Skip to content

15 Historical Torture Methods Designed To Make The Pain Last As Long As Possible


In the rich tapestry that is human history, humankind sure has come up with some imaginative and time-consuming ways to end people. And not just end people, but torture them very, very slowly. The most agonizing forms of torture known to man come from all over the globe and all eras of history. The slowest methods include being skinned alive, “death by 1,000 cuts,” and being dragged underneath a boat. Perhaps the only things they have in common (aside from their general depravity, of course) is that you really, really, don’t want to go out in any of these ways. Check out this list of torture methods that took the longest to actually end people, and learn about a whole category of things you didn’t know you were terrified of.

Photo: Metaweb/GNU Free Documentation License

Keelhauling Used Barnacles To Pull The Skin From A Body

Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Surprising no one, pirates were not afraid to dole out some truly horrendous punishments to seamen behaving badly while at sea. Keelhauling was one of the more gruesome of pirate punishment practices.

While this drawing makes keelhauling look like an awesome pirate game, it was actually the opposite of fun. The crueler alternative to walking the plank, keelhauling involved throwing a person off of a boat with a rope attached to them. As the boat moved, the person would be pulled underneath it, and their body would scrape against the rough, barnacle-covered bottom of the ship.

The process was repeated until the person’s skin was fully scraped off. This was, as you might imagine, often fatal.

The Blood Eagle Suffocated A Person With The Appearance Of Flight

As brutally demonstrated on an episode of the show Vikings, the “blood eagle” was an incredibly tortuous method of execution used by Vikings. A person’s back would be cut open and their ribs would be pulled through the open skin and bent outwards, exposing their lungs and creating “wings.”

It may not have taken years to perish, but however long it was, it probably felt like an eternity.

Lingchi Cutting Made A Victim Slowly Bleed Out

Lingchi is a traditional Chinese method of execution that also goes by the snappy nickname of “death by 1,000 cuts.” In use for 1,000 years, a lingchi recipient would be tied to a pole and then gashed all over their body, and the cuts would just keep coming until they finally bled out. In some cases, the cuts would number over 3,000, and the person’s demise would take three days.

Lingchi was used in China up until the 20th century, and it didn’t always involve simply slashing a victim. It also took the form of live dismemberment.

Photo: Jimmy McIntyre / Flickr / CC-BY-SA 2.0

Scaphism is a brutal ancient Persian method of execution. Also known as “the boats,” a person would be strapped into a narrow boat or hollowed out tree trunk. They would then be forced to ingest milk and honey to the point of sickness – with the goal of actually giving them diarrhea – and extra honey would be poured onto their orifices. The milk, honey, and human excrement attracted bugs while keeping the target alive and prolonging their suffering.

Sometimes, even as their flesh turned gangrenous, targets would be fed on for many days, forcing them to live on and suffer. Eventually, though, the person would perish, usually as a result of blood sepsis or gangrenous infection.

The Judas Cradle Slowly Impaled Through The Anus

Photo: Flominator / Wikipedia / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The Judas cradle was an amazingly simple torture design that could produce some truly horrendous results. Basically, a Judas cradle is a chair – except there’s a large, pointed triangle (facing upward, obviously) where the seat should be. When subjected to this form of torture, a person would be bound and hoisted above the chair using pulleys and ropes. From there, they would be slowly lowered onto the triangle, which would begin to enter either their anus or vagina. If a torturer wanted to increase the pain of the inestimably painful process, they would cover the triangle in oil.

The amount of time it would take to perish differed from person to person. Those who didn’t immediately perish from the process would do so later as a result of infection, as the device was never cleaned between uses.

The Catherine Wheel Made Victims Wish For Decapitation

The “breaking wheel,” also known as the Catherine wheel, was a torture device that sometimes resulted in a person’s demise… if they were lucky. A Catherine wheel victim would be tied to the spokes of the very large wheel, and their bodies would be bent and contorted to match its shape. Once on the wheel, they would be stricken repeatedly in order break every bone in their body.

Once their bones were shattered, they were usually decapitated or had their throats slit, but they were sometimes left alive to suffer in agony.

