Category Archives: Torture

1677: Londoners burn live cats in wicker pope

medieval cat burning
Like witches, heretics, sodomites and Jews, many cats were burned alive

Our European ancestors really had it in for cats, chiefly because of their association with the devil or witchcraft. Many cats have paid the ultimate price for this superstition. Documents from medieval and early modern Europe describe dozens of cases of cats being burned alive, either for entertainment or religious point-scoring.

Cat burning was particularly common in France, where a dozen live cats were routinely torched in Paris every Midsummer’s Day (late June). English courtier Philip Sidney attended one of these feline infernos in 1572. In his chronicle, Sidney noted that King Charles IX also threw a live fox onto the fire, for added interest.

In 1648, France’s King Louis XIV, then aged just 10, lit the tinder on a large bonfire in central Paris, then watched and danced with glee as a basket of stray cats was lowered into the flames. Live cats were frequently burned alive elsewhere in Europe, particularly at Easter or the period around Halloween.

While cat burning was less common in Britain, a few examples are recorded. One comes from the letters of Englishman Charles Hatton. In November 1677 Hatton wrote to his brother, chiefly about who might be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. He closed his letter by describing a recent celebration to mark the 119th anniversary of Elizabeth I taking the throne.

At the centre of this pageantry, Hatton wrote, was a large wickerwork figure of Pope Innocent XI, an effigy that reportedly cost £40 to make. The wicker pope was paraded through London, then erected in Smithfield and set alight. Inside its baskety innards was a number of live cats:

“Last Saturday the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was solemnised in the city with mighty bonfires and the burning of a most costly pope, carried by four persons in diverse clothing, and the effigies of devils whispering in his ears, his belly filled full of live cats, who squawled most hideously as soon as they felt the fire. The common saying all the while was [the cats’ screeching] was the language of the Pope and the Devil in a dialogue between them.”

According to Charles Hatton, these perverse celebrations were concluded with the opening and distribution of a free barrel of claret.

Source: Letter from Charles Hatton to Christopher Hatton, November 22nd 1677. From Correspondence of the Family of Hatton, vol. 1, 1878. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1905: An unfortunate sailor is flogged “up and under”

sailor birching

In 1891, English social reformer Henry Salt and several friends set up the Humanitarian League. Active for almost 30 years, the League waged energetic campaigns against animal cruelty, including vivisection, slaughterhouse practices, the fur trade, and blood sports like fox-hunting and deer-stalking.

Salt and his collaborators also lobbied for an end to war and militarism, police brutality and corporal punishment in schools, prisons and the military. In the first years of the 20th century, the League demanded an end to corporal punishment in the Royal Navy, particularly its use of “birchings” or “the cuts” (whippings with bundles of twigs). The Navy authorised and carried out hundreds of birchings every year, mostly on young cadets and junior sailors. It was a punishment that combined intense pain and bloodletting with public humiliation and an awkward sexual undertone:

“The offender is strapped hand and foot… over the breech of a small gun, his trousers are allowed to fall below the knees. A broad canvas is passed around the middle of his body, and his clothing is strapped up, leaving thighs and buttocks perfectly nude… The strokes are deliberately delivered on the bare flesh, not in rapid succession but with a slight pause between each stroke, making the torture and agony of as lengthy a duration as possible. With each stroke, the flesh is seen to turn red, blue and black with bruising. After six or eight strokes the skin usually breaks and copious streams of blood trickle down the unhappy victim’s legs… Splinters of broken birch, wet with blood, whizz and fly in all directions – and not infrequently the exuding excrement of the sufferer…”

Between 1900 and 1905 newspaper correspondents argued ad nauseum over the merits of corporal punishment. In a letter to The Times one flag officer, Vice Admiral Penrose Fitzgerald, described the anti-birching campaign as “nonsense”. “British youths have been birched and caned from time immemorial,” said the admiral, “and yet the race has not turned out badly on the whole”.

