A History of Punishments

By Tim Lambert


Since Ancient Times forcing an offender to leave his home and go abroad or to another region either permanently or for a fixed period has been used as a punishment.


Bastinado was beating a person on the soles of their feet with a stick. Because the soles of the feet are vulnerable it was very painful. Bastinado was commonly used in parts of Asia.


Beheading is another ancient method of punishment. Beheading with a sword or an axe may have been more merciful than hanging but that was not always the case. Sometimes several blows were needed to sever the person’s head. In England, beheading was normally reserved for the high-born. The last person to be beheaded with a sword in England was Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat in 1747. In 1820 five men convicted of treason were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. But the full sentence was not carried out. They were hanged until they were dead then beheaded with an axe.


This punishment meant beating a person across the backside with a bundle of birch rods. Until the 19th century, it was a common punishment in schools. In the 19th century and early 20th centuries, it could also be imposed by the courts as a punishment for certain offences. Birching as a punishment for civilians was abolished in Britain in 1948. However, it was still used in prisons. The birch was last used in a British prison in 1962. It was abolished in 1967.


In England a law of 1531 allowed poisoners to be boiled alive. In 1531 a cook called Richard Roose was boiled alive. A woman in Kings Lynn who poisoned her employer suffered the same fate in the same year, 1531. And in 1542 a woman called Margaret Davy was boiled alive. However, the law was repealed in 1547.


Branding people with red-hot irons is a very old punishment. In Britain branding was abolished in 1829.

Breaking on the Wheel

This was a punishment especially common in France and Germany although it was also used in other parts of Europe. The condemned man was tied to a wheel and the executioner then used an iron bar or hammer to break each arm and leg in several places.

Sometimes a blow to the chest or strangulation was used to end the man’s agony but he could be left to die of thirst. Breaking on the wheel was abolished in Germany in 1827.


Burning is a very old method of killing people. In 1401 a law in England made burning the penalty for heresy. In the 16th century during the reign of Mary (1553-1558), nearly 300 Protestants were burned to death in England. In the 16th and 17th centuries ‘witches’ in England were usually hanged but in Scotland and most of Europe they were burned. In the 18th century in Britain, women found guilty of murdering their husbands were burned (although they were usually strangled with a rope first).

However, burning as a punishment was abolished in Britain in 1790. Sometimes a person about to be burned was strangled with a rope first to spare them pain.

Cactus needles

Among the Aztecs, children were punished by having cactus needles forced into their skin.


Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. In the 16th century, boys were often punished by being hit with bundles of birch twigs. In the 19th century hitting boys (and girls) with a bamboo cane became popular. In the 20th century, the cane was used in both primary and secondary schools.

However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the cane was abolished in most primary schools. In England, in 1987 the cane was abolished in state-funded secondary schools. It was abolished in private schools in 1999


This was a Chinese punishment. It was a wooden board locked around the prisoner’s neck. He could not reach his mouth with his arms and so could not feed himself or drink without help.

Cold Shower

In the 20th century in some schools forcing a child to have a cold shower was used as a punishment.


The crank was a handle that convicts had to turn again and again. Normally the prisoner had to turn the handle thousands of times before he could eat. It was hard and very monotonous work. The crank was abolished in British prisons in 1898.


The condemned man carried the cross beam of the cross to the site of execution. His arms were tied or nailed to it and the crosspiece was tied or nailed to a pole. Under the person’s, feet was a block of wood to make sure their weight did not tear their hands from the nails. The person’s feet were also nailed to the cross. To add to the person’s suffering they experienced thirst in the hot sun and their sweat attracted flies and other insects.

Death was eventually caused by asphyxiation as it became more and more difficult to breathe. Death could take days although sometimes it was hastened by breaking the person’s legs. Crucifixion was banned in the Roman Empire in 337 AD.


Although drowning is an obvious method of killing people it was seldom used as a method of execution. The Roman writer Tacitus said that the Germanic peoples drowned cowards in fens under piles of sticks. The Anglo-Saxons also sometimes used drowning as a punishment. In the Middle Ages, drowning was sometimes used to punish murder. In England, in the 13th century, it was enacted that anybody who committed murder on the king’s ships would be tied to their victim’s body and thrown into the sea to drown.

Drowning was occasionally used in Europe through the following centuries. It was revived in the French Revolution in Nantes by a man named Jean Baptiste Carrier as a convenient way of killing large numbers of people. They were loaded into vessels with trap doors, which were then sunk.

Ducking Stool

The ducking stool was a seat on a long wooden arm. Women who were convicted of ‘scolding’ and sometimes also of brawling were tied to the seat and then ducked into the local pond or river. (Scolding meant more than just nagging it meant harassing people by slandering them or using abusive language). The last woman to be ducked in England suffered the punishment in 1809. In 1817 another woman was sentenced to be ducked but fortunately, the water level was too low to immerse her.

However in early 19th-century textile mills in Britain lazy children sometimes had their heads ducked in a container of water.

Dunce’s Cap

In the 19th century, low-ability children were often humiliated by being forced to wear a conical hat with a ‘D’ on it. It was called a dunce’s cap.

