Following is a list of the methods of execution practiced around the world. I have split the list up into two parts: methods of execution currently in use (at least officially) around the world, and methods that are (hopefully) outdated. In each category, the list is alphabetical. I have added approximate lengths of time to die with each method and the amount of pain it causes. Of course, these are estimates. There is no way, for example, of knowing how much pain a person is in after he's been decapitated.


This is a list of the methods of execution used currently around the world. (See methods of execution worldwide for a list of which countries use which executions). Executions in western countries are more humane, and usually give the person being executed a relatively quick painless death. Of course, in some countries (like Iran), executions are still traditional, and so are slower and more painful.

  • Beheading - removal of the head by (usually) an axe or a sword. The guillotine is also an instrument of beheading, though is not in use any more. Death is instantaneous and painless, although it has been said that the head remains conscious for a few seconds after decapitation.

  • Electrocution - highly unpleasant, as the internal organs are burned. Causes involuntary spasms, often involving vomiting, defecation, urination, changing of skin colour, the skin stretching, eyes popping out and even catching fire. Death (measured when the heart stops beating) usually occurs during the first shock given, which is approximately 30 seconds long. If not, subsequent shocks are usually applied until death. Death appears extremely painful.

  • Gas chamber - the executee is placed in a chamber and then either gas is inserted from the outside, or a chemical reaction is started in the chamber to release the gas. For example, in the USA, potassium cyanide tablets are dropped into hydrochloric acid, releasing hydrocyanic gas. Death usually takes 5-20 minutes, depending on whether executees attempt to hold their breath or breathe deeply. The pain is apparently similar to that of a heart attack.

  • Hanging - there are three main methods of hanging -
    1. the long drop, which causes the executee's neck to snap due to the fall and snap of the rope. Currently, in the USA, this is the method employed - the executee's drop length is calculated depending on his/her weight to deliver 1260 foot-pounds of force to the neck. This ensures that death is instant from breaking the neck. Here, death is instantaneous and painless.
    2. the short drop, in which the executee drops only a short distance, and thus the neck is not broken. In this case, the executee dies from suffocation, and is much less pleasant. This is the form that was practiced in England in medieval times. Death can take many minutes, and is very unpleasant.
    3. beheading - with a big enough drop, the force to the neck is enough to behead the executee. Death is identical to beheading (which it is).

    409 adds: 'there was a european version of hanging where the victim stood on the ground and was thrown upwards (attached by the neck as with hanging) by a large counterweight, snapping the neck instantly.'

    Rikmeister adds: 'In terms of hanging, in England there was a method known as the Tyburn Jig, so called after the gallows at Tyburn. The victim would have the rope placed on their neck, whih would be wound around a pulley suspended from a very high gallows. The other end would be tied to a horse, which would be ridden off a short distance. The death by suffocation would cause a certain amount of 'dancing', hence the Tyburn Jig.'

  • Lethal injection - today, usually several drugs are applied intravenously - the first to cause unconsciousness and the second (or others) to cause death, usually by stopping respiration and/or the heart. Death takes several minutes (time for different injections to take effect), but is painless. This appears to be the most humane method of execution.

  • Shooting - most commonly done by a firing squad - several people with (most commonly) rifles fire together at the executee, usually aiming for the heart. Death is quick if the shots hit their target (the heart). The executee loses consciousness relatively quickly as the brain stops receiving oxygen. If they miss (on purpose or not), the executee bleeds to death, which can take slow, painful minutes.5a, 5b, 5c

  • Stoning - stones are thrown at the executee until death. This is extremely painful, and is often purposefully so. Usually the person is bound or rendered unable to move (in Iran, they are buried up to their waist), and then stoned with stones large enough to cause pain, but not large enough to cause a swift death. Death can take as long as is planned, and is extremely painful.


Historically, methods of execution were (like today), a method of punishment and also of deterrence. This is why most of these involve a slow and painful death.
  • Beating - beating a person with (usually) blunt instruments until death.

  • Boiling Alive - the executee is placed in a large pot of water, which are heated until death occurs. Death is slow and painful.

  • Burning alive - a favored methods for executing witches and heretics. Usually occurred at the stake - the executee was tied to a stake, and a fire burned underneath. Many of those burnt at the stake were killed beforehand, (often by the garotte7), to spare them the suffering. Otherwise, suffering is intense, even more so if the fire is set so as to kill slowly (i.e. it reaches only the legs).1

  • Burying Alive - this includes 1) placing the person in a grave and covering up with dirt - to cause suffocation, and 2) burying up to the neck, thus rendering the person immobile, and letting nature take its course (causing death by sunstroke, dehydration, etc.) In the first case, death may take relatively long, as air supply is not cut off instantaneously.

  • Crucifixion - the executee is bound or nailed to a structure of some sort (early crucifixions were done on trees), and left to die. Death often takes two to three days.2

  • Disembowelment - gruesome form of murder, in which the executee's abdomen is sliced open, and the intestines are removed. Death comes from loss of blood, and is slow and painful.

  • Drawn and Quartered - see Hung, Drawn and Quartered.

  • Drowning - unconsciousness sets in after about 4 minutes, followed by death.

  • Eaten by Animals - this includes big animals, such as lions (the Romans threw Christians to the lions), and small animals. The person may be hung upside down and a sack with a hungry and irritated rat put on his head, until death. Or a cage with hungry, irritated rats is placed on the executee's stomach, letting the rats loose on it. This is known as Cauldron - the cage is heated, and the rats, to escape the heat, must eat through the person's stomach. Death by the cauldron is slow, as usually no vital organs are damaged. Thus, death is from bleeding, and very slow and painful.

