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Death by Fire: Burning Practices throughout History I

From ancient Greek and Roman times to witch hysteria in Massachusetts, burning as a form of punishment has been used for many years throughout history. Whether placed in a contraption specialized for death or strapped to a stake, this article will mention some of the historical instances that fire was used as a method of execution.

Roasting in the Brazen Bull

One way that the Greek tyrant named Phalaris (of Akragas in Sicily) punished his enemies would be to burn them alive in a brazen bull , a method of torture that involved placing a victim inside of a hollowed bull made out of bronze. A door was placed on one side and the condemned were locked inside. A fire was set under the bull, which heated the metal to the point that it turned yellow with heat. A workman designed this method of torture specifically for Phalaris. It was actually constructed so that when the victims screamed , they sounded like a bull was roaring. When the workman asked for his reward for creating such a thing, he became the first victim and was executed in his own brazen bull.

The ancient Romans and Greeks used fire and burning as a popular method of execution. For example, Roman authorities used this approach as a way to persecute early Christian martyrs. One of the ways they killed their victims was to use a ‘flammable tunic’ (called tunica molesta). A shirt was soaked in flammable substances and then worn by the victim. According to Seneca, the Roman emperor Nero is known to have executed some Christians in this manner.

Witchcraft Hysteria in Salem, Massachusetts

It wasn’t until the beginning of 1692 (three years after the first execution for witchcraft in Salem, Massachusetts) that an outbreak of witchcraft accusations came to light. Two girls (one nine years old and the other 11) started to act in the same manner as the Goodwin children. Others in the Salem community join in. A doctor is called to take a look at the girls and he initially believes that witchcraft is behind their behavior. The girls feel the pressure to name the witch that has ‘placed a spell over them.’ They come up with a maid named Tituba and two others , Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne.

Other women (and men) would become a part of the mass hysteria that caused the naming of many others, who died for being suspected witches.

Tribes in North America

Native American tribes in North America were known to use burning as a form of execution. At times, they would use the method to punish members from other tribes, while the practice was also used against white settlers during the 18th and 19th centuries. It was commonplace to slowly roast a victim over an open fire.