Burning at the stake was a form of execution practiced at least as far back as Babylonia and ancient Israel. Treason, heresy, and witchcraft were among the crimes for which this choice of capital punishment was most often used. Death by fire was a slow and excruciating execution. Occasionally, if a large fire was built, the victim would succumb to asphyxiation before the flames touched his or her skin. Most often suffering was part of the plan; therefore the fire was deliberately made small. In this situation, death could take up to an hour and would usually result from loss of blood or heatstroke.
Various methods are known to have been used for burning people at the stake. In one, the stake would be driven into the ground and the prisoner would be fastened with chains or iron hoops. The stake would then be surrounded by a low pile of burning wood. The second method, popular with witch burnings, was be to hang the prisoner from the stake and pile the wood high enough so that observers could not see his or her face as it burned. Another method was to tie the prisoner to a ladder that was suspended on a frame over the fire.
The Japanese practiced a brutal variation of burning at the stake. The prisoner was hung upside down by his/her feet, with his/her head inside a pit. A platform enclosed the prisoner’s neck and the fire would be built on top of that platform. This method kept the head from the smoke and fire, prolonging the agony and postponing death for as long as possible. Burning was the capital punishment the Old Testament often recommended for crimes pertaining to sexual misconduct. A few of the Bible verses on this issue include:
Genesis: Tamar, thy daughter-in-law, hath played the harlot; and moreover, behold, she is with child by whoredom. And Judah said, Bring her forth, and let her be burned.
Leviticus: If the daughter of any priest… profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.
Leviticus: If a man takes a wife and her mother, it is wickedness; they shall be burned with fire, both he and they; that they be no wickedness among you.
Sadly, this barbaric method of punishment was used to some degree, all over the world, for more than a millennium after the Old Testament was written. Burning at the stake was used by Christians and non-Christians alike. The fourth-century writer, Eusebius of Caesarea recorded the scene of a death sentence handed out by the emperor Maximian. Maximian was a zealous pagan with no tolerance for Christians. The victim was a man named Apphianus (also known as Amphianus), who had converted to Christianity. According to Eusebius, Apphianus’ feet were first wrapped in cotton that was soaked with oil, then set on fire. In his words:
The martyr was hung up at a great height, in order that, by this dreadful spectacle, he might strike terror into all those who were looking on, while at the same time they tore his sides and ribs with combs, till he became one mass of swelling all over, and the appearance of his countenance was completely changed. And, for a long time, his feet were burning in a sharp fire, so that the flesh of his feet, as it was consumed, dropped like melted wax, and the fire burst into his very bones like dry reeds.
In 1307 France, a sect called the Templars was suppressed and many of their knights were burned at the stake. This action seemed to trigger an obsession with witchcraft throughout the country. By 1350, 1,000 people had been prosecuted for witchcraft and 600 of those had been sentenced to burn. In 1401, Henry IV signed the Statute of Heresy, which gave the clergy the power to arrest anyone they believed to be guilty of heresy, which is any religious opinion contrary to the current, popular church dogma. Those who refused to recant were burned at the stake.
Perhaps one of the most infamous cases occurred in 1431, when Joan of Arc was charged with witchcraft and heresy and was publicly burned at the stake. Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Mary I (Bloody Mary), ordered at least 274 Protestants burned for heresy. One of Mary’s many victims was Dr. John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, who, in 1555, was burned in front of 7,000 spectators. An eyewitness, Henry Moore, wrote about the event in his book The History of the Persecutions of the Church of Rome and Complete Protestant Martyrology. Some of what he had to say follows:
At length, by renewing of the fire, his strength was gone, and his hand fastened in the iron which was put round him. Soon after, the whole lower part of his body being consumed, he fell over the iron that bound him, into the fire, amidst horrible yells and acclamations of the bloody crew that surrounded him. This holy martyr was more than three quarters of an hour consuming…
Death by burning was a popular method of execution during the Spanish Inquisition. The first Inquisition, established by Pope Gregory IX in 1231, primarily took place in northern Italy and southern France. The second, more well-known Spanish Inquisition was sanctioned by Pope Sixtus IV in 1478 at the request of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. By some estimates, the number of victims burned during the second Spanish Inquisition ran into the hundreds of thousands. The majority of victims seemed to have been women. Children were also frequently burned along with their parents when found to be heretics.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appointed the Dominican Tomas de Torquemada as their Inquisitor-General. During his fifteen-year career as head of the Inquisition, Tomas de Torquemada was personally responsible for burning more than 2,000 people at the stake. His targets were mainly non-Christians and recent converts.
One particularly gruesome ritual during the Spanish Inquisition was the Auto-da-Fe (Act of Faith). This ritual took place on Sundays, as well as other holy days, when large crowds were available to attend. People who were considered heretics were secretly rounded up on the prior evening and brought to the inquisition panel. These supposed heretics were then tortured until they either confessed or died from their injuries.
On occasion, the panel would spare an individual who asked to be reconciled with the church. That person would then have to endure the penance of being whipped half-naked through the city streets on six successive Fridays. Heretics who either refused to reconcile or who had relapsed were sentenced to public burning.
The following is taken from a spectator’s rather disturbing and all too visual account of one burning during the Middle Ages:
You could see the white bones showing through as the skin and flesh of the man slowly dragged itself away from the skeleton and fell, in a pink and orange and red-raw curtain, down towards his feet, which were festooned with flames. Further in-depth description is followed by: Thousands of spectators watched these burnings and it could take three-quarters of an hour to die.
In 1629, Burgstadt Germany burned 77 of its 3,000 citizens for witchcraft.
Colonial America also did its share of burning at the stake. In 1741, 29 black and 4 white people were sentenced to death for the crime of conspiring to burn down the city of New York. Of those 33 individuals, 22 were hanged and 11 were burned at the stake. Unfortunately, burning is still used in some areas of the world. South Africa and Haiti at times execute prisoners using a method called necklacing. Necklacing is done by forcing a rubber tire, filled with gasoline, around the prisoner’s chest and arms. The tire is then set on fire, causing the rubber to melt into the victim’s flesh.
In the late 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals were executed by burning alive in Pyongyang, North Korea. In 2006, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq, at least 400 women were burned alive. And in the first half of 2007, in Kurdistan, Iraq, approximately 200 women suffered the same fate.