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Deliberately causing death through the effects of combustion, or effects of exposure to extreme heat, has a long history as a form of capital punishment. Many societies have employed it as an execution method for such crimes as treason, rebellious actions by slaves, heresy, witchcraft and perceived sexual deviancy, such as incest or homosexuality. The best known type of executions of death by burning is when the condemned is bound to a large wooden stake. This is usually called burning at the stake (or, in some cases, auto-da-fé). But other forms of death resulting from exposure to extreme heat are known, not only by exposure to flames or burning materials. For example, pouring substances, such as molten metal, onto a person (or down his throat or into his ears) are attested, as well as enclosing persons within, or attaching them to, metal contraptions subsequently heated. Immersion in a heated liquid as a form of execution is reviewed in Death by boiling.
For burnings at the stake, if the fire was large (for instance, when a 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, shock, the loss of blood and/or simply the thermal decomposition of vital body parts.
The 18th century BC law code promulgated by Babylonian king Hammurabi specifies several crimes in which death by burning was thought appropriate. Looters of houses on fire could be cast into the flames, and priestesses who abandoned cloisters and began frequenting inns and taverns could be punished by being burnt alive. Furthermore, a man who began committing incest with his mother after the death of his father could be ordered by courts to be burned alive.
In Ancient Egypt, several incidents of burning alive perceived rebels are attested. For example Senusret I (r. 1971-1926 BC) is said to have rounded up the rebels in campaign, and burnt them as human torches. Under the civil war flaring under Takelot II more than a thousand years later, the Crown Prince Osorkon showed no mercy, and burned several rebels alive. On the statute books, at least, women committing adultery might be burned to death. Jon Manchip White, however, did not think capital judicial punishments were often carried out, pointing to the fact that the pharaoh had to ratify personally each verdict. Furthermore, the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (fl. 1st century BC) asserts that the Egyptians had a particularly terrible punishment for children who murdered their parents: With sharpened reeds, bits of flesh of the size of a finger were cut from the criminal's body. Then he was placed on a bed of thorns and burnt alive.
In the Middle Assyrian period, paragraph 40 in a preserved law text concerns the obligatory unveiled face for the professional prostitute, and the concomitant punishment if she violated that by veiling herself (the way wives were to dress in public):
A prostitute shall not be veiled. Whoever sees a veiled prostitute shall seize her ... and bring her to the palace entrance. ... they shall pour hot pitch over her head.
For the Neo-Assyrians, mass executions seem to have been not only designed to instill terror and to enforce obedience, but also, it can seem, as proofs of their might that they took pride in. For example, Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (r.883-859 BC) was evidently proud enough of his bloody work that he committed it to monument and eternal memory as follows:
"I cut off their hands, I burned them with fire, a pile of the living men and of heads over against the city gate I set up, men I impaled on stakes, the city I destroyed and devastated, I turned it into mounds and ruin heaps, the young men and the maidens in the fire I burned"
In Genesis 38, Judah orders Tamar – the widow of his son, living in his household – to be burned when she is believed to have become pregnant by an extramarital sexual relation. Tamar saves herself by proving that Judah is himself the father of her child. In the Book of Jubilees, the same story is basically told, with some intriguing differences, according to Caryn A. Reeder. In Genesis, Judah is exercising his patriarchal power at a distance, whereas he and the relatives seem more actively involved in Tamar's impending execution.
In Hebraic law, death by burning was prescribed for 10 different forms of sexual crimes: The imputed crime of Tamar, namely that a married daughter of a priest commits adultery, and 9 versions of relationships considered as incestuous, such as having sex with one's own daughter, or granddaughter, but also, for example, to have sex with one's mother-in-law or with one's wife's daughter.
In the Mishnah, the following manner of burning the criminal is described:
The obligatory procedure for execution by burning: They immersed him in dung up to his knees, rolled a rough cloth into a soft one and wound it about his neck. One pulled it one way, one the other until he opened his mouth. Thereupon one ignites the (lead) wick and throws it in his mouth, and it descends to his bowels and sears his bowels.
That is, the person dies from being fed molten lead. The Mishnah is, however, a fairly late collections of laws, from about the 3rd century AD, and scholars believe it replaced the actual punishment of burning in the old biblical texts.
In the 6th century AD collection of the sayings and rulings of the pre-eminent jurists from earlier ages, the Digest, a number of crimes are regarded as punishable by death by burning. The 3rd century jurist Ulpian, for example, says that enemies of the state, and deserters to the enemy are being burnt alive. His rough contemporary, the juristical writer Callistratus mentions that arsonists are typically burnt, as well as slaves who have conspired against the well-being of their masters (this last also, on occasion, being meted out to free persons of "low rank"). The punishment of burning alive arsonists (and traitors) seems to have been particularly ancient; it was included in the Twelve Tables, a mid-5th BC law code, that is, about 700 years prior to the times of Ulpian and Callistratus. 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:
... the Christian, stripped naked, was forced to put on a garment called the tunica molesta, made of papyrus, smeared on both sides with wax, and was then fastened to a high pole, from the top of which they continued to pour down burning pitch and lard, a spike fastened under the chin preventing the excruciated victim from turning the head to either side, so as to escape the liquid fire, until the whole body, and every part of it, was literally clad and cased in flame.
In AD 326, Constantine the Great promulgated a law that increased the penalties for parentally non-sanctioned "abduction" of their girls, and concomitant sexual intercourse/rape. The man would be burnt alive without the possibility of appeal, and the girl would receive the same treatment if she had participated willingly. Nurses who had corrupted their female wards and led them to sexual encounters would have molten lead poured down their throats. In the same year, Constantine also passed a law that said if a woman married her own slave, both would be subjected to capital punishment, the slave by burning. In AD 390, Emperor Theodosius issued an edict against male prostitutes and brothels offering such services; those found guilty should be burned alive.
