeit unfulfilling) job at the UN, I have a lovely home, I have a beautiful daughter and I have great friends and family (okay, some in my family are pretty rotten, but never mind). So I then asked myself: do you have any right to suffer in the face of these facts?

I guess I still cannot answer that question because the reality is that I am suffering irrespective of how trivial that suffering is in comparison to that which has been imparted upon others. It is not about rights or facts – it is about feelings that I have always tried, and failed, to control by reasoning with myself. So, I have accepted that I am suffering despite the fact that I am not mounted on a stake through the anus which is protruding through my mouth. Now I just have to figure out how to vanquish it with feelings and empathy rather than facts and reason.

How I am going to do that is unknown but writing this blog has made me feel just a little bit better.

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4 Responses to Suffering

  1. Ed-M says:

    On crucifixion: the spike, aka <I?acuta-crux, cornu or skolops may have been used frequently enough to influence ancient depictions of crucifixions. Neither extant epigraph that includes a depiction of the sedile (Pozzuoli Graffito ca 100 CE, Vivat Crux Graffito ca. 79 CE) failed to also depict the cornu. The Romans also considered impalement to be a valid method of crucifixion; IMO the latter evolved from the former.


  2. BobTrent says:

    A means of extracting information that rarely goes so far as to physically harm the subject victim is to put a mouse in a large glass test tube, tail first. The open end of the tube is then placed against the chosen spot on the anatomy. A cigarette lighter is then used to heat the tail end of the mouse.
    If a victim was sufficiently resistant, the mouse would then rip and chew its way into the victim in its determination to escape the heat on its rear.
    Should a torturer not be satisfied with extracting the sought information/confession, but wish to actually harm the victim, the mouse would tunnel into the victim until it escaped the heat.
    To my knowledge no one this interrogation technique has been used on has persisted in withholding information or refusing to confess. Watching a mouse beginning to burrow would be unimaginable torture.


  3. BobTrent says:

    Armies of captured enemy were sometimes “recruited” by decimation. “Deci” = Latin, “ten” + “mat” = L., “kill.” The recruits were first lined up. Then each tenth man was murdered. Beheading, flogging to death, gutting, crucifixion, whatever the Roman commander fancied would inspire absolute loyalty in the men. If there was the slightest expression of displeasure in the “recruits,” even by one, decimation would be repeated. This impressed them with the Romans’ insistence in absolute obedience to their officers.
    As much as the numbers of troops allowed, every Roman army was followed by another, whose duty was not to engage the enemy until absolutely necessary but to kill deserters. The Russians, among others, use this technique to “encourage” their front line troops to attack the enemy unless retreat was ordered. People tend to exhibit intense patriotism when the alternative is to be shot or get 25 years in the Gulag.
    Entire slave armies of emasculated (de-penised and castrated) Africans were popular in the east at one time. Only their officers retained the “equipment” to do the obligatory raping of conquered people (an universal practice of armies through the ages). Such armies were ferocious fighters, for if any hesitated their fellow troops would be ordered to kill them. Being wounded was considered treason. The Russians used this technique to maintain loyalty and obedience. Anyone captured and repatriated was shot, hanged or, if the court was in a good mood, feeling lenient, 25 years in the Gulag. Like if there were labor shortages in Siberia.


  4. HarryS says:

    A particularly horrific means of torture and execution is as described above at (4). But the stoning part is not used. The prisoner is buried up to the chest. Arms may be tied down to the sides and buried, or left above the ground, wrists tied together or left free for the prisoner to futilely attempt to dig himself out with his hands. Women’s breasts are lifted up – by the nipples – and dirt filled in under them. The breasts are then released to sit on top of the ground. Breathing is difficult, but not impossible, as the only way to inhale is by swelling the chest.
    The prisoner is not further tortured. If thirst is complained of, water, sour wine, whatever, is given the prisoner. The real beginning of torture is watching the first ant, a forager scout, approaching.
    If the death of the prisoner is not the object, almost all interrogation subjects will cave in after a few ant bites at the most, giving information profusely. Ants can be shooed away while the subject is confessing, pouring out information. Any hesitancy and the ants are allowed to get to the subject.
    As an interrogation subject is not physically harmed by this torture, and is only extremely gradually attacked by the ants, it is an ideal questioning technique.
    Should the death of the prisoner be desired, the upper body and head can now be buried and suffocation will occur in a few minutes.


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