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Execution by burning

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Execution by burning

Deliberately causing death through the effects of combustion has a long history as a form of capital punishment. Many societies have employed it as an execution method for such crimes as treason, heresy, and witchcraft. The form of this type of execution in which the condemned is bound to a large wooden stake is usually called burning at the stake (or, in some cases, auto-da-fé).

Cause of death

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.[1]

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. Several records report individuals taking over two hours to die. In many burnings a rope was attached to the convict's neck passing through a ring on the stake to cause strangulation.

Historical usage


In the Biblical story appearing 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. The story takes for granted that in the society depicted, the head of a household could inflict such a punishment for such an act.

In Histories of Herodotus, Cyrus II of Persia orders the execution by burning of Kroisos of Lydia, after conclusively defeating his army in battle and conquering his kingdom. The execution is canceled mid-way, initially by Cyrus II's orders and then by a sudden rainfall. Burning was used as a means of execution in many ancient societies. According to ancient reports,[which?] Roman authorities executed many of the early Christian martyrs by burning, sometimes by means of the tunica molesta, a flammable tunic:[2]
..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. Such multitudes were destroyed by this one mode alone, that the whole area of the Vatican circus, round which they were impaled, was inundated knee-deep with the residuum of their bodies

According to Julius Caesar, the ancient Celts thieves and prisoners of war by burning them to death inside giant "wicker men".[3][4]


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 as punishment for heresy against the Christian faith in his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying the decrees of his predecessors, Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius.


Civil authorities burned persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition, including Giordano Bruno. The historian Hernando del Pulgar, contemporary of Ferdinand and Isabella, estimated that the Spanish Inquisition had burned at the stake 2,000 people by 1490.[5]

Witch hunts

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.[6]

Famous cases

Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), Joan of Arc (30 May 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 in 1556.


In Denmark, after the 1536 reformation, Christian IV of Denmark encouraged the practice, which would result in hundreds burnt due to convictions for witchcraft. 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 on account of bad weather. James VI of Scotland (later James I of England) shared the Danish king's interest in witch trials. James sailed in 1590 to Denmark to meet his betrothed, Anne of Denmark.

Great Britain

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. The traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was burning at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked, whereas 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 accused of witchcraft were burned; the majority were hanged. Sir Thomas Malory, in Le Morte d'Arthur (1485), depicts King Arthur as being reluctantly constrained to order the burning of Queen Guinevere, once her adultery with Lancelot was revealed, as a Queen's adultery would be construed as treason against her royal husband.[7] In many areas in England the condemned woman (men were hanged, drawn, and quartered) was seated astride a small seat called the saddle which was fixed halfway up a permanently positioned iron stake. The stake was about 4 metres high and had chains hanging from it to hold the condemned woman still during her punishment. Having been taken to the place of execution in a cart with her hands firmly tied in front of her and wearing just a thin shift she was lifted over the executioner's shoulder and carried up a ladder against the stake to be sat astride the saddle. The chains were then fastened and sometimes she was painted with resin which was supposed to help the fire burn her more quickly. Following the introduction of gunpowder to England, executioners were occasionally bribed to hasten death by fixing gunpowder around the neck of the condemned. In later years in England some burnings took place posthumously, i.e. after the convict had already hanged for half an hour.

Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, first cousins and the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII were both condemned to be burned alive or beheaded for adultery as the king's pleasure should be known; they were beheaded. Lady Jane Grey was condemned to burn as a traitress but the punishment was commuted to beheading by Mary I. However, Mary I ordered hundreds of religious dissenters burned at the stake during her five year reign (1553-1558) in what came to be known as the "Marian Persecutions".

North America

Indigenous North Americans 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10]

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, and during the alleged slave conspiracy of 1741, no less than 13 slaves were burnt at the stake.[11]

Latin America
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:[12]
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.

The last known burning by the Spanish Colonial government in Latin America was of Mariana de Castro, in Lima, Peru in 1732.[13]

Legislation against the practice

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 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).[14]

19th century Persia
The physician C.J. Wills, traveling through Persia between from 1866-81 noted that shortly before Wills' arrival, a "priest" had been burned alive. Wills wrote:[15]
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 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.