Electric Chair

In the late 19th century it occurred to people that electricity could be used to kill. It was first used in the USA in 1890 when a man named William Kemmler was executed. Unfortunately, his death was not quick. Nevertheless, the electric chair became a popular method of execution in the USA. The first woman executed in the electric chair was Martha Place in 1899.


Forcing people to pay money is an obvious method of punishment and it has been used since Ancient Times.

Firing Squad

Firing squads became common once guns were accurate enough. However, firing squads were usually used as a military, not a civilian punishment. Yet in the USA Gary Gilmore was famously executed by firing squad in 1977.


Garroting was a form of strangulation. Often it was carried out using a metal collar attached to a post, which was tightened around the person’s neck. Garroting was once used in Spain.

Gas Chamber

The gas chamber was first used in the USA in 1924. The condemned person is strapped to a chair in a sealed room, which is then filled with cyanide gas. After their death, powerful fans remove the gas.


In the days of sailing ships, a punishment for minor offenses was to tie a sailor’s hands above his head and pour buckets of water down his sleeves. By Napoleonic times this was known as grampussing because the man made a noise like a grampus, a sea mammal.


The French Revolution is notorious for its use of the guillotine. Mechanical devices for beheading people had been used in various parts of Europe for centuries before the French Revolution. (One was recorded in Ireland as early as 1307).

Joseph-Ignace Guillotin (1738-1814) proposed that there should be a swift and humane method of executing people in France. The French Assembly agreed to his idea in 1791 and the first decapitating device was built by a man named Tobias Schmidt, with advice from a surgeon named Antoine Louis. The first person to be executed by the new machine was Nicolas Jacques Pelletier in 1792.

The guillotine was last used in France in 1977. The French abolished capital punishment in 1981.


Hanging was a very common method of execution in England from Saxon times until the 20th century.

At first, the criminal stood on a ladder, which was pulled away, or on a cart, which was moved. From the 18th century, he stood on a trapdoor. Sometimes the hanged man broke his neck when he fell but until the 19th century, he was usually strangled by the rope. The last public hanging in Britain took place in 1868. Then in 1908 hanging was abolished for people under the age of 16. In 1933 the minimum age for hanging was raised to 18.

The last woman to be hanged in Britain was Ruth Ellis in 1955. The last people to be hanged in Britain were two men who were hanged on the same day in 1964.

In Britain, the death penalty for murder was abolished for an experimental period of 5 years in 1965. It was abolished permanently in 1969. In 1998 it was abolished for treason and piracy with violence. In 1999 the British Home Secretary signed the 6th protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights, formally ending capital punishment in the UK.

Hanging, Drawing, and Quartering

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century this was the punishment in England for treason. The exact details of the procedure varied but normally the prisoner was drawn on a wooden pulled by a horse to the place of execution. They were hanged but not until they were dead. (In those days the drop was not long enough to break the prisoner’s neck, instead, he was strangled by the rope).

The executioner cut the prisoner open and removed his entrails. Finally, the prisoner was beheaded and his body was cut into quarters. The last case was in 1820 but the full procedure was not carried out. Instead, 5 men were hanged and then beheaded. Hanging, drawing, and quartering was formally abolished in 1870.

Hard Labour

Prisoners could be sentenced to hard physical work as well as imprisonment. However hard labor was abolished in Britain in 1948.


This was an old military punishment. The prisoner was made to sit on a wooden ‘horse’ with his legs on either side and his arms tied behind his back. Weights were tied to his legs.


Before 1776 prisoners from Britain were sometimes transported to the North American colonies. However, in that year the colonies rebelled so the British government began to use old ships as prisons. They were called hulks. From 1787 prisoners were transported to Australia but prisoners were often held on hulks before they were transported. During the Napoleonic Wars, French prisoners of war were also held on hulks. Hulks were abolished in 1857.

Inhalation of Smoke

In Aztec society, naughty children were sometimes punished by having their heads held over a fire containing chilies and being forced to inhale the smoke.


This was an old Scottish punishment. A metal collar, which was secured to a wall with a chain, was fastened around the criminal’s neck.

Keel Hauling

This was first recorded in the 16th century. In the Dutch navy, keelhauling meant dropping a man into the sea and then hauling him under the keel of the ship with a rope. Barnacles would cut his skin to shreds and there was the possibility of drowning.

Lethal Injection

Lethal injection was first used as a method of execution in the USA in 1982. It became the most common method of execution in that country.


Lingchi, sometimes called death by a thousand cuts was a Chinese punishment from the 7th century till 1905. The prisoner was tied to a post so he could not move. The executioner then cut small pieces of flesh off the prisoner until he expired. Usually, once the prisoner was dead he was beheaded and dismembered.


Many English villages had a bare cell called a lock-up where drunkards were detained.


Mutilation included blinding, cutting off hands, ears, and noses, or cutting out the tongue. In the Ancient World, the Assyrians often punished people by cutting off their ears, lips, or nose. In Saxon England and through the Middle Ages mutilation was used as a punishment for stealing or poaching. In the 16th and 17th centuries cutting off the ears was used as a punishment in England.


