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Death by burning (also known as burning alive or burning to death) is death (often execution) brought about by combustion. As a form of capital punishment, burning has a long history as a method in crimes such as treason, heresy, and witchcraft. (Burning, however, was actually less common than hanging, pressing, or drowning as a punishment for witchcraft.) This method of execution fell into disfavor among governments in the late 18th century; it is considered cruel and unusual punishment today. The particular form of execution by burning in which the condemned is bound to a large stake is more commonly called burning at the stake.According to the Talmud, the "burning" mentioned in the Bible was done by melting lead and pouring it down the convicted person's throat, causing immediate death.

Cause of death

If the fire was large (for instance, when a large number of prisoners were executed at the same time), death often came from the carbon monoxide poisoning before flames actually caused harm to the body. If the fire was small, however, the convict would burn for some time until death from heatstroke and loss of blood plasma. The typical depictions of burnings show that the executioner would arrange a pile of wood around the condemned's feet and calves, with supplementary small bundles of sticks and straw called faggots at strategic intervals up their body.
Unless the authorities were particularly vindictive against a prisoner, family and friends could bring additional faggots and firecrackers to make the death less painful. It seems, however, that these depictions may not be entirely representative of how such executions were normally carried out; some sources state that it was more normal for the stake to be at the centre of a large ring or pile of wood with a gap left for the condemned to be led to the stake. Once they were tied to the stake and the gap filled with wood, the condemned would be hidden from sight.

When this method of execution was applied with skill, the condemned's body would burn progressively in the following sequence: calves, thighs and hands, torso and forearms, breasts, upper chest, face; and then finally death. On other occasions, people died from suffocation with only their calves on fire. Several records report that victims took over 2 hours to die. In many burnings a rope was attached to the convict's neck passing through a ring on the stake and they were simultaneously strangled and burnt. In later years in England some burnings only took place after the convict had already hanged for half an hour. In many areas in England the accused woman (men were hanged, drawn, and quartered) was seated astride a small seat called the saddle which was fixed half way up a permanently positioned iron stake. The stake was about 4 metres high and had chains hanging from it to hold the condemned woman still during her punishment. Having been taken to the place of execution in a cart with her hands firmly tied in front of her she was lifted over the executioner's shoulder and carried up a ladder against the stake to be sat astride the saddle. The chains were then fastened and sometimes she was painted with pitch (a black tar-like liquid) which was supposed to help the fire to burn her more quickly.

Historical usage

Perillos of Athensmarker invented the Brazen bull, a hollow brass container in which the condemned would be locked as a fire was set underneath. This would cause the metal to become red hot while the condemned slowly roasted to death. The bull was first used on Perillos, the bull's inventor; though he was released by the Tyrant Phalaris, the device continued to be used through ancient Greecemarker and Romemarker.

Burning was used as a means of execution in many ancient societies. According to ancient reports, Roman authorities executed many of the early Christian martyrs by burning, sometimes by means of the tunica molesta, a flammable tunic.

Also Rabbi Haninah ben Teradion, one of the Jewish Ten Martyrs executed for defying Emperor Hadrian's edicts against practice of the Jewish religion, is reported to have been burnt at the stake. As narrated in the Talmud, ben Teradion was placed on a pyre of green brush; fire was set to it, and wet wool was placed on his chest to prolong the agonies of death. However, the executioner - moved by the Rabbi's proud and stoic stance amidst the fire - removed the wool and fanned the flame, thus accelerating the end, and then he himself plunged into the flames.

According to Julius Caesar, the ancient Celts executed thieves and prisoners of war by burning them to death in giant "wicker men."

North American Indians often used burning as a form of execution, either against members of other tribes or against white settlers during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Roasting over a slow fire was a customary method.

Under the Byzantine Empire, burning was introduced as a punishment for disobedient Zoroastrian, because of the belief that they worshipped fire.

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) ordered death by fire, intestacy, and confiscation of all possessions by the State to be the punishment for heresy against the Christian faith in his Codex Iustiniani (CJ 1.5.), ratifying the decrees of his predecessors the Emperors Arcadius and Flavius Augustus Honorius.

In 1184, the Roman Catholic Synod of Verona legislated that burning was to be the official punishment for heresy, as Church policy was against the spilling of blood. It was also believed that the condemned would have no body to be resurrected in the Afterlife. This decree was later reaffirmed by the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215, the Synod of Toulouse in 1229, and numerous spiritual and secular leaders through the 17th century.

Civil authorities burnt persons judged to be heretics under the medieval Inquisition, including Giordano Bruno. Burning was also used by Protestants during the witch-hunts of Europe.

Among the best-known individuals to be executed by burning were Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), St Joan of Arc (May 30, 1431), Savonarola (1498) Patrick Hamilton (1528), William Tyndale (1536), Michael Servetus (1553), Giordano Bruno (1600) and Avvakum (1682). Anglican martyrs Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley (both in 1555) and Thomas Cranmer (1556) were also burnt at the stake.

In Denmarkmarker the burning of witches increased following the reformation of 1536. Especially Christian IV of Denmark encouraged this practice, which eventually resulted in hundreds of people burnt because of convictions of witchcraft. This special interest of the king also resulted in the North Berwick witch trials with caused over seventy people to be accused of witchcraft in Scotlandmarker on account of bad weather when James I of England, who shared the Danish kings interest in witch trials, in 1590 sailed to Denmark to meet his betrothed Anne of Denmark.