Beginning in the early 3rd century BC, Greek and Roman writers have commented on the purported institutionalized child sacrifice the North African Carthaginians are said to have performed in honour of the gods Baal Hammon and Tanit. The earliest writer, Cleitarchus is among the most explicit. He says live infants were placed in the arms of a bronze statue, the statue's hands over a brazier, so that the infant slowly rolled into the fire. As it did so, the limbs of the infant contracted and the face was distorted into a sort of laughing grimace, hence called "the act of laughing". Other, later authors such as Diodorus Siculus and Plutarch says the throats of the infants were generally cut, before they were placed in the statue's embrace In the vicinity of ancient Carthage, large scale grave yards containing the incinerated remains of infants, typically up to the age of 3, have been found; such graves are called "tophets". However, some scholars have argued that these findings are not evidence of systematic child sacrifice, and that estimated figures of ancient natural infant mortality (with cremation afterwards and reverent separate burial) might be the real historical basis behind the hostile reporting from non-Carthaginians. A late charge of the imputed sacrifice is found by the North African bishop Tertullian, who says that child sacrifices were still carried out, in secret, in the countryside at his time, 3rd century AD.
According to Julius Caesar, the ancient Celts practiced the burning of alive of humans in a number of settings. For example in Book 6, chapter 16, he writes of the Druidic sacrifice of criminals within huge wicker frames shaped as men:
Others have figures of vast size, the limbs of which formed of osiers they fill with living men, which being set on fire, the men perish enveloped in the flames. They consider that the oblation of such as have been taken in theft, or in robbery, or any other offence, is more acceptable to the immortal gods; but when a supply of that class is wanting, they have recourse to the oblation of even the innocent.
Slightly later, in Book 6, chapter 19, Caesar also says the Celts perform, on the occasion of death of great men, the funeral sacrifice on the pyre of living slaves and dependants ascertained to have been "beloved by them". Earlier on, in Book 1, chapter 4, he relates of the conspiracy of the nobleman Orgetorix, charged by the Celts for having planned a coup d'etat, for which the customary penalty would be burning to death. It is said Orgetorix committed suicide to avoid that fate
Throughout the 12th-14th centuries, a number of non-Christian peoples living around the Eastern Baltic Sea, such as Old Prussians and Lithuanians were charged by Christian writers to perform human sacrifice. For example Pope Gregory IX issued a papal bull denouncing an alleged practice among the Prussians, that girls were dressed in fresh flowers and wreaths and were then burned alive as offerings to evil spirits.
Under 6th century emperor Justinian I, the death penalty had been decreed for impenitent Manicheans, but a specific punishment was not made explicit. By the 7th century, however, those found guilty of "dualist heresy" could risk being burned at the stake. Those found guilty of performing magical rites, and corrupting sacred objects in the process, might face death by burning, as evidenced in a 7th-century case. In the 10th century AD, the Byzantines instituted death by burning for parricides, i.e. those who had killed their own relatives, replacing the older punishment of poena cullei, the stuffing of the convict in a leather sack along with a rooster, a viper, a dog and a monkey, and then throwing the sack into the sea.
Civil authorities burned persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition. William Graham Sumner says burning heretics had become customary practice in the latter half of the twelfth century in continental Europe, and that death by burning became statutory punishment from the beginning 13th century. Sumner notes that death by burning for heretics was made positive law by Pedro II of Aragon in 1197, in 1224 Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor, made burning a legal alternative, and in 1238, it became the principal punishment in the Empire. On Sicily, the punishment was made law in 1231, whereas in France, Louis IX made it binding law in 1270.
Several incidents are recorded of massacres on Jews from the 12th through 16th centuries in which they were burned alive, often on account of the blood libel. In 1171 in Blois, for example, 51 Jews were burned alive (the entire adult community). In 1191, King Philip Augustus ordered around 100 Jews burnt alive. That Jews purportedly performed host desecration also led to mass burnings; in 1243 in Beelitz, the entire Jewish community was burnt alive, and in 1510 in Berlin, some 26 Jews were burnt alive for the same "crime". During the "Black Death" in the mid-14th century a spate of large scale massacres occurred. An often imputed crime was that the Jews had poisoned the wells. In 1349, as panic grew along with the increasing death toll from the plague, and rumours from tortured Jews confessing to be responsible for the "poisoning of wells" and similar murderous behaviour, general massacres, but also, specifically, mass burnings began to occur. 600 Jews were burnt alive in Basel alone. A large mass burning occurred in Strasbourg, where no fewer than 2000 Jews were burnt alive.
A Jewish male, Johannes Pfefferkorn, met a particularly gruesome death in 1514 in Halle. He had been charged with a number of crimes, such as having impersonated a priest for twenty years, performed host desecration, stolen Christian children to be tortured and killed by other Jews, poisoned 13 people and poisoning wells. He was lashed to a pillar in such a way that he could run about it. Then, a ring of glowing coal was made around him, a fiery ring that was gradually pushed ever closer to him, until he was roasted to death.
Not only Jews could be victims of mass hysteria on charges like that of poisoning wells. This particular charge, well-poisoning, was the basis for a large scale hunt, and burning alive, of lepers in 1321 France. In spring 1321, in Perigueux, people became convinced that the local lepers had poisoned the wells, causing ill-health among the normal populace. The lepers were rounded up and burned alive. The action against the lepers didn't stay local, though, but had repercussions throughout France, not the least because king Philip V issued an order to arrest all lepers, those found guilty to be burnt alive. Jews became tangentially included as well; at Chinon alone, 160 Jews were burnt alive. All in all, around five thousand lepers and Jews are recorded in one tradition to have been killed during the Leper's Plot hysteria.
The charge of the leper's plot was not wholly confined to France; existent records from England show that on Jersey the same year, at least one family of lepers were burnt alive for having poisoned others.
