Whether you’re for or against capital punishment, one thing is for sure: The world is a much less gruesome place than it used to be. These following torture and execution methods might sound like something out of a grindhouse horror film, but most are backed by stone-cold facts, with historians agreeing they happened at least once. While we’ve tried to select images that are safe for work here, those with weak stomachs should probably look for a gallery of cute cats instead.
1. Elephant Stomping: You might have heard of crushing by stones as an execution method. Throughout antiquity, elephants were also employed to crush rebels and other criminals. While this method was most popular in India, it also appears in Carthage, among other places. Mughal Emperor Akbar the Great trained his elephants so well that they merely toyed with rebels, who were then spared death at the last minute.
2. Snake Pits: Snake pits were most common in Germanic cultures, including Anglo-Saxon Britain and among the Vikings. A Viking warlord, Ragnar Lodbrok, was condemned to one after losing a battle to Northumbrian king Aelle II. Attila the Hun threw a king of Burgundy into one. And then, of course, there’s Indiana Jones’ daring escape from a snake pit while searching for the Ark of the Covenant. When snakes weren’t available, venomous scorpions or spiders were substituted.
3. Blood Eagle: Here’s another nasty execution method from our Viking friends. Basically, it involves cutting the skin off your back, breaking your ribs and pulling your lungs out to hang off your ribs to look like wings. There’s a constant debate as to whether or not blood eagling really occurred or if it’s either metaphorical or a bad translation. Either way, it only happened to royals.
4. Immurement: Immurement is like being buried alive, but you get your own room. Rather than being stuck in a coffin or just thrown under dirt, it’s kind of the worst solitary confinement possible. You were expected to die, but in some cases, you’d be fed and kept alive for years before that was allowed to happen. This one’s also a common trope in gothic horror, where some unwitting person is bricked away in a wall. Countess Bathory, she who bathed in the blood of virgins to stay young, was done away with in this fashion.
5. Sciaphism: Hope you’re not eating right now. This might be the nastiest one on the list. In this ancient Persian punishment, the victim was stuck in two boats and force fed milk and honey, then covered in honey in strategic areas like the eyes, mouth, anus and genitals. The milk and honey diet would cause severe diarrhea. The victim was then put on a stagnant lake or swamp and left to be a food source and breeding ground for mosquitos and other noxious insects. Feeding was typically repeated to prolong death (which in one case took 17 days), though the sweet release of delirium came in a few days. In other words, that dude in the Sons of Anarchy scene should consider himself lucky.
6. Poena Cullei: Everyone knows the Romans threw Christians to the lions. Now get ready for poena cullei or “penalty of the sack.” The victim was sewn into a leather sack, frequently with wild animals, then chucked into the nearest body of water. The most common combo of animals was a poisonous snake, a chicken, a dog and a monkey. The earliest confirmed case is from 100 BC, but historians agree that it probably dates back much further. It survived in the Byzantine Empire until 892 AD.
7. Suffocation in Ash: Ancient Persia strikes again, but suffocation by ash was also practiced in Meso-America before the arrival of Columbus. In Persia, the victim was stuck in a room with wheels that turned the ash into the air. In Meso-America, the victim was simply thrown into a pile of ash. Of all the grotesque punishments on our list, this is one of the best attested from antiquity.
8. Keelhauling: Keelhauling wasn’t a method of execution per se, but it did often end in death. This was a naval punishment dating back to 700 AD as a method for dealing with pirates and mutineers. Basically, you get tied up and dragged underneath the ship from one side to another (sort of like that kinda badass boating scene in For Your Eyes Only, minus the sexy lady companion). If you go quickly, you don’t drown—you get torn apart by barnacles on the hull. If you go slowly, you probably drown. Either way, not a good time.
9. Gibbeting: Gibbeting is a bit like our old friend immurement. However, instead of getting your own room, you’re hung up high in a cage. Birds might eat you, but you’ll probably just die from starvation and exposure. Typically, the body is left to hang until it is fully decomposed. Famous pirate Captain Kidd met his end in this fashion. The last recorded gibbeting took place in Afghanistan in 1921.
10. Impalement: Impalement was the preferred execution method of Vlad Tepes AKA Vlad the Impaler AKA the real-life Dracula. As if getting impaled on a stake weren’t nasty enough, the stake often entered the body through the back door before exiting the mouth. Ouch.
11. Dropping: Sometimes dropping means finding the tallest building around and throwing the offending party off. Other times, such as in medieval Italian city states, it was like bungee jumping, except way less fun. The victim would be bound by the hands, pulled up high via a rope, then dropped. The process would be repeated until a confession was extracted or death occurred.
12. Shot Out of a Cannon: The actual term is “blowing from a gun,” but it’s a lot more like the circus act, except the human bullet doesn’t get a helmet. And also you’re blown to bits rather than gaily sailing through the air. The method dates back to the 16th Century Mughals, though the Portuguese were the biggest proponents, regularly employing it throughout their colonies. The last recorded example of this method of execution was in 1930, when 11 Panjshiri rebels were shot from cannons.
13. Burning Alive: Of course you probably knew about this one already, but there are variations on the old “burning at the stake” you might not have heard of. Some Native American tribes would slowly add wood to the pile, prolonging the agony of the accused. Still another form of burning alive is the brazing bull, where the victim is effectively cooked to death inside a large metal bull. Good times!