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Execution by burning

Execution by burning has a long history as a method of punishment for crimes such as treason, heresy and witchcraft (burning, however, was actually less common than hanging, pressing, or drowning as a punishment for witchcraft). This method of execution fell into disfavor among governments in the late 18th century; today, it is considered cruel and unusual punishment. The particular form of execution by burning in which the condemned is bound to a large stake is more commonly called burning at the stake.

Cause of death

If the fire was large (for instance, when a large number of prisoners were executed at the same time), death often came from the carbon monoxide poisoning before flames actually caused harm to the body. However, if the fire was small, the convict would burn for some time until death from heatstroke, loss of blood plasma, and shock would occur. The typical depictions of burnings show that the executioner would arrange a pile of wood around the condemned's feet and calves, with supplementary small bundles of sticks and straw called faggots at strategic intervals up their body. Unless the authorities were particularly vindictive against a prisoner, family and friends could bring additional faggots and firecrackers to make the death less painful. It seems, however, that these depictions may not be entirely representative of how such executions were normally carried out; some sources state that it was more normal for the stake to be at the centre of a large ring or pile of wood with a gap left for the condemned to be led to the stake. Once they were tied to the stake and the gap filled with wood, the condemned would be hidden from sight. The famous depiction of the execution of Joan of Arc is factually incorrect in that it shows her atop a pile of wood and straw, whereas in fact she was burnt in the manner described.

When this method of execution was applied with skill, the condemned's body would burn progressively in the following sequence: calves, thighs and hands, torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest, face; and then finally death. On other occasions, people died from suffocation with only their calves on fire. In many burnings, a rope was attached to the convict's neck passing through a ring on the stake and they were simultaneously strangled and burnt. In later years in England, some burnings only took place after the convict had already hanged for a half-hour. In some Nordic, English and German burnings, convicts had containers of gunpowder tied to them or were tied to ladders and then swung into fully burning bonfires. A container of gunpowder tied at the neck might be used to bring about a quicker (and thus more merciful) death, since the condemned would suffer only until the gunpowder was heated enough to explode. Some prisoners refused it for personal reasons.

Historical usage

The story of Tamar and Judah in the Biblical book of Genesis suggests that before the Torah was given to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the patriarch heading a tribe or clan could order a tribe member executed for sexual misconduct (though Tamar was not a member of Judah's tribe but rather his daughter-in-law).

Perillos of Athens invented the Brazen bull, a hollow brass container where the condemned would be locked as a fire was set underneath. This would cause the metal to become red hot while the condemned slowly roasted to death. The bull was first used on Perillos, the bull's inventor; though he was released by the Tyrant Phalaris, the device continued to be used through ancient Greece and Rome.

Burning was used as a means of execution in many ancient societies. 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. Civil authorities burned persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition, including Giordano Bruno. Burning was also used by Protestants during the witch-hunts of Europe.

North American Indians often used burning as a form of execution, either against members of other tribes or against white settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Roasting over a slow fire was a customary method.

The Aztecs were noted for practicing human sacrifice on a large scale; an offering to Huitzilopochtli would be made to restore the blood he lost, as the sun was engaged in a daily battle. The sacrifice involved burning or partially burning victims.

Under the Byzantine Empire, burning was introduced as a punishment for disobedient Zoroastrians, because of the belief that they worshipped fire.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) ordered death by fire, intestacy, and confiscation of all possessions by the State to be the punishment for heresy against the Christian faith in his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying the decrees of his predecessors the Emperors Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius.

In 1184, the Roman Catholic Synod of Verona legislated that burning was to be the official punishment for heresy, as Church policy was against the spilling of blood. It was also believed that the condemned would have no body to be resurrected in the Afterlife. This decree was later reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, and numerous spiritual and secular leaders through the 17th century.

Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), St Joan of Arc (May 30, 1431), Savonarola (1498) Patrick Hamilton (1528), William Tyndale (1536), Michael Servetus (1553), Giordano Bruno (1600), and Avvakum (1682). Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley (both in 1555), and Thomas Cranmer (1556) were also burned at the stake.

Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trent, was the last person to be burnt at the stake for heresy in England in the market square of Lichfield, Staffordshire on April 11, 1612.

In the United Kingdom, the traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was to be burnt at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked, while men were hanged, drawn and quartered. 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.

In England, only a few witches were burnt, the majority were hanged, possibly as a cost saving exercise and possibly because of the risk that the general public would not tolerate frequent use of such a barbaric punishment.

Sir Thomas Malory, in "Le Morte d'Arthur", depicts King Arthur as being reluctantly constrained to order the burning of Queen Guinevere, once her adultery with Lancelot was revealed - suggesting that this was an inflexible and unalterable law. This might be related to the above, as a Queen's adultery might be construed as treason against her royal husband.

In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett introduced a bill into Parliament to end the practice. 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 over fifty years, so could all those still alive who had held an official position at all of the previous burnings. The act was duly passed by Parliament and given royal assent by King George III (30 George III. C. 48).

Modern burnings

One of the most notorious extra-judicial burnings of modern times occurred in Waco, Texas in the USA on May 15th, 1916. Jesse Washington, a mentally-retarded 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 hung 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 event attracted international condemnation, and is remembered as the Waco Horror.

Modern day burnings still occur. During periods of unrest in South Africa and Haiti for example, extrajudicial execution by burning was done via a method called necklacing where kerosene or petrol filled rubber tires were placed around the neck of a live individual. The fuel was then ignited, the rubber melted and the condemned burned to death. In Rio de Janeiro, burning people standing inside a pile of tires is a common form of execution used by drug dealers to punish those who have supposedly collaborated with the police. This form of execution is called microondas, "the microwave". The movie Tropa de Elite (Elite squad) has a scene depicting this practice

According to a former Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate officer writing under the alias Victor Suvorov, at least one Soviet traitor was burned alive in a crematorium. During the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, a number of inmates were burned to death by fellow inmates, who used blow torches.

At the end of the 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals were executed by being burned alive inside the Rungrado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang, North Korea.

In Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, there were 400 cases of the burning of women 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.

It was reported on May 21, 2008 that in Kenya a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.

Portrayal in film

The Last of the Mohicans features a British Redcoat being burned at the stake by a Huron tribe, while the more recent Silent Hill has a female police officer consumed by flames while tied to a ladder. The latter makes use of computer graphics, while the former does not. Elizabeth also used computer graphics to enhance the opening scene where three Protestants are burnt at the stake. In the film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the innocent simpleton Salvatore (Ron Perlman) is seen to die horribly, burnt at the stake. The fate is also suffered by Oliver Reed's less innocent character in Ken Russell's The Devils. The film The Seventh Seal shows a woman about to be burnt at the stake. In 1492: Conquest of Paradise, several people are burned at the stake. Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), though made in the late 1920s (and therefore without the assistance of computer graphics), includes a relatively graphic and realistic treatment of Jeanne's execution; his Day of Wrath also featured a woman burned at the stake. Of course, nearly all other film versions of the story of Joan show her death at the stake — some more graphically than others. Execution by burning also features in the 1973 film The Wicker Man, and its 2006 remake. Tropa de Elite depicts an execution by burning in Rio de Janeiro. Fritz Lang's Metropolis involves a robot being burned at the stake.


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