  • Flaying - also known as skinning. The skin is removed in strips (while the person is conscious). This can take as long as the executioner wishes. It sometimes took whole days.

  • Garrote - the garrote actually means a lot of things, but it includes death by strangulation. Most commonly, it refers to a metal collar placed around executee's neck, where the executioner twists a lever to tighten it and thus cause slow strangulation. Death is similar to hanging.

  • Gassing - nowadays, only gas chambers are used, but in the 20th century, especially in Nazi Germany, various methods of gassing were used, such as gas vans. There are different types of gasses. Each causes a different death.

  • Hanging Cage - the executee is placed inside a cage which is hanged somewhere (like in the town square). The executee is left there to die from thirst, sunstroke, etc. Death usually takes a couple of days. 6

  • Hot Poker - a red hot poker is inserted up the executee's anus until s/he dies of haemorraghing or pain. King Edward II was supposedly executed this way in 1327. Some historians claim he was executed this way because he was homosexual.

  • Hung, Drawn and Quartered - the executee is hanged first, but only to cause extreme unpleasantness by suffocation. Then his/her stomach is cut open, and the intestines are removed by the executioner. The intestines are thrown into the fire, so the executee can watch them burn. Then the person is quartered, either by the executor or by attaching a horse to each limb, and having them literally tear the executee apart. There are few deaths which are worse, and that is why it was chosen to be the form of execution for treason.The excitement of the crowd does not help alleviate the suffering.

  • Impaling - driving sharp objects into the executee's body. These are usually plunged into places where there are no vital organs, so death will be slower. A contraption made especially for this is the Iron Maiden. A person in the Iron Maiden usually lasted for two days of unbelievable pain.4

  • Poison - death depends on the poison.

  • Pressing - weights are placed on the body until the executee is crushed to death. This could be stretched out over long periods of time, and is very painful.

  • The Rack - the executee is placed on a rack, and stretched to death. There are many other contraptions similar to this. For example, in the Inquisition, they used to hang a person from the ceiling, and add weights until they were torn apart. More often, this is used for torture, but it has been used for execution too. Again, death takes as long as the executioner wishes.

  • Sawing in half - literally.

  • Shooting (not by firing squad) - it is still probably the most popular method of execution, even today. It has been used since man could shoot. The Vikings shot to death with arrows. Execution is usually with a shot to the head, most often to the temple or the back of the head. Death is quick or slow (from bleeding usually) depending on where the shot hits.3

  • Spanish Donkey - also known as Wooden Horse. The executee straddles a wooden horse/donkey shaped structure that is V-shaped. Weights are tied to the executee's feet, and thus s/he is torn in half. There is also a pyramid version of this, where the executee sits on top of a pyramid, and is thus torn. Obviously extremely painful, and as slow as the executioner / torturer wishes.

  • Throat Slitting - relatively painless and quick, and so was not often used for execution.

  • Throwing off a Cliff8

Noders' additions:

joes3029 says: "I might as well let you know of a South African tradition called Necklacing. An old tyre is placed around the victim's head, head and tyre are soaked in petrol, and then set alight. The horror isn't so much that you might die as that you might survive. It is mob justice - but since the police have in the past been so ineffectual in rural areas (where this is found) - necklacing has gained almost traditional acceptance."
(I am not sure that this is actually execution per se, so it is not up there under "current execution methods", but it's interesting enough to have here.)

1 409 says: 'when people were burned alive, they were sometimes allowed a small bag a gunpowder around their neck to speed death.'
Herr says: 'more often than not when a person was burnt at the stake they actually died from suffocation and not the burning'.

2 409 says: 'death was normally caused by asphixia, due to the shoulder blades being forced together and the person being unable to breathe.'
koreykruse says: 'sometimes a small stand was placed under the feet which would allow the executee to stand up and breath easier. This was not done to easy suffering, but rather to extend the suffering over a longer time. People lasting over a few hours on a cross most likely were provided with a stand (or had their ankles tightly bound so they could push themselves up)'.

3 NotBridgetJones says: 'you forgot to point out the execution commander generally finishes the executee with a gunshot in the head'.

4 gn0sis says: 'Classical impaling (à la Vlad the Impaler) involves being suspended on a stake stuffed up your anus. With luck, it will be driven all the way through and out the mouth; otherwise gravity will do the work and death may take days. Cf. impalement and The Atrocities of Vlad III of Wallachia'.

5amkb says: 'often only one member of the firing squad will have a real bullet instead of a blank'.

5bdisillusioned says 'Re: mkb's comment on this node, I was under the impression it was just one of the firing squad with*out* a real bullet, thus providing a chance in their mind that it was possibly not them who killed....'

5cMuse says: 'In my government class we looked at different execution methods employed by different states. Apparently the official firing squad (at this time in Idaho, anyway) is 6 people, 3 of which have live rounds. I'd imagine that's probably the US Gov't standard method.'

6Wazzer says: 'The Hanging Cage was more commonly known as a gibbet, and the executee would be left to rot in the gibbet as a warning to fellow criminals - Dick Turpin, the legendary highwayman, and Captain Kidd were both executed this way.

7 Morkel says: 'Some garottes had a spike at the back, which had the effect that death was from breaking of the neck rather than suffocation. If my memory serves me right, some of these could be quite painless, as only a quick turn or two was required to break the neck.

8Morkel says: 'The Romans, for example, at least for a period of time, threw traitors (and people with significant mental or physical disabilities) from the Tarpeian Rock, and legend has it a large cliff where I live was used for similar purposes back in the iron and viking age. I suspect it was quite common in places where such a place was available.'

Sources include:

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