On the other hand, the public was frequently shocked by graphic accounts of naval birchings and canings. In January 1905 Salt’s journal, The Humanitarian, published an eye-witness account of a Royal Navy birching ‘gone wrong’. When one bircher failed to incite his victim to screams, he became overzealous, aimed ‘up and under’, and landed his birch on a particularly delicate part of the anatomy:

“Towards the completion of the number of strokes, the corporal [carrying out the birching] began to be anxious for his reputation, so he resorted to the unfair and terrible ‘upward’ stroke, but his aim was not true. The poor fellow gave a yell which I shall never forget and fainted at once… Until he had been surgically examined there was no anxiety, but when it was known that no permanent injury had been inflicted, the matter became one for jest among those sufficiently lost to all sense of decency.”

Fortunately, the Humanitarian League’s campaign did have some effect. In 1906 the Royal Navy outlawed the use of the birch, replacing it with a single cane. Under new regulations, canings could only be distributed after a formal hearing and were no longer carried out in public. By the 1930s there were few canings carried out on seagoing ships. Caning continued to be used on young naval trainees until 1967 when it was abolished altogether.

Sources: The Humanitarian, January 1905 and March 1905. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1763: Bengali tax defaulters forced to wear cat pants

Mir Jafar, India’s own Benedict Arnold, sells out to Robert Clive and the British in 1757.

Mir Jafar (1691-1765) was the nawab of Bengal from 1757 until his death in 1765. Mir Jafar was a long-serving and effective Bengali military leader, rising to become commander-in-chief under the popular nawab Siraj ul-Daulah. But by the 1750s, Jafar had become paranoid, inconsistent and power-hungry, possibly a by-product of his worsening opium addiction.

In 1757, Siraj ul-Daulah was threatened and besieged by British East India Company troops. Mir Jafar double-crossed the nawab by holding back his own army and signing a secret agreement with Robert Clive. Siraj ul-Daulah was defeated, captured and executed and Mir Jafar was installed as nawab.

Mir Jafar quickly learned that Clive’s backing came with a heavy price. Faced with constant demands of money from the British, Mir Jafar sought to extract it from the local population. By 1760 tax collection in Bengal could be a brutal affair, both for officials and civilians. Non-payers were starved, denied water, stripped naked and flogged. Tax collectors who failed to fill quotas were strung up by the ankles to have the soles of their feet rubbed raw with a brick.

One of Mir Jafar’s advisors developed his own particularly nasty methods, described in a 1763 Persian account:

“The dewan [bureaucrat] Syed Rezee Khan, whom Jafar appointed to collect government revenues, exceeded his master in cruelty. He ordered a pit to be dug about the height of a man, which was filled with human excrement, in such a state of putrefaction as to be full of worms. The stench was so offensive that it almost suffocated whoever came near it… Syed Rezee Khan, in contempt of the Hindus, called this infernal pit Bickoont [Hindu for ‘paradise’]… Those who failed in their payments, after undergoing the severities before described, were ducked in this pit.

And if that wasn’t bad enough:

“He also obliged them to wear long leather drawers filled with live cats. He would force them to drink buffalo’s milk mixed with salt, till it brought them to death’s door by a diarrhoea. By these means he used to collect the revenues…”

Unsurprisingly, Mir Jafar is still a despised figure on the subcontinent. Most consider him the man who sold out Bengal and opened up the rest of India for British colonisation. The word “mirjafar” is a Bengali insult meaning ‘traitor’. The fate of Mir Jafar’s inventive tax collector, Syed Rezee Khan, is unrecorded.

Source: Francis Gladwin (transl.), A Narrative of the Transactions in Bengal &c., London, 1788. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1709: Virginian gent forces slave to drink “a pint of piss”

William Byrd II, the early 18th century wife-flourisher and slave-torturer

William Byrd II (1674-1744) was a colonial lawyer, diarist and plantation owner, considered by many to be the founder of Richmond, Virginia. Byrd was born in the colonies but educated in Britain, where he studied law and obtained membership of the Royal Society. In 1705, he returned to the colonies after his father’s death.