The Spanish Inquisition was established in 1478, with the aim of preserving Catholic orthodoxy; some of its principal targets were formally converted Jews, called "Marranos" thought relapsing into Judaism, or the Moriscos, formally converted Muslims thought to have relapsed into Islam. The tribunals of the Spanish Inquisition were called Autos-da-fé; convicts could be handed over to secular authorities in order to be burnt.
Estimates of how many were executed on behest of the Spanish Inquisition have been offered from early on; the historian Hernando del Pulgar, contemporary of Ferdinand and Isabella, estimated that the Spanish Inquisition had burned 2,000 people at the stake by 1490 (the Spanish Inquisition had then only been in action for 12 years, having been founded in 1478). Estimates from 30,000 to 50,000 burnt at the stake (alive or not) on behest of the Spanish Inquisition during its 300 years of activity have previously been given and are still to be found in popular, not specialist academic books, but modern scholars tend to place the number of persons (not just Maranos or Moriscos) actually executed by the Spanish execution at between 3000-5000 during its existence.
In February 1481, in what is said to be the first auto-da-fé, six Marranos were burnt alive in Seville. In November 1481, 298 Marranos were burnt publicly at the same place, their property confiscated by the Church. Not all Maranos executed by being burnt at the stake seems to have been burnt alive. If the Jew "confessed his heresy", the Church would show mercy, and he would be strangled, prior to the burning. Autos-da-fe against Maranos extended beyond the Spanish heartland. On Sicily, from 1511-1515, 79 were burnt at the stake, while from 1511 to 1560, 441 Maranos were condemned to be burned alive. In Spanish American colonies, autos-da-fe were held as well. For example in 1664, a man and his wife were burned alive in Rio de la Plata, and in 1699, a Jew was burnt alive in Mexico City.
In 1535, five Moriscos were burnt at the stake on Majorca, the images of a further four were also burnt in effigy, since the actual individuals had managed to flee. During the 1540s, some 232 Moriscos were paraded in autos-da-fe in Zaragoza; five of those were burnt at the stake. For the local Inquisition in Granada, some 917 Moriscos appeared before the tribunal from 1550-1595, 20 were burnt at the stake. 45 Moriscos are said to have been burnt for heresy in 1728.
In 1560, the Portuguese Inquisition opened offices in the Indian colony Goa, known as Goa Inquisition. Its aim was to protect Catholic orthodoxy among new converts to Christianity, and retain hold on the old, particularly against "Judaizing" deviancy. From the seventeenth century, Europeans were shocked at the tales of how brutal and extensive the activities of the Inquisition were. What modern scholars have established, is that some 4046 individuals in the time 1560-1773 received some sort of punishment from the Portuguese Inquisition, whereof 121 persons were condemned to be burned alive, of those 57 who actually suffered that fate, while the rest escaped it, and were burnt in effigy, instead. For the Portuguese Inquisition in total, not just at Goa, modern estimates of persons actually executed on its behest is about 1200, whether burnt alive or not.
From the 12th-18th centuries, various European authorities legislated (and held judicial proceedings) against sexual crimes such as sodomy or bestiality; often, the prescribed punishment was that of death by burning. Many scholars think that the first time death by burning appears within explicit codes of law for the crime of sodomy was at the ecclesiastical 1120 Council of Nablus in the crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Here, if public repentance were done, the death penalty might be avoided. In Spain, the earliest records for executions for the crime of sodomy are from the 13th-14th centuries, and it is noted there that the preferred mode of execution was death by burning. At Geneva, the first recorded burning of sodomites occurred in 1555, and up to 1678, some two dozen met the same fate. In Venice the first burning took place in 1492, and a monk was burnt as late as in 1771. The last case in France where two men were condemned by court to be burned alive for engaging in consensual homosexual sex was in 1750 (although, it seems, they were actually strangled prior to be burned). The last case in France where a man was condemned to be burned for a murderous rape of a boy occurred in 1784.
Crackdowns and the public burning of a couple of homosexuals might lead to local panic, and persons thus inclined fleeing from the place, The traveller William Lithgow witnessed such a dynamic when he visited Malta in 1616 :
The fifth day of my staying here, I saw a Spanish soldier and a Maltezen boy burnt in ashes, for the public profession of sodomy; and long before night, there were above an hundred bardassoes, whorish boys, that fled away to Sicily in a galliot, for fear of fire ; but never one bugeron stirred, being few or none there free of it.
The actual punishment meted out to, for example, pederasts could differ according to status. While both in 1532 and 1409 Augsburg two men were burned alive for their offenses, a rather different procedure was meted out to four clerics in the 1409 case guilty of the same offence: Instead of being burnt alive, they were locked into a wooden casket that was hung up in the Perlachturm and they starved to death in that manner.
In 1532, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V promulgated his penal code Constitutio Criminalis Carolina. A number of crimes were punishable with death by burning, such as coin forgery, arson, and sexual acts "contrary to nature". Also, those guilty of aggravated theft of sacred objects from a church could be condemned to be burnt alive. Only those found guilty of malevolent witchcraft could be punished by death by fire.
According to the jurist Eduard Osenbrüggen, the last case he knew of where a person had been judicially burned alive on account of arson in Germany happened in 1804, in Hötzelsroda, close by Eisenach. The manner in which Johannes Thomas was executed is described as following, 13 July that year. Some feet above the actual pyre, attached to a stake, a wooden chamber had been constructed, into which the delinquent was placed. Pipes or chimneys, filled with sulphuric material led up to the chamber, and that was first lit, so that Thomas died from inhaling the sulphuric smoke, rather than being strictly burnt alive, before his body was consumed by the general fire. Some 20.000 people had gathered to watch Thomas' execution.