Edward Wightman, a Baptist from Burton on Trentmarker, was the last person to be burnt at the stake for heresy in England in the market square of Lichfieldmarker, Staffordshire on April 11, 1612.

In the United Kingdom, the traditional punishment for women found guilty of treason was to be burnt at the stake, where they did not need to be publicly displayed naked, while men were hanged, drawn and quartered. There were two types of treason, high treason for crimes against the Sovereign, and petty treason for the murder of one's lawful superior, including that of a husband by his wife.

In England, only a few witches were burnt, the majority were hanged. Sir Thomas Malory, in "Le Morte d'Arthur", depicts King Arthur as being reluctantly constrained to order the burning of Queen Guinevere, once her adultery with Lancelot was revealed - suggesting that this was an inflexible and unalterable law. This might be related to the above, as a Queen's adultery might be construed as treason against her royal husband.

Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, first cousins and the second and fifth wives of Henry VIII were both condemned to be burnt alive or beheaded for adultery as the king's pleasure should be known. Fortunately for Catherine and Anne, even Henry would not go so far. They were both beheaded. Lady Jane Grey the nine days queen was also condemned to burn as a traitress but it was commuted to beheading by Mary I.

In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett introduced a bill into Parliamentmarker to end the practice. He explained that the year before, as Sheriff of Londonmarker, he had been responsible for the burning of Catherine Murphy, found guilty of counterfeiting, but that he had allowed her to be hanged first.

He pointed out that as the law stood, he himself could have been found guilty of a crime in not carrying out the lawful punishment and, as no woman had been burnt alive in the kingdom for over fifty years, so could all those still alive who had held an official position at all of the previous burnings. The act was duly passed by Parliament and given royal assent by King George III (30 George III. C. 48).

Modern burnings

One of the most notorious extrajudicial burnings of modern times occurred in Waco, Texasmarker in the USA on May 15, 1916. Jesse Washington, a mentally-retarded black farmhand, after having been convicted of the murder of a white woman, was taken by a mob to a bonfire, castrated, doused in coal oil, and hanged by the neck from a chain over the bonfire, slowly burning to death. A postcard from the event still exists, showing a crowd standing next to Washington's charred corpse with the words on the back "This is the barbecue we had last night. My picture is to the left with a cross over it. Your son, Joe". This event attracted international condemnation, and is remembered as the Waco Horror.

Modern-day burnings still occur. During periods of unrest in South Africa for example, extrajudicial execution by burning was done via a method called necklacing where kerosene- or gasoline-filled rubber tires are placed around the neck of a live individual. The fuel is then ignited, the rubber melts, and the condemned is burnt to death. In Rio de Janeiro, burning people standing inside a pile of tires is a common form of murder used by drug dealers to punish those who have supposedly collaborated with the police. This form of burning is called microondas, "the microwave". The movie Tropa de Elite (Elite squad) has a scene depicting this practice.

According to a former Soviet Main Intelligence Directorate officer writing under the alias Victor Suvorov, at least one Soviet traitor was burnt alive in a crematorium. During the 1980 New Mexico State Penitentiary riot, a number of inmates were burnt to death by fellow inmates, who used blow torches.

At the end of the 1990s, a number of North Korean army generals were executed by being burnt alive inside the Rungrado May Day Stadiummarker in Pyongyangmarker, North Koreamarker.

In Sulaymaniyahmarker, Iraqmarker, there were 400 cases of the burning of women in 2006. In Iraqi Kurdistanmarker, at least 255 women had been killed in just the first six months of 2007, three-quarters of them by burning.

It was reported on May 21, 2008, that in Kenyamarker a mob had burnt to death at least 11 people accused of witchcraft.

Portrayal in film

The Last of the Mohicans features a British Redcoat being burnt at the stake by a Huron tribe, while the more recent Silent Hill has a female police officer consumed by flames while tied to a ladder. The latter makes use of computer graphics, while the former does not. Elizabeth also used computer graphics to enhance the opening scene where three Protestants are burnt at the stake. In the film adaptation of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, the innocent simpleton Salvatore (Ron Perlman) is seen to die horribly, burnt at the stake. The fate is also suffered by Oliver Reed's less innocent character in Ken Russell's The Devils. The film The Seventh Seal shows a woman about to be burnt at the stake. In 1492: Conquest of Paradise, several people are burnt at the stake. Carl Theodor Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (The Passion of Joan of Arc), though made in the late 1920s (and therefore without the assistance of computer graphics), includes a relatively graphic and realistic treatment of Jeanne's execution; his Day of Wrath also featured a woman burnt at the stake. Of course, nearly all other film versions of the story of Joan show her death at the stake — some more graphically than others. Tropa de Elite depicts an execution by burning in Rio de Janeiro. Fritz Lang's Metropolis involves a robot being burnt at the stake. In Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame, an innocent gypsy girl Esmeralda is almost burnt at the stake, but rescued by Quasimodo. In the 2007 film adaption and many of the musicals of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd, as revenge for leading him to believe that his wife was dead, throws Mrs Lovett into the oven and watches her burn briefly before closing the door. The horror film 'The Hills Have Eyes' very graphically portrays a man being burnt to death while tied to a tree. In the 2006 film Final Destination 3, two teenage girls become trapped in overheating tanning beds and are burnt to death when fires erupt.

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