The Death Penalty: 10 Brutal Historical Means of Execution

The death penalty is a hotly contested political debate, but it wasn’t always so controversial. Executions have been the ultimate punishment in societies since humanity formed even the semblance of civilization. The means of execution has been incredibly brutal and varied, and here are 10 of the most intense, terrifying, and violent means of execution:

Walking the Plank

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Walking the plank has been a joking part of pirate fiction present in even the tamest childhood tales. The real life version is not so cheery, however, if you truly envision the scene… you, terrified, with your limbs tied (or not) as you’re forced at sword point to step out into shark infested waters in the middle of the ocean, knowing you won’t be saved. A prolonged and salty death is not how I would like to go, disappearing under the waves when my mind can no longer overcome my physical limits.

Cement Shoes

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Modern gangsters have taken a queue from the pirates of times past, and created an urban version of walking the plank. “Sleeping with the fishes” has become a part of the lexicon, in reference to the cement shoes that vengeful gangsters force on their unwilling client’s feet. Like the most terrifying shoe salesmen in the world, they’ll make your shoes fit for an eternity, as they throw you off the side of a bridge.


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Seppuku is a culturally mandated suicide ritual in Japan that was conducted almost entirely by Samurai, as part of their code of honor (bushido). To prevent themselves from falling into enemy hands, or to recover from a felonious or otherwise shameful act, seppuku involves disembowelment with a short blade, preferably with a close friend to end the deed with a swift decapitation. Seppuku has been recorded as recently as 1970, after a failed coup d’etat.

The Gridiron

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The horrors of the gridiron are immediately visible to anyone who has held a cookout in their backyard; it’s basically broiling someone alive on a grate over a bed of coals. A favored execution for discontents and those considered treasonous, it was a horrible way to die.

The Brazen Bull

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The brazen bull was a bronze oven in the shape of a bull, just large enough to fit an adult. The offender would be placed in the belly of the beast, and sealed inside. Heating elements would be placed directly below the bull until the screams and smoke of the roasting victim would come out of the bulls mouth. This was a dramatic, and excruciating, way to go.

The Gas Chamber

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The gas chamber was put to mass effect during the holocaust in World War II, and used as a human form of execution since 1924, until the final case in 1999. In the late 20th century the gas chamber was outlawed as cruel and unusual punishment, as several cases of inmates taking up to 11 minutes to die swayed the public into rejecting it as an option.

The Firing Squad

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The firing squad has been around as long as gunpowder. To assuage the conscience of firing squad members, one of the shooters is typically given a blank, so, if necessary, each member of the squad can tell themselves they were the innocent member. This is still a common (though less formalized) form of execution in much of the world. The most recent example in the United States was in Utah as recently as June 2010.

The Electric Chair

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Much like the gas chamber, the electric chair was seen as a humane advancement, using the power of science to cause a quick end to a cruel life. Just like the gas chamber, this was not always the case. Several mistakes marred the history of the electric chair, as prolonged public scenes led tales to spread like wildfire about the horrific spasms and blood that was seen by most as cruel.

Crushing (Pressing)

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Made famous in America because of the case of GIles Correy (the only American documented to have been killed with this technique), who was pressed to death during the Salem Witch Trials in Salem, Massachusetts. He was placed between two large boards as increasing weight was placed on top, in an attempt to get him to confess to being a witch. Giles refused, and it’s said his last words were “more weight.”

Burned at the Stake

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Being burned at the stake is a prevalent film cliche (much like walking the plank) that’s popular mostly because of its brutality, and the suspenseful preparation required, as pieces of wood are slowly placed around the victim, who is tied to a post in the center. Death by fire is said to be one of the most incredibly painful, and just from standing around a large bonfire, it’s pretty easy to tell how excruciating such a death would be.