What are the Most Brutal Torture Methods Ever?
There’s a scene in Game of Thrones where Viserys, a man not exactly well known for his moral compass, gets his arm snapped by a couple of Khal Drogo’s bare-chested men. He shouts, “Ah! No, no! You cannot touch me. I am the dragon, I am the dragon. I want my crown!”
And a crown he gets, although it’s not what he really wanted. A bunch of gold is quickly heated up and melted, and his sister, Daenerys, who’s also there, is told to look away. This aint gonna be pretty. The incredibly hot liquid gold is then poured over his head. He didn’t look too good after that.
What you might not know is this scene was partly based on real life. Death by molten metal was a terrible punishment, and as you’ll see today, it happened all over the place.
Fact or Fiction? Worst Punishments in the History
Ok, so some of you are calling BS on this one, but we guess you have never heard of the Battle of Tucapel. This took place in the town of Tucapel in Chile on December 25, 1553, and was fought between the Spanish conquistador, Pedro de Valdivia, and the indigenous Mapuche people.
As you can understand, the Mapuche folks weren’t too pleased about the Spanish coming over and trying to run things and steal all their gold. To cut a long story short, there was a war, the Arauco War, and at some point in that war, the Mapuche forces tried to take the Tucapel fort where the Spanish had a stronghold.
The Indians, who by that time had learned a thing or two about war tactics from the Spanish, killed just about every Spaniard. Valdivia, who of course had the best horse, got away. Everyone else was killed. Still, his horse didn’t much like the thick bog it walked into, and that was the end of the getaway. The Indians got hold of Valdivia and he was brought before the leaders.
Now, what kind of horrific punishment should be the order of the day for a damned conquistador that had brutalized a people? Well, a mere decapitation wouldn’t do, would it?
Differing accounts | Worst Punishments in the History
There are some different tales as to what actually happened, but as a man once famously said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Did Valdivia offer the Indians a bunch of animals and promise to leave their land only to get his arms lopped off? Maybe. Were those arms roasted and eaten in front of him? Perhaps. Was he tortured for three days which ended with him getting his heart pulled out and eaten by the Mapuche leaders? Possibly.
A more believable take
But we’d like to believe a story told by another conquistador at the time, Pedro Mariño de Lobera, a story that was very popular in Chile in those days. It goes that since the Spanish were so desperate to have all that Chilean gold, they could bloody well have it. Well, at least some. It was melted down and given to Valdivia via his throat.
Before we tell how this would have gone down and how it might have felt, let’s see if there are other instances in history of a person getting a bucket of molten gold thrown down their neck.
You’re in luck viewers because we found another story.
The tale of Valerian | Worst Punishments in the History
This story is about a Roman Emperor that ran things back in the mid-200s. His name was Valerian, and it’s said he didn’t exactly root for the Christians. In fact, he demanded that the Christian clergy kill their own flock to propitiate the Roman Gods. Under Valerian, just about anyone talking about one big omniscient God that created everything, suffered.
A Christian writer back then named Lactantius wrote about Valerian, saying that after he was roundly beaten by Shapur, the king of Persia, he was subjected to years of humiliating treatment. For one thing, he became a human footstool for the king. Let’s remember that the Persians along with the Romans were predisposed to torturing their enemies in the most horrific ways. They invented scaphism for God’s sake, or at least according to the ancient Greeks.
So, as the story goes, Valerian offered all kinds of goodies to the king for his release, but old Shapur, like the Terminator, couldn’t be bargained with. The ancient Iranian already had enough gold and silver and whatever else Valerian could offer, so instead of making a deal, he gave his people a treat.
Ok, so one version has it that Shapur merely flayed Valerian and had his skin stuffed with straw so his body could sit in a temple like a very well-made piñata. There’s another story that Valerian was released after some amount of tactful negotiations, but we’d like to believe the tale that he was killed by being forced to swallow molten gold.
As for the person that pretty much put an end to Christian persecution in the Roman Empire, Constantine the Great, he was also said to approve of death by molten metal. He might have created some new laws that weren’t quite as brutal as his predecessors’ laws, but he didn’t exactly embrace human rights full-on. He’d read Christian texts, so he had a thing about sexual purity.
That’s why he created a new edict, one which was about slave girls and women being stolen by men. Those girls were under the protection of chaperones, women called nurses, who were supposed to protect the slaves from being abducted. The law came under the “raptus” statutes, a word related to seizing something without permission. This could mean forcing a slave to have sex or bride kidnapping.
Inscribed into law
Constantine had it written into law that if a chaperone should help with this kind of activity, she should have molten lead, not gold, poured down her throat. It was also decreed that any man forcing himself on a girl should be burned at the stake, and any slave girl who willingly ran off with a guy should also be burned.
This is what he wrote in one edict:
“And since often the watchfulness of parents is frustrated by the stories and wicked persuasions of nurses, these nurses first of all, whose service is proved to have been hateful and whose talk is proved to have been bought, this punishment shall threaten: that the opening of their mouth and of their throat, which brought forth destructive encouragements, shall be closed by the swallowing of molten lead.”
Ok, so there are umpteen historical texts that say this happened, so now we should ask what it would have felt like or at least how the person would have died.
