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Execution Methods: Death by Fire

Fire is a powerful element that has been used to sustain, as well as take away life. Throughout history, death by burning has been used as a form of capital punishment. The method is especially tied to many different political and religious highlights in history. In this article, you will learn more about this method of execution that is no longer legally allowed in the United States and other modern countries.  

Burning at the Stake

When you hear about someone burning at the stake, one of the images you may think of is the victims of the Salem Witch Trials. Men and women were accused for committing witchcraft and sentenced to die for their supposed practice. Heresy and treason are other crimes that warranted a sentence of death. Burning at the stake involved tying a person to a large stake and then setting it ablaze. This method of execution was for the most part , abandoned in the late 18th century.

Victims burned at the stake were typically subjected to a small fire. Their body would burn for an amount of time before death came from shock, heatstroke, the loss of blood, or the decomposition of important body parts that had been compromised by the extreme heat. Larger fires meant for groups of prisoners delivered less of a painful death because victims died from carbon monoxide poisoning before the flames physically affected the body.

However, various approaches and modifications were implemented to make sure that victims suffered greatly. Executioners with skill in the matter arranged the body and accelerants so that a progressive punishment took place. First the calves, thighs and hands were burned. The torso and forearms followed. The last body parts to feel the flames were the breasts, upper chest, and then face. Death came soon after.

The lucky died quickly. Some only felt the fire on their calves and died from suffocation. However, some were not as lucky and there death could reportedly have taken more than two hours to die. To make matters worse, some victims had a rope attached to their neck that passed through a rink on the stake. This meant that they were not only burnt, but strangled at the same time.

Salem Witch Trials

One of the most infamous cases that involve people burning at the stake took place in Salem, Massachusetts during the late 1600s. Before the initial breakout, it is the odd behavior of children belonging to the Goodwin family that begin to act strangely. To explain their actions, an Irish washerwoman named Ann Glover (known as ‘Goody Glover’) is accused of witchcraft. The claims of witchcraft led to the trial and execution of the Glover.

To learn about other instances where fire and burning at the stake were used as methods of execution, refer to the articles that highlight burning deaths associated with heresy and treason.