Execution has been a common punishment throughout the world since the Middle Ages, and was inflicted for a large number of crimes including petty offenses involving property. In England, during the 18th century, death was the punishment for several hundred specific offenses. Most death sentences also involved torture, such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, and slow strangulation.
Such severe punishment and torture began to die out in the 18th century when a democratic political philosophy and humanitarian movement grew in strength. The number of offenses punishable by death was reduced in all leading countries. Also, penalties involving torture disappeared with the idea that punishment and death should be swift and humane, whether by guillotine, hanging, the garotte, or the headman's axe.
A trend also began to develop in which life imprisonment was a suitable alternative punishment to death.
Burning at the Stake
Burning at the stake was a popular death sentence and means of torture, used mostly for heretics, witches, and suspicious women. Burning dates back to the Christian era, where, in 643, an edict declared it illegal to burn witches.
However, the increased persecution of witches throughout the centuries resulted in millions of women being burned at the stake. The first major witch-hunt occurred in Switzerland in 1427. Throughout the 1500 and 1600's, witch trials became common throughout Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and Spain during the Inquisition.
Soon after, witch trials began to decline in parts of Europe, and in England the death penalty for witches was abolished. The last legal execution by burning at the stake came with the end of the Spanish Inquisition in 1834.
The wheel as a method of torture and execution could be used in a number of ways. A person could be attached to the outer rim of the wheel and then rolled over sharp spikes, or down a hill, to their death.
Also, the wheel could be laid on its side, like a turntable, with the person tied to it. The wheel would turn, and people would take turns beating the victim with iron bars, breaking bones and eventually causing death.
This method was used throughout Europe, especially during the Middle Ages.
The guillotine became a popular form of execution in France in 1789, when Dr. Joseph Guillotin proposed that all criminals be executed by the same method and that torture should be kept to a minimum. Decapitation was thought to be the least painful and most humane method of execution at the time.
Guillotin suggested that a decapitation machine be built, which was subsequently named after him. The machine was first tested on sheep and calves, and then on human corpses. Finally, after many improvements and trials, the blade was perfected, and the first execution by guillotine took place in 1792. It was widely used during the French Revolution, where many of the executions were held publicly outside the prison of Versailles.
The last public execution by guillotine was held in France, in June 1939. The last official use came in 1977 in France, and the device has not officially been used since.
Hanging and the Garotte
Hanging was a popular way of both executing and torturing a person, with many devices available to aid in the procedure. The prisoner could simply be hanged with a noose, fracturing the neck. However, if torture was to be inflicted, many methods were available. Often, a person would be drawn and quartered before being hanged. For extremely serious crimes such as high treason, hanging alone was not enough. Therefore, a prisoner would be carved into pieces while still alive before being hanged.
The Garotte was also a popular method of torture, and similar to hanging. A mechanical device such as a rack or a gag would be tightened around the person's neck, causing slow strangulation, stretching, and obstruction of blood vessels. A device could also be placed in a prisoner's mouth and kept in place by tying and locking a chain around his or her neck.
This form of execution was quite popular in Germany and England during the 16th and 17th centuries, where decapitation was thought to be the most humane form of capital punishment. An executioner, usually hooded, would chop off the person's head with an axe or sword. The last beheading took place in 1747, and the axe used is on display at the Tower of London.
Today, with a greater interest in humanitarianism, capital punishment has become less gruesome than the beheadings and torture that were commonplace centuries before. Lethal injection, electrocution, and lethal gas have become the preferred methods of execution in the United States, mostly because these methods appear to be less offensive to the public, and more humane for the prisoner.