4 Weird Ways We Tried Criminals Throughout History
Today, we have a bunch of standards of "reasonable doubt" and "burden of proof" that, uh, still manages to get a lot of innocent people locked up, but it could be so much worse. In the times before DNA, forensics, indoor plumbing, etc., you could be found guilty of any number of crimes via methods involving everything from bodily fluids to baking (and sometimes both) ...
In Shakespeare's Richard III, ol' Dicky Tres is supposedly proven a king-killer when said king's corpse starts accusatorily bleeding as he approaches it. Although Shakespeare wielded his poetic license like a literary drunk driver (Richard III probably didn't do that, for one thing), the scene isn't totally bogus. People really did believe, for way too long -- from at least the sixth century to the early 19th -- that murdered corpses bled in the presence of their killers.
Cruentation, as the phenomenon was called, was championed by no less than England's King James I -- you know, the Bible guy, not LeBron -- who wrote, "If the dead carcass be at any time thereafter handled by the murderer, it will gush out blood, as if the blood were crying out to the heaven for revenge of the murderer, God having appointed that secret supernatural sign." Well, he said it with worse spelling, but you get the gist. Sticky cries for revenge, or the lack thereof, were even weighted more heavily than actual evidence, such as in the 1660 case of Catherine Lake. Three of her fellow servants witnessed their boss beat her to death and somehow found the courage to tell the courts as much, but the body didn't bleed, so he was free to lethally beat as many more servants as he liked. Her death was later attributed to hysteria, A.K.A. "anything that happens to women that we refuse to let them explain."
Of course, there's a perfectly good reason why a person might not bleed in the presence of the person who killed them, aside from the fact that they don't do that: Dead bodies don't tend to bleed, period. It's likely, in such cases, nobody was witnessing "bleeding" at all but the leakage of fluid that tends to happen when you jostle a dead body around, like when you carry it into a courtroom. Unknown numbers of people were convicted of murder on the consistency of corpse puke.
The Code Of Hammurabi And Drowning
You've probably heard that one of the many bizarre methods of telling witches from non-witches during the Salem witch trials involved throwing someone into a body of water to see if they sank because, as we all know, witches float. They're naturally carbonated. This practice actually goes all the way back to the Code of Hammurabi, established thousands of years before anyone ever considered buckling their hats.
If there's anything Hammurabi's Code liked more than eye-snatching, it was drowning. All sorts of crimes were potentially punishable by a one-way dip in the eternal aquatic center, but it could also prove your innocence. If someone accused you of a crime, you were thrown into the Euphrates River, where whatever psychic force controlled the ocean in Moana apparently judged you. If it pushed you back to the shore, you were free to go; if you drowned, well, you drowned, so it didn't really matter. To add insult to a horrific watery death, the person who accused you got to take your house.
You had to be careful about throwing around accusations, though, because it worked both ways. If the sea gods judged the person you accused innocent, that meant you made a false accusation, which the Hammurabi Code did not look kindly upon. You would be executed, probably by drowning, and the person you accused got to take your house. If you wanted to exploit this "free house" loophole, you had better have been prepared to sneak some rocks into pockets.
Trial By Ordeal
You know all about trial by combat, at least if you have any interest in prestige cable television, but you didn't have to be good at stabbing dudes (or paying people to do it for you) to navigate the Middle Ages legal system. You just needed a really high pain tolerance.
"Trial by ordeal" wasn't a phrase that was just talking shit. You could choose fire or water, but either way, you were about to really go through it. If you chose fire, you were handed a red-hot metal bar and forced to carry it three meters; if your wounds healed within three days, you got to leave God's burn center; if not, you were executed in addition to barbecuing your own hands. Some people might opt to head straight to death. If you chose water, your situation was similar to Hammurabi's, except drowning meant innocence. They'd pull you out before you got too innocent, but again, it seems unnecessarily risky.
Unlike other methods of leaving criminal verdicts up to fate, this one probably had more cynical motivations. See, the people running the show had quite a bit of leeway in terms of deciding what counted as "healed" or even what constituted floating, and if they were pretty sure you didn't do it or even if they just liked you, they could say "Eh, looks healed to me" or "He sank three feet, drowned enough." As with most things in life, it was all about making a good impression.
We're not talking about those cute little cupcakes with pretzel rod legs and chocolate shoes that pop up in bakeries around Halloween; this kind of witch cake is actually more disgusting than those sickly fondant messes. It's made from a batter of rye flour mixed with the urine of those claiming to be cursed or whatever, baked, and fed to a dog because anyone who's ever been within nipping distance of a Pekingese knows they're in league with the devil. These weirdo bakers then watched the dog to see if it showed any symptoms of being cursed -- though again, depending on the dog, that could prove difficult -- and if it did, some indication from the dog of who did it.
It's unclear how long witch cakes were a thing before the Salem witch trials because obviously, that nonsense was bound to come up again. It's entirely possible Mary Sibley was one sick Puritan who just made it all up. Whatever the case, she suggested it to the Parris family after their daughter and niece began exhibiting the bizarre behavior that kicked off trials, instructing their slaves in a cooking tutorial even grosser than the ones where middle-aged white women dump food on their counters.
Of course, nothing happened, but weirdly enough, Sibley didn't come under any suspicion for her knowledge and encouragement of supposedly occult practices. She was only briefly suspended from communion for "going to the devil for help against the devil." Meanwhile, the slave who actually baked the cake, Tituba, became the first person accused of witchcraft in the Salem witch trials. For baking the cake. Moral of the story: Never help anybody.
Top image: Nate Neelson/Upslash