Although Thomas is regarded as the last to have been actually executed by means of fire (in this case, through suffocation), the couple Johann Christoph Peter Horst and his lover Friederike Louise Christiane Delitz, who had made a career of robberies in the confusion made by their acts of arson, were condemned to be burnt alive in Berlin 28 May 1813. They were, however, according to Gustav Radbruch, secretly strangled just prior to being burnt, namely when their arms and legs were tied fast to the stake.
Although these two cases are the last where the execution by burning might be said to have being carried out in some degree, Eduard Osenbrüggen mentions that verdicts to be burned alive were given in several cases for different German states afterwards, such as in cases from 1814, 1821, 1823, 1829 and finally in a case from 1835.
Burning was used by Christians during the witch-hunts of Europe. The penal code known as the Constitutio Criminalis Carolina (1532) decreed that sorcery throughout the Holy Roman Empire should be treated as a criminal offence, and if it purported to inflict injury upon any person the witch was to be burnt at the stake. In 1572, Augustus, Elector of Saxony imposed the penalty of burning for witchcraft of every kind, including simple fortunetelling. From the latter half of the 18th century, the number of "9 million witches burned in Europe" has been bandied about in popular accounts/media, but has never had a following among specialist researchers. Today, based on meticulous study of trial records, ecclesiastical and inquisitorial registers and so on, as well as on the utilization of modern statistical methods, the specialist research community on witchcraft has reached an agreement for roughly 40,000-50,000 people executed for witchcraft in Europe in total, and by no means all of them executed by being burned alive. Furthermore, it is solidly established that the peak period of witch-hunts was the century 1550-1650, with a slow increase preceding it, from the 15th century onwards, as well a sharp drop postceding it, witch hunts having basically fizzled out by the first half of the 18th century.
Notable individuals executed by burning include Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), Joan of Arc (1431), Savonarola (1498), Patrick Hamilton (1528), John Frith (1533), Michael Servetus (1553), Giordano Bruno (1600), Urbain Grandier (1634), and Avvakum (1682). Anglican martyrs John Rogers, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were burned at the stake in 1555. Thomas Cranmer followed the next year (1556).
In Denmark, after the 1536 reformation, Christian IV of Denmark (r.1588–1648) encouraged the practice of burning witches, in particular by the law against witchcraft in 1617. In Jutland, the mainland part of Denmark, more than half the recorded cases of witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries occurred after 1617. Rough estimates says about a thousand persons were executed due to convictions for witchcraft in the 1500–1600s, but it is not wholly clear if all of these were burned to death.
James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) shared the Danish king's interest in witch trials. This special interest of the king resulted in the North Berwick witch trials, which led more than seventy people to be accused of witchcraft in Scotland due to inclement weather. James sailed in 1590 to Denmark to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark, who, ironically, is believed by some to have secretly converted to Roman Catholicism herself from Lutheranism around 1598, although historians are divided on whether she ever was received into the Roman Catholic faith.
The last to be executed as a witch in Scotland was Janet Horne in 1727, condemned to death for using her own daughter as a flying horse to travel with. Janet Horne was burnt alive in a tar barrel.
Mary I ordered hundreds of religious dissenters burnt at the stake during her reign (1553-1558) in what would be known as the "Marian Persecutions". Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trent, was the last person burned at the stake for heresy in England in Lichfield, Staffordshire on 11 April 1612. Although cases can be found of burning heretics in the 16th and 17th centuries England, that penalty for heretics was historically relatively new. For example, it didn't exist in 14th century England, and when the bishops in England petitioned king Richard II to institute death by burning for heretics in 1397, the king flatly refused, and no one was burnt for heresy during his reign. Just one year after the death of Richard II, however, in 1401, William Sawtrey was burnt alive for heresy. Death by burning for heresy was formally abolished by king Charles II in 1676.
The traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was to be burned at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked, whereas men were hanged, drawn and quartered. The jurist William Blackstone argued as follows for the differential punishment of females vs. males:
For as the decency due to sex forbids the exposing and public mangling of their bodies, their sentence (which is to the full as terrible to sensation as the other) is to be drawn to the gallows and there be burned alive
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. Commenting on the 18th century execution practice, Frank McLynn says that most convicts condemned to burning were not burnt alive, and that the executioners made sure the women were dead before consigning them to the flames.
The last to have been condemned to death for "petty treason" was Mary Bailey, whose body was burned in 1784. The last woman to be convicted for "high treason", and have her body burnt, in this case for the crime of coin forgery, was Catherine Murphy in 1789. The last case where a woman was actually burnt alive in Great Britain, is that of Catherine Hayes in 1726, for the murder of her husband. In this case, one account says this happened because the executioner accidentally set fire to the pyre before he had hanged Hayes properly. The historian Rictor Norton has assembled a number of contemporary newspaper reports on the actual death of Mrs. Hayes, internally somewhat divergent. The following excerpt is one example:
The fuel being placed round her, and lighted with a torch, she begg’d for the sake of Jesus, to be strangled first: whereupon the Executioner drew tight the halter, but the flame coming to his hand in the space of a second, he let it go, when she gave three dreadful shrieks; but the flames taking her on all sides, she was heard no more; and the Executioner throwing a piece of timber into the Fire, it broke her skull, when her brains came plentifully out; and in about an hour more she was entirely reduced to ashes.