The molten gold executions
We are in luck here, because after a bunch of modern scientists from the Netherlands heard the story of the 1599 case of a Spanish governor in Ecuador dying this way, again because he upset the locals, they investigated the matter. They wrote what you’ve already heard, that these punishments were reserved for the gold-hungry Spaniards as a symbolic kind of execution.
The story of the governor says that soon after he swallowed the gold his internal organs burst. The scientists wrote in a paper, “The question remains whether this is actually the case and, also, what the cause of death would be.”
We’d test this ourselves at the Infographics Show, but we are too stingy to spare any of our gold, but luckily the Dutch academics did a test for us. They took the larynx from a cow. The cow was already dead, a casualty of human steak consumption.
They then took the larynx and stood it upright, and instead of using molten gold they heated up some lead to 450 degrees and used that. Tissue paper was shoved into the bottom so there was a kind of end to the larynx.
In their own words, this is what happened:
“Immediately, large amounts of steam appeared at both ends of the specimen, and the clot of tissue paper was expelled with force by the steam. Within 10 seconds, the lead had congealed again, completely filling the larynx.”
There’s a lot of academic speech in the paper, so we’ll employ laymen’s language here. In conclusion, they said all that steam could rupture the organs, so yes, a good old bursting could definitely have happened when the gold was poured into those victims.
They said that if bursting didn’t occur, then the thermal injury to the lungs would pretty much cause instant death from pulmonary dysfunction and shock. They also said that there is the minute possibility that instant death wouldn’t occur, but then since the liquid would congeal in about 10 seconds, the airways would block, and the person would suffocate in not too many seconds.
A quick but painful death
Therefore, this kind of death in the past would have been over just as the person swallowed the first mouthful of gold. Of course, the initial contact with the mouth would have stung a bit, but as soon as the pain was felt, the person, as Londoners might have once said, would be “brown bread”, dead. By that time, the throat mucus would have been burned off and the muscles would have been cooked.
There is more to this story, though. What if someone just swallowed a tiny bit, a few spoonfuls?
You are in luck again viewers because there is a story about a man that was unfortunate enough to do just that, and guess what, he didn’t immediately die.
Ok, so this wasn’t a punishment, but the story still might serve to give you an idea of what swallowing molten gold might be like.
The story is of a lighthouse keeper named Henry Hall who worked in the picturesque countryside at the southern end of England. On 2 December 1755, he had a bit of a bad day. There was a fire at his lighthouse so he did the right thing and threw water on it, only the fire was above his head.
At one point, he looked up to assess the damage, and molten lead from the roof fell on his poor head. If that wasn’t painful enough, because his mouth was wide open, he swallowed a load of the stuff. These were his exact words, “My God, I’m on fire inside!”
Not surprisingly, he suffered terrible burns over his face, shoulders, and arms. But this was a lighthouse in a very remote area, so Hall was pretty much stuck there. He was fortunate enough in a few days to flag down a passing ship, and later Mr. Hall told a shocked Dr. Henry Spry what had happened.
He swallowed molten lead | Worst Punishments in the History
All this is on record, with Spry writing that Hall said: “with a hoarse voice, scarce to be heard, that melted lead had run down his throat into his body.” The doctor actually didn’t believe Hall’s story, only because he thought, like anyone would, that if you swallowed molten lead, you’d be dead in a matter of seconds, or maybe hours if the serving was small.
Hall was 94 at the time, which was nothing short of a miracle back in the 1700s. For the reason of old age, the doctor said Hall must have lost his mind and that was why he was going on about swallowing lead and fires in his stomach. Spry noted that he didn’t have any other symptoms besides the burns. The doctor was having none of it. A few days later Hall was dead.
An autopsy was performed given Hall’s claims about what had happened. This is what was written in the report:
“The diaphragmatic upper mouth of the stomach greatly inflamed and ulcerated, and the tunica in the lower part of the stomach burnt; and from the great cavity of it took out a great piece of lead … which weighed exactly seven ounces.”
That bit of lead in his stomach is now in a museum, and if you go to a certain pub in Plymouth today, nearby you’ll see a plaque dedicated to the brave Mr. Hall.
Imminent death | Worst Punishments in the History
So, yes, you could swallow some molten metal and survive, but you’d likely end up dying with some of the hardened stuff inside of you. One thing is for sure, if those ancients did perform this kind of groovy execution, they would not be out of pocket, because they could just take the hardened gold back once they’d opened the guy up. For this reason and more, there’s absolutely no reason to think these kind of punishments didn’t exist.
Was molten lead ever a real torture method outside of Constantine’s God-fearing empire?
Well, if you read the Old Testament you might believe that to be true because in Leviticus 20:14 there’s a part about someone being punished for having close relations with both his wife and daughter, i.e, an incestual melange-et-trois. It was the bible that probably inspired Constantine to do the same.
The Biblical link
The Holy Book says that the criminal man was first made to kneel down in a pile of dung, after which a cloth was tied around his throat. The executioners then pulled that cloth tight so the man had no choice but to open his mouth very wide. After that, they poured in the molten lead, thus doing the right thing in the eyes of God by burning the man to death.