Modern burnings

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 still occur. 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.[16][17]

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[18][19] (allusion to the microwave oven[20]). Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), a film, and Max Payne 3, a video game, contain(ed) scenes depicting this practice.[21]

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.[22] 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 burned alive in their church by the Guatemalan Army.[23]

In Chile during public mass protests held against the military regime of General Augusto Pinochet on July 2, 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.[24]

A former Soviet

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 of modern times 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 event attracted international condemnation, and is remembered as the Waco Horror.

In the late 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals were executed by being burnt alive inside the Rungnado May Day Stadium in Pyongyang.[28]

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.[29]

It was reported that on 21 May 2008 in Kenya a mob had burned to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.[30]

On 19 June 2008, the Parachinar.

Immolation of widows

Main article: Sati

Although sati, or the practice of a widow immolating on her husband's funeral pyre, was officially outlawed by the British Raj in 1829, the rite persists. The most high-profile sati incident was in Rajasthan in 1987, when 18-year-old Roop Kanwar was burned to death.[31]


Main article: Bride burning

On 20 January 2011, 28 year old 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.[32] Sharma's husband, Davesh Sharma, was charged with her murder.[33]

Portrayal in film

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 burnt at the stake. Many other film versions of the story of Joan show her death at the stake – some more graphically than others. The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc, released in 1999, ends with Joan slowly burned alive in the marketplace of Rouen.

In Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927), a mob attempts to execute a woman (actually a robot in the guise of a woman) by burning at the stake. In The Wicker Man (1973) a British Police Sergeant, after a series of tests to prove his suitability, is burned to death by the local population in a remote island off the Scottish coast inside a giant wicker cage in the shape of a man for two reasons: to assure the following year's crop harvest, and the policeman's entering heaven as a martyr. In the film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose (1986), the innocent simpleton Salvatore (Ron Perlman) is seen to die horribly, burnt at the stake. The fate was suffered by Oliver Reed's less innocent character Urbain Grandier in Ken Russell's The Devils (1971). In 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992), several people are shown being burned at the stake.

The Last of the Mohicans (1992) features a British officer being burned at the stake by a Huron tribe, although he is shot dead by the protagonist Hawkeye/Nathaniel Poe before the flames could do further harm.

  • In The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), an innocent gypsy woman Esmeralda is nearly burned at the stake after she refuses to marry Frollo, but rescued by the hunchback Quasimodo.
  • Elizabeth (1998) used computer graphics to enhance the opening scene where three Protestants (possibly Rogers, Latimer and Ridley) are burned at the stake.
  • In the original Broadway musical and its 2007 film adaption, the eponymous antihero of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street throws his partner in crime Mrs. Lovett into an oven, used for turning Todd's victims into meat pies for public consumption, for having lied to him and leading him to believe that his beloved wife Lucy was dead.
  • The Hills Have Eyes (2006) graphically portrays a man being burned to death while tied to a tree. In Final Destination 3 (2006), two teenage girls become trapped in overheating tanning beds and are burned to death when fires erupt.
  • Silent Hill (2006) depicts death by burning as a punishment in two separate scenes.
  • In the film adaptation of Angels and Demons (2009), the third of four kidnapped cardinals is burned to death; later in the film the main villain commits self-immolation in St Peter's Basilica.
  • In the film Sherlock Holmes (2009), a scene graphically portrays a United States ambassador (surnamed Standish) erupting in flames after shooting his gun, before jumping out of the window and falling into a carriage below in a vain attempt to extinguish the flames. The cause is later revealed to be a flammable liquid raining on Standish, who mistakes it for rain, combined with a spark from a rigged bullet in his gun.
  • In Friday the 13th (2009 film), one of Jason's victims is strung up by rope over a campfire in her sleeping bag and begins to burn while screaming.
  • In "Saw: The Final Chapter" (2010), a woman is sealed inside a Brazen Bull replica and slowly burned alive after her husband fails to save her from her trap while he watches in horror.
  • The film Black Death (2010) includes scenes of death by fire associated with a knight of the military orders who is assigned to witch hunting.
  • The movie-within-a-movie in Even the Rain shows Christopher Columbus's forces burning Taíno leader Hatuey at the stake for his resistance to their colonization of Hispaniola.

See also


External links

  • List of deaths by fire throughout history

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