Petronilla de Meath (c. 1300–1324) was the maidservant of Dame Alice Kyteler, a fourteenth-century Hiberno-Norman noblewoman. After the death of Kyteler's fourth husband, the widow was accused of practicing witchcraft and Petronilla of being her accomplice. Petronilla was tortured and forced to proclaim that she and Kyteler were guilty of witchcraft. Petronilla was then flogged and eventually burnt at the stake on 3 November 1324, in Kilkenny, Ireland. Hers was the first known case in the history of the British Isles of death by fire for the crime of heresy. Kyteler was charged by the Bishop of Ossory, Richard de Ledrede, with a wide slate of crimes, from sorcery and demonism to the murders of several husbands. She was accused of having illegally acquired her wealth through witchcraft, which accusations came principally from her stepchildren, the children of her late husbands by their previous marriages. The trial predated any formal witchcraft statute in Ireland, thus relying on ecclasiastical law (which treated witchcraft as heresy) rather than English common law (which treated it as a felony). Under torture, Petronilla claimed she and her mistress applied a magical ointment to a wooden beam, which enabled both women to fly. She was then forced to proclaim publicly that Lady Alice and her followers were guilty of witchcraft. Some were convicted and whipped, but others, Petronilla included, were burnt at the stake. With the help of relatives, Alice Kyteler fled, taking with her Petronilla's daughter, Basilia.
In 1895, Bridget Cleary (née Boland), a County Tipperary woman, was burnt by her husband and others, the stated motive for the crime being the belief that the real Bridget had been abducted by fairies with a changeling left in her place. Her husband claimed to have slain only the changeling. The gruesome nature of the case prompted extensive press coverage. The trial was closely followed by newspapers in both Ireland and Britain. As one reviewer commented, nobody, with the possible exception of the presiding judge, thought it was an ordinary murder case.
Indigenous North Americans often used burning as a form of execution, against members of other tribes or white settlers during the 18th and 19th centuries. Roasting over a slow fire was a customary method. See Captives in American Indian Wars.
In Massachusetts, there are two known cases of burning at the stake. First, in 1681, a slave named Maria tried to kill her owner by setting his house on fire. She was convicted of arson and burned at the stake at Roxbury, Massachusetts. Concurrently, a slave named Jack, convicted in a separate arson case, was hanged at a nearby gallows, and after death his body was thrown into the fire with that of Maria. Second, in 1755, a group of slaves had conspired and killed their owner, with servants Mark and Phillis executed for his murder. Mark was hanged and his body gibbeted, and Phillis burned at the stake, at Cambridge.
In New York, several burnings at the stake are recorded, particularly following suspected slave revolt plots. In 1708, one woman was burnt and one man hanged. In the aftermath of the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, 20 people were burnt (one of the leaders slowly roasted, before he died after 10 hours of torture) and during the alleged slave conspiracy of 1741, at least 13 slaves were burnt at the stake.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a 16th-century eyewitness to the brutal subjugation of the Native Americans by the Spanish conquistadores has left a particularly harrowing description of how roasting alive was a favoured technique of repression:
They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them. I once saw this, when there were four or five nobles lashed on grids and burning; I seem even to recall that there were two or three pairs where others were burning, and because they uttered such loud screams that they disturbed the captain's sleep, he ordered them to be strangled. And the constable, who was worse than an executioner, did not want to obey that order (and I know the name of that constable and know his relatives in Seville), but instead put a stick over the victim's tongues, so they could not make a sound, and he stirred up the fire, but not too much, so that they roasted slowly, as he liked.
In 1760, the slave rebellion known as Tacky's War broke out at Jamaica. Apparently, some of the defeated rebels were burned alive, while others were gibbeted alive, left to die of thirst and starvation.
In 1774, 9 African slaves at Tobago were found complicit of murdering a white man. Eight of them had first their right arms chopped off, and were then burned alive bound to stakes, according to the report of an eyewitness.
In 1855 the Dutch abolitionist and historian Julien Wolbers spoke to the Anti Slavery Society in Amsterdam. Painting a dark picture of the condition of slaves in Suriname, he mentions in particular that as late as in 1853, just two years previously, "three Negroes were burnt alive".
The Greek War of Independence in the 1820s contained several instances of death by burning, and historian William St. Clair offers several examples in his "That Greece Might Still Be Free". For example, when the Greeks in April 1821 captured a corvette near Hydra, the Greeks chose to roast to death the 57 Turkish crew members. After the fall of Tripolitsa in September 1821, European officers were horrified, and noted that not only were Turks suspected of hiding money being slowly roasted after having had their arms and legs cut off, but at one instance, three Turkish children were roasted over a fire while their parents were forced to watch. On their part, the Turks committed many similar acts, for example in retaliation, they gathered up Greeks in Constantinople, throwing several of them in huge ovens, baking them to death.
The Arab chieftain Tulayha ibn Khuwaylid ibn Nawfal al-Asad set himself up as a rival prophet to Muhammad in AD 630, and after Muhammad's death in 632, Tulayah had a strong following which was, however, soon quashed in the so-called Ridda Wars. He himself escaped, though, and later was reconverted to Islam, but many of his rebel followers were burnt to death, his own mother choosing to embrace the same fate.
A number of monks are said to have been burnt alive in Tunis and Morocco in the 13th century. In 1243, two English monks, Brothers Rodulph and Berengarius, after having secured the release of some 60 captives, were charged with being English spies, and were burnt alive on 9 September. In 1262, Brothers Patrick and William, again having freed captives, but also sought to proselytize among Muslims, were burnt alive in Morocco. In 1271, some 11 Catholic monks were burnt alive in Tunis. Several other cases are reported.
The French traveller Jean de Thevenot, traveling the East in the 1650s, says: "Those that turn Christians, they burn alive, hanging a bag of Powder about their neck, and putting a pitched Cap upon their Head." Travelling the same regions some 60 years earlier, Fynes Moryson writes:
(NOTE: De Thevenot says Christians committing blasphemy against Islam were impaled, rather than burnt, if they do not convert to Islam.)
THOSE that can be proved after Circumcision to have revolted, are stripped quite naked, then anointed with Tallow, and with a Chain about the Body, brought to the Place of Execution, where they are burnt.
