The Other Torture Method – Burning at the Stake, Part 1

In my last blog, I discussed the effectiveness of Vlad Tepes’s torture by impalement.  In another section of the same program. burning at the stake was discussed as another option of torture…

In 1555, Reverend John Hooper, the Bishop of Gloucester, was burned at the stake for refusing to convert from the Church of England to Catholicism.  He was said to have slowly burned to death, remaining conscious and praying, even as his face blackened from the flames.  An eyewitness account of this event might provide clues into how he died.  “But even when his face was completely black with the flames and his tongue swelled, yet his lips went till they were sunk to the gums, and he knocked his breast with his hands.  This holy martyr was more than a man. ”  Can the human body remain alive as long as 45 minutes, sustaining temperatures of up to 400 degrees?  It would have taken less time for him to die, but more than likely the whole body would have been consumed in 45 minutes.  More than likely, his lips appeared to be moving because the heat was causing the skin to retract and the lips moved as they became more burnt.  When people burn, their joints contract.  Him beating his breast would have been his elbows contracting and his hands striking his chest.  The observation was correct, but was interpreted in a way that wasn’t quite appropriate.  Mick Flannagan, the senior fire investigator of the South Wales Fire Service, investigated burning at the stake to determine the exact cause of death.  Fire can attack a person in two ways — by burning and by flame inhalation.  First, heat can be so great that it causes charring to the outer layers of the skin until eventually it goes beyond the live skin to the internal organs.  Secondly, if the flames are inhaled, they will then scorch and burn the air passages, and the air passages will then swell and close up, thereby stopping the ability to breathe.

To discover which injury caused death to the victims of the inquisition, Mick erected three types of stake most commonly used in the executions.  One has timbers to head-height level, another is surrounded by a ring of firewood, and the third has wood stacked around its base.  This is the type of stake that Reverend John Hooper is believed to have died on.  In order to discover the causes of death, Mick monitored the height of the flames and the temperature on each stake.  If the temperature exceeded 140 degrees Fahrenheit for more than 15 minutes, Mick would know that the victim died of burning.  If the flames reach head-height on the stake before this, the victim died of inhaling flames.  Almost immediately, there was a reading from one of the stakes.  Because of the angle of the timbers on stake one, the flames shot straight up to the level of where the sensors were placed on the stake.  The victims would have been engulfed in flame very quickly.  And that means they would have inhaled flame, which would have quickly brought about their death.  If someone were to inhale flames, then the lining of the respiratory tree would have been damaged.  If the throat is damaged by increased local heat, then it would swell up, and prevent the victim from taking in air and getting it down to the lungs.  The victim would die of suffocation if the flame reached even further into the lungs.  It would also cause an inflammatory response, fluid will accumulate in the lungs, and effectively, drowning in secretions would occur.  The person on the stake with the timbers to head-height level would have died within two minutes.

And the stake Reverend John Hooper was tied to?  The victim tied to that stake would have begun feeling the absolute agony of the skin coming away from their lower legs, as it worked its way up their thighs and the lower parts of their body.  Their injuries would have gotten progressively more serious the longer this exposure lasts.  Burns are rated from first to third degree.  A first-degree burn involves literally just the heating of the epidermis, where there is just redness of the skin.  A second-degree burn is one stage of pain more, because there the epidermal layer, or the most superficial layer, is stripped from underneath and blisters form.  Those blisters can be acutely painful because of the stretching of the overlying skin by the blister.  The third-degree burn is a full-thickness burn, which involves not only the epidermal layer, but the dermal layer.  Past this point, the skin is dead, and the fat, muscle, and organs underneath are being destroyed.  The victim would have been still alive and conscious, with their lower body burned away.  This suffering would have lasted only a few more minutes, until the flames reached their face.  They would have inhaled the flame, and, as with stake number one, they would have burns to the inside of the windpipe, which would quickly bring about their death.  After five minutes, two of the victims would have died from inhaling flame.  It would take another ten minutes before the person in the ring of fire would have died due to third-degree burns to the whole of their body.  The temperature at the test fire was about 140 Fahrenheit for a number of minutes now, and the person there would have been suffering massive burns to the whole of their body because the fire is all around them.  The flames didn’t actually touch them, but the intense heat from the fire would have brought about huge burns.  After 15 minutes, all of the victims would have died, although the causes of death varied.  In stakes one and two, the fire would attack the people tied to the stake by flame inhalation, while at the third stake, the radiated heat would have caused their death.

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