Rat Torture Allowed Rats To Eat A Person’s Internal Organs

Photo: HBO

This gruesome torture method is scary enough to be have been featured on an episode of Game of Thrones, a show known for the heights to which it’s willing to take a violent scene. Basically, during rat torture, several rats are placed on the stomach of the torture victim. A barrel is then strapped over the rats, trapping them inside. From there, the barrel is set on fire, and in their desperate bid to escape the flames, the rats eat their way through the target’s internal organs.

With their sharp incisors, the rats will gnaw their way all the way through a person’s back.

The Brazen Bull Involved Cooking People Inside A Fake Bull

The brazen bull is an ancient Greek torture device that combines depraved pain infliction with some real artistry and imagination. Attributed to Phalaris, the despot of Acragas, the brazen bull was – as its name states – a large, bronze bull with a hollowed-out center.

Victims of brazen bull torture would be forced inside the bull through a trapdoor on its underside, and a fire would be lit underneath the brass contraption, turning it into a large, human-cooking oven.


Boiling Alive Was One Of Henry VIII’s Fave Slow Torture Methods

A favorite method of King Henry VIII, being boiled alive can be an extremely drawn out process. Although being boiled at a consistently hot temperature for several minutes straight can quickly do the trick, this wasn’t always the method used by torturers. In fact, some boiling involved lowering the liquid to an unbearably hot – but not quite boiling – temperature, torturing the victim.

Also, the liquid used for boiling was totally up to the torturer – oil and water were two favorite options.

Breast Rippers Did Exactly What They Sound Like

Photo: Flominator / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Breast rippers were a special kind of device reserved for the “wickedest” women in medieval Europe. If you were a woman convicted of heresy, adultery, self-inflicted miscarriage, or any of a number of other crimes, then you could expect to be bound to a wall and have your breasts pulled from your body with this device.

Sometimes heated, sometimes left cold, breast rippers were essentially a large set of pincers that would pierce the flesh and slowly tear muscle from bone, marking and mutilating women for their misdeeds.


Immurement Ended Targets Through Claustrophobia And Starvation

Photo: Vinzenz Katzler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Not to be confused with live burial, immurement involves a person being isolated and confined within narrow walls. The person’s demise is caused by starvation, and they must watch as walls are slowly built around them. Immurement has been used across the world, but was used notably in Persia.

One account describes the potentially lengthy event: “The victim is put into the pillar, which is half built up in readiness; then if the executioner is merciful he will cement quickly up to the face, and death comes speedily. But sometimes a small amount of air is allowed to permeate through the bricks, and in this case the torture is cruel and the agony prolonged. Men bricked up in this way have been heard groaning and calling for water at the end of three days.”

Live Burial Is A Tried-And-True Method

Live burial is one of the most widespread, longlasting, and well-documented execution methods in the world. In ancient Egypt, for example, some slaves who were forced to build pyramids were interred alive in the walls of the structures. Live burial was also used throughout Europe from a time before some European countries even existed, and it was a common punishment for heresy in the Holy Roman Empire.

However, this is not the extent of this punishment’s practice; reports of this form of execution also exist from the Nanking Massacre.

Bamboo Impalement Could Be Accomplished In A Matter Of Days

Photo: Moyan_Brenn / flickr / CC-BY 2.0

Bamboo is known for its ability to grow extremely quickly. At some point in history, some sadistic individual had the brilliant idea of turning bamboo’s fast growth into a way of slowly torturing people. Reports of bamboo torture in Ceylon started appearing in the 19th century, and many claim that it was used by the Japanese during WWII, but this has not been proven. Basically, bamboo torture involved letting bamboo grow into – and impale – a person.

A victim would be tied securely to a young bamboo shoot, and, over several days, the plant would enter their body and eventually come out the other side.

Photo: James Tissot / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Probably one of the most infamous methods of prolonged execution in history (thanks to Jesus), crucifixion was widely used in antiquity.

During the process, the target was nailed or tied to a wooden pole. Often, their legs were smashed with clubs, breaking the bones so that they could not hold themselves up. They were then left, usually unclothed, to perish of starvation, loss of bodily fluids, or asphyxiation.