Similarly, he notes that non-Muslims entering mosques or being blashemous against Islam will be burnt, unless they convert to Islam. The chaplain for the English in Algiers at the same time, Thomas Shaw, wrote that whenever capital crimes were committed either by Christian slaves or Jews, the Christian or Jew was to be burnt alive. Some generations later in, in Morocco in 1772, a Jewish interpreter to the British, and a merchant in his own right, sought from the Emperor of Morocco restitution for some goods confiscated, and was burnt alive for his impertinence. His widow made her woes clear in a letter to the British.
In 1792 in Ifrane, Morocco, 50 Jews preferred to be burned alive, rather than convert to Islam. In Algiers 1794, the Jewish rabbi Mordecai Narboni was accused of having maligned Islam in a quarrel with his neighbour. He was ordered to be burnt alive unless he converted to Islam, but he refused and was therefore executed the 16th Tammuz, year 5554, according to Hebrew calendar (14 July 1794)
In 1793, Ali Benghul made a short-lived coup d'etat in Tripoli, deposing the ruling Karamanli dynasty. During his short, violent reign he seized for eximple, the two interpreters for the Dutch and English consuls, both of them Jews, and roasted them over a slow fire, on charges of conspiracy and espionage.
During a famine in Persia in 1668, the government took severe measures against those trying to profiteer from the misfortune of the populace. Restaurant owners found guilty of profiteering were slowly roasted on spits, whereas greedy bakers were baked in their own ovens.
Just prior to my first arrival in Persia, the "Hissam-u-Sultaneh", another uncle of the king, had burned a priest to death for a horrible crime and murder; the priest was chained to a stake, and the matting from the mosques piled on him to a great height, the pile of mats was lighted and burnt freely, but when the mats were consumed the priest was found groaning, but still alive. The executioner went to Hissam-u-Sultaneh who ordered him to obtain more mats, pour naphta on them, and apply a light, which 'after some hours' he did.
The previous cases concern primarily death by burning through contact with open fire or burning material; a slightly different principle is to enclose an individual within, or attach him to, a metal contraption which is subsequently heated. In the following, some reports of such incidents, or anecdotes about such are included.
Perhaps the most infamous example of a brazen bull within which the condemned is put, and then to be roasted alive within it, is the one allegedly constructed by Perillos of Athens for the 6th century BC tyrant Phalaris at Agrigentum, Sicily. As the story goes, the first victim of the bull was its constructor Perillos himself. The story of a brazen bull as an execution device is not wholly unique. About 1000 years later, for example, in AD 497, we[who?] may read in an old chronicle about the Visigoths on the Iberian Peninsula and the south of France:
A number of sayings/rulings of Hindu sages contain prescripts for death penalty by means of heated metal. The Laws of Manu, for example, states that the adulterer should be placed on an iron bed, well heated, and that the executioners are to continually add logs beneath it, until the "sinful wretch" is burned to death. The sage Vasishta, laid down that he who has sex with his guru's wife:
Not to show proper respect towards the priestly class of Brahmins was also forbidden under dire threats. For example, at one place it is said that those who uttered words of contempt would get a red hot iron rod shoved down their mouths, while persons merely advising a Brahmin of his duties were liable to have hot oil poured into his mouth and ears.
Walter Stewart, Earl of Atholl was a Scottish nobleman complicit in the murder of king James I of Scotland. On 26 March 1437 Stewart had a red hot iron crown placed upon his head, was cut in pieces alive, his heart was taken out, and then thrown in a fire. A papal nuncio, the later Pope Pius II witnessed the execution of Stewart and his associate Sir Robert Graham, and, reportedly, said he was at a loss to determine whether the crime committed by the regicides, or the punishment of them was the greatest.
In a few English 18th and 19th century newspapers and magazines, a tale was circulated about the particularly brutal manner a French midwife was put to death by 28 May 1673 in Paris. No less than 62 infant skeletons were found buried on her premises, so she was condemned on multiple accounts of abortion/infanticide. One detailed account of her supposed execution runs as follows:
A gibbet was erected, under which a fire was made, and the prisoner being brought to the place of execution, was hung up in a large iron cage, in which were also placed sixteen wild cats, which had been catched in the woods for the purpose.—When the heat of the fire became too great to be endured with patience, the cats flew upon the woman, as the cause of the intense pain they felt.—In about fifteen minutes they had pulled out her intrails, though she continued yet alive, and sensible, imploring, as the greatest favour, an immediate death from the hands of some charitable spectator. No one however dared to afford her the least assistance; and she continued in this wretched situation for the space of thirty-five minutes, and then expired in unspeakable torture. At the time of her death, twelve of the cats were expired, and the other four were all dead in less than two minutes afterwards.
The English commentator adds his own view on the matter as follows:"However cruel this execution may appear with regard to the poor animals, it certainly cannot be thought too severe a punishment for such a monster of iniquity, as could calmly proceed in acquiring a fortune by the deliberate murder of such numbers of unoffending, harmless innocents. And if a method of executing murderers, in a manner somewhat similar to this was adapted in England, perhaps the horrid crime of murder might not so frequently disgrace the annals of the present times." The English story is derived from a pamphlet published in 1673.
A number of stories concern individuals who are said to have been executed by having molten gold poured down their throats. For example in 88 BC, Mithridates VI of Pontus captured the Roman general Manius Aquillius, and executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat.
Djengis Khan is said to have poured molten gold down the throat of a perfidious governor in 1220, and an early 14th century chronicle mentions that his grandson Hulagu Khan did likewise to the sultan Al-Musta'sim after the fall of Baghdad in 1258 to the Mongol army.
The Spanish in 16th century Americas gave horrified reports that Spanish who had been captured by the natives (who had learnt of the Spanish thirst of gold) had their feet and hands bound, and then poured molten gold down their throats, mocking their victims:"Eat, eat gold, Christians".