Sometimes in the bottom of a dungeon was a pit into which prisoners were lowered. It was called an oubliette. The name comes from the French word oublier meaning to forget because the unfortunate prisoner was forgotten.

Picket or Piquet

This was a military punishment common in the 17th century. The prisoner was hung by his wrist and one foot was placed on a pointed but not sharp wooden stake. Soon his wrist would become very tired and the temptation was to support his weight on the pointed stake, which was very painful. The picket died out in the 18th century because it made it difficult for the soldier to march afterward.

Picking Oakum

Ships ropes covered in tar were called oakum. In the 19th century, the rope was pulled apart by hand and recycled. Oakum was picked by convicts and people in workhouses. It may not sound like hard work but it made fingers bleed and blister. Convicts and workhouse inmates were made to pick oakum because it was such unpleasant work.

Pillory and Stocks

The pillory was a wooden frame on a pole with holes through which a person’s head and hands were placed. The frame was then locked and the person was subjected to humiliation and ridicule. Sometimes people also threw unpleasant objects at the person in the pillory.

The stocks was a wooden frame with holes through which a person’s feet were placed and they were humiliated in the same way. The use of the pillory and stocks went out of favor in the 19th century. The pillory was abolished in Britain in 1837 and the stocks were last used in 1872.


Taken orally poison has rarely been used as a method of execution. Nevertheless, the great Greek philosopher Socrates was forced to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.


In England, if a person refused to plead guilty or not guilty to a crime they were pressed. A wooden board was placed on their body and stone or iron weights were added until the person agreed to plead – or died. The last man to be pressed to death in England died in Horsham, Sussex in 1735.


Before the 19th century prisons were not commonly used as a punishment. Instead, people were often held in prisons until their trial. The sentence was usually execution or some form of corporal punishment. However, prisons were very dirty and extremely overcrowded. Diseases were rife and being sent to prison was often a death sentence because they were so unhygienic. Many prisoners died of typhus, which was called goal fever.

In the 19th century sanitary conditions in prisons became much better but the regime was very harsh. Convicts were made to do tedious and pointless tasks like turning a handle over and over again.

Public Execution

Until the 19th century, a popular day out was going to watch a public execution. It was free entertainment. The last public execution in Britain was in 1868.


This was a variation of burning. In 1417 a man named John Oldcastle was hung in chains over a fire and roasted to death as a punishment for heresy.


Until the late 20th century the ruler was a punishment commonly used in primary schools. The teacher hit the child on the hand with a wooden ruler.

Scold’s Bridle

Women convicted of ‘scolding’ were sometimes punished with the scold’s bridle. (Scolding meant more than just nagging. It meant harassing your neighbours by slandering them or using abusive language). This was a metal frame placed over a woman’s head. It had a bit that stuck in her mouth to prevent her from talking. The scold’s bridle or branks was used in Scotland in the 16th century and was used in England from the 17th century. It was last used in Britain in 1824.


In the Ancient World slaves were usually prisoners of war or their descendants. However, in the Roman Empire, certain crimes could be punished by being made a slave.


Slipper is a euphemism. Normally it was a trainer or a plimsoll. Teachers (usually PE teachers) used a trainer to hit children on the backside.


This is a simple method of executing people. A crowd throws stones at the condemned person until he or she is dead. It was common in the Middle East in Bible times and it was still used in the region in the 21st century.


In the early 19th century in textile mills, lazy children were hit with leather straps. In the 20th century, the leather strap was used in some English schools. Children were either hit across the hands or the backside.


In hot countries, a sweatbox was a cramped cell where the prisoner would sweat until he felt the effects of dehydration.


The tawse was a punishment used in Scottish schools. It was a leather strap with two or three tails. It was used in Scotland to hit a child’s hand.


Transportation was merciful compared to hanging. It was also a convenient way of ridding Britain of criminals. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, people were transported to the colonies in North America. However, the American Revolution of 1776 brought that to an end. So from 1787 convicts were transported to Australia. Transportation ended in 1868.


The treadmill was invented in 1817 and was soon introduced to many British prisons. It was hard and very boring work. It was abolished in British prisons in 1898.


Whipping has been a common punishment since ancient times. Jesus was flogged before he was crucified. In England from the Middle Ages, whipping was a common punishment for minor crimes. In the 18th century whipping or flogging was also a common punishment in the British army and navy. However, it was abolished in the army and navy in 1881.

In Britain whipping women was made illegal in 1820. In 1862 the courts could sentence men to either whipping or birching (see above). In the early 20th century whipping as a punishment was gradually replaced by birching (see above).

In the USA whipping was last used as a punishment in Delaware in 1952 when a man was sentenced to 20 lashes. Delaware was the last state to abolish whipping as a punishment, in 1972.


This was a military punishment. It was a wooden cage on a pivot. The prisoner was shut inside and then it was spun around until the prisoner became nauseous and vomited.

Wooden Spoon

In the 20th century, many parents used a wooden spoon to hit children. Other implements used included slippers and hairbrushes.

Last revised 2024