Burning at the stake was a form of execution practiced at least since Babylon and ancient Israel. Treason, heresy and witchcraft were among the crimes for which this option of capital punishment was most frequently used. Death by fire was a slow and excruciating execution. Occasionally, if a large fire was lit, the victim succumbed to suffocation before the flames touched their skin. Most of the time, suffering was part of the plan; therefore, the fire was deliberately reduced. In this situation, death could take up to an hour and would usually be the result of blood loss or heat stroke.
Various methods are known to have been used to burn people at the stake. In one, the stake would be driven into the ground and the prisoner would be bound with chains or iron rings. The stake would then be surrounded by a low pile of burning wood. The second method, popular with witch burning, consisted of hanging the prisoner from the stake and stacking the wood high enough so that observers could not see his face as it burned. Another method was to tie the prisoner to a ladder that was suspended from a frame over the fire.
The Japanese practiced a brutal variation of burning at the stake. The prisoner was hung upside down by the feet, his head in a well. A platform enclosed the prisoner’s neck and fire was lit on top of that platform. This method kept the head away from smoke and fire, prolonging the agony and postponing death as long as possible. Burning was the capital punishment that the Old Testament often recommended for crimes related to sexual misconduct. Some of the Bible verses on this topic include:
Genesis: Tamar, your daughter-in-law, prostituted herself; and furthermore, behold, she is pregnant by prostitution. And Judah said: Take it out and let it be burned.
Leviticus: If the daughter of a priest … desecrates herself by acting as a prostitute, she desecrates her father: she will be burned with fire.
Leviticus: If a man takes a wife and his mother, it is iniquity; they will be burned with fire, both he and they; so that there is no evil among you.
Sadly, this barbaric method of punishment was used to some extent, throughout 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 down by Emperor Maximian. Maximian was a jealous pagan who did not tolerate 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 oil-soaked cotton and then set on fire. In his words:
The martyr was hung high, so that, with this hideous spectacle, he would strike terror into all who watched, while at the same time ripping his sides and ribs with combs, into a mass. of swelling all over, and the appearance of her face completely changed. And, for a long time, his feet burned in a sharp fire, so that the flesh of his feet, as it was consumed, fell like melted wax, and the fire broke out in his bones like dried 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 set off an obsession with witchcraft across the country. By 1350, 1,000 people had been tried for witchcraft and 600 of them 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 guilty of heresy, which is any religious opinion contrary to current and popular ecclesiastical 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 accused of witchcraft and heresy and was publicly burned at the stake. Henry VIII’s Catholic daughter, Mary I (Bloody Mary), ordered the burning of at least 274 Protestants 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 onlookers. A witness, Henry Moore, wrote about the event in his book. The history of the persecutions of the Church of Rome and the complete Protestant martyrology. Some of what he had to say next:
At last, as he renewed the fire, his strength failed him and his hand grasped the iron that surrounded him. Soon after, his entire lower body wasted, he fell on the iron that bound him, into the fire, amid horrible shouts and cheers from the bloodied crew around him. This holy martyr consumed more than three quarters of an hour …
Death by burning was a popular method of execution during the Spanish Inquisition. The first Inquisition, established by Pope Gregory IX in 1231, took place mainly in northern Italy and southern France. The second best 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 burned victims during the second Spanish Inquisition amounted to hundreds of thousands. Most of the victims appeared to have been women. Children were also frequently burned along with their parents when they were considered heretics.
King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella appointed the Dominican Tomás de Torquemada as their Inquisitor General. During his fifteen-year career as head of the Inquisition, Tomás de Torquemada was personally responsible for burning more than 2,000 people at the stake. His targets were primarily 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 detained the night before and brought to the panel of the inquisition. These so-called heretics were later tortured until they confessed or died from their injuries.
On occasion, the panel forgave an individual who asked to reconcile with the church. That person would have to endure the penance of being whipped half-naked through the streets of the city on six consecutive Fridays. Heretics who refused to reconcile or who had relapsed were sentenced to public burning.
The following is taken from a rather disturbing and overly visual account of a spectator who burned himself during the Middle Ages:
You could see the white bones peeking out as the man’s skin and flesh slowly drifted away from the skeleton and fell, in a curtain of pink, orange, and red, toward his feet, which were adorned with flames. The more detailed description is followed by: Thousands of spectators saw these burns 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 part at the stake. In 1741, 29 blacks and 4 whites were sentenced to death for the crime of conspiring to set New York City on fire. Of those 33 people, 22 were hanged and 11 burned at the stake. Unfortunately, burning is still used in some areas of the world. On occasion, South Africa and Haiti execute prisoners using a method called collars. The collar is made 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, several North Korean army generals were executed by burning them 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.