The 16th/early 17th century prime minister Malik Ambar in the Deccan Ahmadnagar Sultanate would not tolerate inebriation among his subjects, and would pour molten lead down the mouths of those caught in that condition. Similarly, in the 17th century Sultanate of Aceh Sultan Iskandar Muda (r.1607-1636) is said to have poured molten lead in the mouths of at least two drunken subjects. Military discipline in 19th century Burma was reportedly harsh, with strict prohibition of smoking opium or drinking arrack. Some monarchs, it appears, had ordained pouring molten lead down the throats of those who drank anyway, "but it has been found necessary to relax this severity, in order to conciliate the army"
According to historian Pushpa Sharma, stealing a horse was considered the most heinous offence within the Mongol army, and the culprit would either have molten lead poured into his ears, or alternatively, by breaking the spinal chord or beheading.
Apparently, for many centuries, a tradition of devotional self-immolation existed among Buddhist monks in China. One monk who immolated himself in AD 527, explained his intent a year before, in the following manner:
The body is like a poisonous plant; it would really be right to burn it and extinguish its life. I have been weary of this physical frame for many a long day. I vow to worship the buddhas, just like Xijian
A severe critic in the 16th century wrote the following comment on this practice:
There are demonic people ... who pour on oil, stack up firewood, and burn their bodies while still alive. Those who look on are overawed and consider it the attainment of enlightenment. This is erroneous.
In the first half of the 17th century, Japanese authorities made sporadic persecutions, and executions of Christians, in some cases condemning persons to be burned alive. At Nagasaki in 1622, for example, some 25 monks were burnt alive, whereas in Edo in 1624, 50 Christians were burnt alive.
The 16th century Spanish writer of Inca descent, Garcilaso de la Vega is eager to show how abhorrent homosexuality was to the Incas. Relative to the Incas' colonization of some tribes, de la Vega writes the following:
Informations were brought him against certain persons guilty of Sodomy, to which sin that Countrey was much addicted: All which he took, and condemned, and burned alive; commanding their Houses to be thrown down, their Inheritances to be destroyed, their Trees rooted up, that so no steps or marks might appear of any thing which had been built, or planted by the hands of Sodomites, and that their memory, as well as their actions, might be abolished; with them they destroyed both their Wives and Children, which severity, though it may seem unjust, was yet an evidence of that abhorrence which the Incas conceived against this unnatural Crime.
Even fateful encounters with cannibals are recorded: in 1514, in the Americas, Francis of Cordoba and 5 companions were, reportedly, caught, impaled on spits, roasted and eaten by the natives. In 1543, such was also the end of a previous bishop, Vincent de Valle Viridi.
In 1844, the missionary John Watsford wrote a letter about the internecine wars on Fiji, and how captives could be eaten, after being roasted alive:
At Mbau, perhaps, more human beings are eaten than anywhere else. A few weeks ago they ate twenty-eight in one day. They had seized their wretched victims while fishing, and brought them alive to Mbau, and there half-killed them, and then put them into their ovens. Some of them made several vain attempts to escape from the scorching flame
The actual manner of the roasting process were described by the missionary pioneer David Cargill, in 1838:
When about to be immolated, he is made to sit on the ground with his feet under his thighs and his hands placed before him. He is then bound so that he cannot move a limb or a joint. In this posture he is placed on stones heated for the occasion (and some of them are red-hot), and then covered with leaves and earth, to be roasted alive. When cooked, he is taken out of the oven and, his face and other parts being painted black, that he may resemble a living man ornamented for a feast or for war, he is carried to the temple of the gods and, being still retained in a sitting posture, is offered as a propitiary sacrifice.
Sati refers to a funeral practice among some communities of Indian subcontinent in which a recently widowed woman immolates herself on her husband’s funeral pyre. The first reliable evidence for the practice of sati appears from the time of the Gupta Empire (AD 400), when instances of sati began to be marked by inscribed memorial stones.
How, when, where and why, the practice of sati spread are complex issues as borne out by the discussion of Anand Yang. According to one model of history thinking, the practice of sati only became really widespread with the Muslim invasions of India, and the practice of sati now acquired a new meaning as a means to preserve the honour of women whose men had been slain. As S.S.Sashi lays out the argument, "The argument is that the practice came into effect during the Islamic invasion of India, to protect their honor from Muslims who were known to commit mass rape on the women of cities that they could capture successfully."
However, as Yang contends, the practice of sati, according to the memorial stone evidence, was carried out in appreciable numbers in western and southern parts of India, and even in some areas, to have reached peak level of incidence in pre-Islamic times.
The British began to compile statistics of the incidences of sati for all their domains from 1815 and onwards. The official statistics for Bengal represents that the practice was much more common here than elsewhere, recorded numbers typically in the range 500-600 per year, up to the year 1829, when the British authorities banned the practice. Since 19th - 20th Century, the practice remains outlawed in Indian subcontinent.
The practice of burning widows has not been restricted to the Indian subcontinent; at Bali, the practice was called masatia and, apparently, restricted to the burning of royal widows. Although the Dutch colonial authorities had banned the practice, one such occasion is attested as late as in 1903, probably for the last time. In Nepal, the practice was not banned until 1920.
In her book "Ashes of Immortality: Widow-burning in India", Catherine Weinberger-Thomas sets the practice of sati into a wider mental context. She writes: "In a general sense, the Hindu worldview associates pain and bodily ills with sin". Furthermore, "fire emerges as the supreme form of purification and consequently of healing". Thus, for example, lepers were regarded as steeped in sin, and could be burned alive in order to give them access to a higher rebirth. (The British banned this practice). Weinberger-Thomas notes that this custom of being burned alive did not end with the British bans; in 1906, for example, in a village, 9 villagers jumped into a fire pit, in order to be cleansed. Weinberger-Thomas also writes, "Even today, in certain regions of India (most especially in the Tamil Nadu) suicide by fire is by far the most common form of voluntary death."