Back in Virginia, Byrd inherited 1,200 acres, the largest private holding in the area. He also married Lucy Parke, the beautiful daughter of another prominent British colonist. The two were sincerely fond of each other but quarrelled often, after which they generally made love (Byrd religiously recorded their sexual encounters as either “rogering” or “flourishing”).

A staunch traditionalist, Byrd considered himself the lord and master of his plantation. He had no qualms about dispensing immediate and often brutal justice to those who disobeyed or displeased him. This included children, servants, slaves and even animals:

“July 2nd 1720… I took a walk around the plantation and shot an old dog with an arrow for flying at me…”

“July 23rd 1720… Jack told me of some horses that had destroyed a hogshead of tobacco and I gave him orders to shoot them as not being fit to live…”

But probably the worst to suffer from Byrd’s wrath were two of his slaves: a houseboy named Eugene, aged around 11 or 12, and a teenaged maid, Jenny. Byrd’s diary records the dispensation of several punishments:

“February 8th 1709… I ate milk for breakfast. I said my prayers. Eugene and Jenny were whipped. I danced my dance. I read law in the morning and Italian in the afternoon…”

“June 10th 1709… In the evening I took a walk around the plantation. Eugene was whipped for running away and had the bit put on him. I said my prayers and had good health, good thought and good humour…”

“September 3rd 1709… I ate roast chicken for dinner. In the afternoon I beat Jenny for throwing water on the couch…”

“December 1st 1709… Eugene was whipped…”

“December 16th 1709… Eugene was whipped for doing nothing…”

Even more inhumane was Byrd’s response to Eugene having wet his bed:

“December 3rd 1709… Eugene pissed abed again for which I made him drink a pint of piss…”

“December 10th 1709… Eugene had pissed in bed for which I gave him a pint of piss to drink…”

Byrd’s diary does not record whose urine was served up to the unfortunate houseboy.

Source: Diary of William Byrd, 1709-20. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.

1633: Women actors are “notorious whores”

A drawing of William Prynne, right, being reacquainted with his ears

William Prynne (1600-1669) was an English lawyer and writer, famous for his provocative and controversial essays. One of the most Puritan of the Puritans, Prynne was not afraid to take aim at popular conventions, culture or leaders. One of his earliest and best-known works was Histriomastix, a 1633 attack on just about anything considered fun.

Historiomastix strongly criticised parties, masquerade balls, country fairs, mixed dancing, feast days, wakes, sports, even hairstyles and colourful stained-glass windows. But much of this particular text is a condemnation of theatrical performances and those responsible for them. Plays, Prynne claims, are “the chief delight of the Devil”, wanton and immoral displays of debauchery filled with:

“…amorous smiles and wanton gestures, those lascivious complements, those lewd adulterous kisses and embracements, those lustful dalliances, those impudent, immodest painterly passages… they are the very schools of bawdery, real whoredoms, incests, adulteries, etc.”

As to those who regularly attend the theatre, they are:

“…adulterers, adulteresses, whoremasters, whores, bawds, panders, ruffians, roarers, drunkards, prodigals, cheaters, idle, infamous, base, profane, and godless persons.”

Histriomastix was especially severe on actors and actresses. The ranks of male actors, Prynne claimed, were filled with “Sodomites” who spent their time writing love letters and “chasing the tails” of “players boys”. As for actors of the opposite gender, Prynne offered a simple but biting four-word assessment:

“Women actors, notorious whores.”

This anti-thespian tirade soon got William Prynne into trouble. One woman who quite enjoyed masked balls, mixed dancing and the occasional acting role was Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I. The queen, who appeared in a speaking role in a prominent play not long after the publication of Histriomastix, took his slurs personally.

In 1634, Prynne was hauled before the star chamber, charged with seditious libel against the queen and others and found guilty. He was fined £5000, stripped of his academic degrees, given two days in the pillory and sentenced to have the tops of his ears clipped off with shears. And if that wasn’t enough, hundreds of copies of Histriomastix were rounded up and burned before Prynne’s eyes while he languished in the pillory.

Source: William Prynne, Histriomastix, London, 1633. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2016. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.