Cannibalism and Boiling Alive

Boiling as a Form of Capital Punishment

    A wide variety of hideous tortures have been used throughout civilized history to end the lives of criminals and traitors. There seems to be no end to the list of diabolical methods used to put people to death legally under strict governments or by those pressing a cause. In my opinion, one of the most horrible modes of execution commonly practised in olden times was boiling prisoners to death.

    This mode of punishment, although not as common as other forms of execution, was practiced widely throughout the heart of civilized societies in the first and second millenia and earlier. There is documented evidence that boiling alive was used as a form of execution in Europe, Asia, and North Africa during the Middle Ages through the 18th century.

    Some of the earliest accounts of boiling prisoners to death come from China. There are many early woodcut drawings of prisoners meeting their end in pots of boiling water. The following excerpt was taken from the writings of Sun Tzu on the Art of War [4]:

    12. Having DOOMED SPIES, doing certain things openly for purposes of deception, and allowing our spies to know of them and report them to the enemy... Li I-chi played a somewhat similar part in 203 B.C., when sent by the King of Han to open peaceful negotiations with Ch`i. He has certainly more claim to be described a "doomed spy", for the king of Ch`i, being subsequently attacked without warning by Han Hsin, and infuriated by what he considered the treachery of Li I-chi, ordered the unfortunate envoy to be boiled alive.

    It also appears that boiling was used as a means of execution in Japan during the first thousand years after the death of Christ. However, few of these accounts have been translated from the original Japanese. A fictionalized account appears in James Clavell's novel, Shogun. In this account, a European explorer meets his end in a pot of boiling water after the local leaders decide the explorers may be pirates or spies.

    In India and north Asia, there are several accounts of boiling prisoners as a means of religious persecution. The following is a short excerpt from a historical account of the fate of Guru Tegh Bahadur [3]:

    Guru Tegh Bahadur was subjected to many cruelties, he was kept in an iron cage and starved for many days. The Guru was made to watch as Bhai Mati Das the devoted Sikh was tied between two pillars and his body split in two by being sawn alive. Bhai Dyala was boiled alive in a cauldron of boiling water and Bhat Sati Das was wrapped in cotton wool and set on fire. The Guru bore these cruelties without flinching or showing any anger or distress. Finally on November 11, 1675 Guru Tegh Bahadur was publicly beheaded with the sword of the executioner as he prayed.

    The use of boiling for religious persecution was not confined to Asia. Early Christians in the first through third centuries A.D. were often put to death for their beliefs by the Romans. One mode of death for such men and women was by boiling. As an example, the woodcut drawing above was taken from The Tortures of Christian Martyrs.

    Many people shutter when they hear the phrase "boiled in oil". This phrase appears to have its origin in the Middle East (especially Eygpt). Perhaps due to a relative lack of water, boiling prisoners in the middle east was often done in vats of boiling oil. Oil has a much higher boiling point than water and one can only imagine the cruelty of such a fate.

    In England, boiling prisoners to death was a legal form of punishment during the years under the rule of Henry VIII [2]:

    Boiling to death was legal punishment in the olden time, though instances of its exercise were not so frequent in the annals of crime as some of the other modes of execution. In the year 1531, when Henry VIII was King, an Act was passed for boiling prisoners to death. The Act details the case of one Richard Roose, or Coke, a cook in the diocese of the Bishop of Rochester, who had, by putting poison in the food of several persons, occasioned the death of two, and the serious illness of others. He was found guilty of treason, and sentenced to be boiled to death without the benefit of clergy; that is, that no abatement of sentence was to be made on account of his eccesiastical connection, nor to be allowed any indemnity such as was commonly the privelege of clerical offenders. He was brought to punishment at Smithfield, on the 15th of April, 1532; and the Act ordained that all manner of prisoners should meet with the same doom henceforth. A maid-servant, in 1531, was boiled to death in the market-place of King's Lynn, for the crime of poisoning her mistress. Margaret Davy, a maid-servant, for poisoning persons with whom she had lived, perished at Smithfield on March 28th, 1542. The Act was repealed in the year 1547.

    The punishment had been common both in England and on the Continent before its precise enforcement by Henry's Act. It has frequent mention as a punishment for coining. The "Chronicle of the Grey Friars of London" (published by the Camden Society) has an account of a case at Smithfield, in which a man was fastened to a chain and let down into boiling water several times until he was dead.

    We see that there is ample evidence that boiling people alive was relatively common in ancient times in many different areas. Why was boiling used as a form of execution? It is hard to say. In earlier times when life expectancy was lower, there was a smaller value placed on life. With a lower resistance to taking life, revenge was often left unfettered when criminals were brought to justice. Boiling a particularly depraved criminal to death was probably seen as just punishment for his crimes. But the most likely reason boiling was used as a form of capital punishment is fear. Governments and religious leaders of the time often ruled by force and fear. Those that opposed leaders of the time were punished severely to discourage others from following in their footsteps. In the dark recesses of the mind, we all have a natural fear of live boiling as a form of punishment. It is precisely because we all recognize the horrible nature of this fate that leaders of the time found it a useful tool for controlling their people.

    It is hard to even imagine the fear of a prisoner, drawn to the scaffold, only to see a seething, boiling pot of water awaiting him or her. The terror of such a situation must have been unbearable and the cruelty of a death in the pot unmeasurable. It is precisely this primitive reaction to this horrible fate that makes the study of the subject fascinating.


  1. Gary Hogg, Cannibalism and Human Sacrifice, Coles Publishing, 1980.
  2. William Andrews, Old Time Punishments, Dorset Press, 1991.
  3. The Ninth Master
  4. Sun Tzu: The Art of War
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