The missionary William Carey wrote a much publicized letter in September 1812 in which he describes being witness to the burning of a leper:
Last week I witnessed the burning of a poor leper. A pit, about ten cubits in depth was dug, and a fire placed at the bottom of it. The poor man rolled himself into it, but instantly on feeling the fire, begged to be taken out, and struggled hard for that purpose. His mother and sister, however, thrust him in again: and thus, a man who to all appearance might have survived some years longer, was cruelly burnt to death. I find that the practice is not uncommon in these parts.
The practice of diseased persons, and especially of those heavily afflicted with the leprosy, drowning themselves,is very common, and is recommended in the writings of the Hindoos. This poor wretch died with the notion that by thus purifying his body in the fire, he should receive a happy transmigration into a healthful body; whereas, if he had died by the disease, he would, after four births, have appeared on earth a leper again!
C.H.L. Hahn wrote that within the O-ndnonga tribe amongst the Ovambo people in nowadays Namibia, abortion was not used at all (in contrast to amongst the other tribes), and that furthermore, if two young unwed individuals had sex resulting in pregnancy, then both the girl and the boy were "taken out to the bush, bound up in bundles of grass and ... burnt alive."
In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett introduced a bill into Parliament to end the practice of judicial burning. 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 more than half a century, so could all those still alive who had held an official position at all of the previous burnings. The Treason Act 1790 was duly passed by Parliament and given royal assent by King George III (30 George III. C. 48).
No modern state routinely conducts executions by burning. Like all capital punishment, it is forbidden to members of the Council of Europe by the European Convention on Human Rights. It was never routinely practiced in the United States, and the Supreme Court ruling on firing squads in Wilkerson v. Utah from 1879 incidentally determined that death by burning was cruel and unusual punishment. However, modern-day burnings, in different forms, occur.
Benjamin B. Ferencz, one of the prosecutors in the later Nuremberg trials who investigated in May 1945 occurrences at the Ebensee concentration camp narrated to Tom Hofmann, a family member and biographer, he was completely outraged at what the Nazis had done there. When people discovered an SS guard who attempted to flee, they tied him to one of the metal trays used to transport bodies into the crematorium. They then proceed to light the oven, and slowly roast the SS guard to death, taking him in and out of the oven several times. Ferencz said to Hofmann that at the time, he was in no position to stop the proceedings of the mob, and frankly admitted that he had not been inclined to try. Hofmann adds: "there seemed to be no limit to human brutality in wartime".
In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 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 micro-ondas (allusion to the microwave oven). Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), a film, and Max Payne 3, a video game, contain(ed) scenes depicting this practice.
During the Guatemalan Civil War the Guatemalan Army and security forces carried out an unknown number of extrajudicial killings by burning. In one instance in March 1967, Guatemalan guerrilla and poet Otto René Castillo was captured by Guatemalan government forces and taken to Zacapa army barracks alongside one of his comrades, Nora Paíz Cárcamo. The two were interrogated, tortured for four days, and burned alive. Other reported instances of immolation by Guatemalan government forces occurred in the Guatemalan government's rural counterinsurgency operations in the Guatemalan Altiplano in the 1980s. In April 1982, 13 members of a Quanjobal Pentecostal congregation in Xalbal, Ixcan, were burnt alive in their church by the Guatemalan Army.
In Chile during public mass protests held against the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet on 2 July 1986, engineering student Carmen Gloria Quintana, 18, and Chilean-American photographer Rodrigo Rojas DeNegri, 19, were arrested by a Chilean Army patrol in the Los Nogales neighborhood of Santiago. The two were searched and beaten before being doused in benzene and burned alive by Chilean troops. Rojas was killed, while Quintana survived but with severe burns.
During the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, a number of inmates were burnt to death by fellow inmates, who used blow torches. Modern burnings continued as a method of lynching in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly in the South. One of the most notorious extrajudicial burnings in modern history occurred in Waco, Texas 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 attracted international condemnation and is remembered as the "Waco Horror".
A former Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate officer writing under the alias Victor Suvorov (aka Viktor Suworow), described, in his book Aquarium, a Soviet traitor[clarification needed] being burned alive in a crematorium. There has been some speculation that the identity of this officer was Oleg Penkovsky. However, during a radio interview to Russia's "Echo of Moscow", Vladimir Rezun (aka Victor Suvorov or Viktor Suworow) denied this, saying "I never mentioned it was Penkovsky". No executed GRU traitors (Penkovsky aside) are known to match Rezun/Suvorov/Suworow's scant description in Aquarium.
In connection to the purge of Jang Song-taek, O Sang-hon, a deputy minister at the Ministry of Public Security associated with Jang, was 'executed by flamethrower' in 2014, according to unconfirmed reports.
In South Africa, extrajudicial executions by burning were carried out via "necklacing", wherein 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 victim is burnt to death.
In India, Dr Graham Stuart Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, who, along with his two sons Philip (aged 10) and Timothy (aged 6), was burnt to death by a gang while the three slept in the family car (a station wagon), at Manoharpur village in Keonjhar District, Odisha, India on 22 January 1999. Four years later, in 2003, a Bajrang Dal activist, Dara Singh, was convicted of leading the gang that murdered Staines and his sons, and was sentenced to life in prison. Staines had worked in Odisha with the tribal poor and lepers since 1965. Some Hindu groups made allegations that Staines had forcibly converted or lured many Hindus into Christianity.
In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, there were some 400 instances of the burning of women[why?] 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.
On 20 January 2011, a 28 year old woman, Ranjeeta Sharma, was found burning to death on a road in rural New Zealand. The police confirmed the woman was alive before being covered in an accelerant and set afire. Sharma's husband, Davesh Sharma, was charged with her murder.
This is an incomplete list of the movies, that depicted similar versions.
|Wikisource has the text of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article Burning to Death.|