Drowning as a method of execution is attested very early in history, for a large variety of cultures and as the method of execution for many types of offences.

Prohibition on shedding royal blood

In a variety of cultures, taboos against shedding the blood of royals are attested, and in many cultures, when the execution of a king or members of the royal family was thought necessary, they were drowned to avoid the spilling of blood. In Cambodia, for example, drowning was the type of execution reserved for members of the royal family.[1] Felix Carey,[2] missionary in Burma 1806–1812, describes the process as follows:

When a person of royal extraction is to receive a capital punishment, it is generally done by drowning; in the first place the person is tied hands and feet, then sewed up in a red bag, which again is sometimes put into a jar, and thus the prisoner is lowered down into the water, with a weight sufficient to sink him. This practice is resorted to because it is reckoned a sin to spill royal blood[3]

In another Asian country, the Kingdom of Assam, it was a royal privilege to execute people by shedding their blood; lower courts of justice could only order death by drowning, death by cudgelling in the head of the condemned and so on.[4]

Within Islamic cultures as well, some examples exist that the royal person, or members of the royal family ought not be executed by means of bloodshed, or members of similarly highly respected families. For example, in the former Sultanate of Pattani, in nowadays southern Thailand one rebel, Tuk Mir, was drowned in the sea, out of respect for his recognized status as Syed, that is, a direct descendant of Muhammad.[5] Within the Ottoman Empire, it became, for some time, a practice to execute the brothers of the chosen sultan in order to prevent political succession crises; but these members of the royal family were typically strangled or drowned, so that their blood would not be shed.[6]

The reluctance to shed the king's blood is also attested within a number of African cultures. In his "The Golden Bough", James Frazer refers to this custom of drowning royal offenders instead both among the Ashanti people (in present-day Ghana and the Ivory Coast) and in the kingdom of Dahomey (in present-day Benin). Frazer also provides a number of other examples of executions of royals such that blood would not be shed, for example by means of strangling, starving or burning to death the royal personage.[7]

Dissolution of practice

In Europe, some cases regarded as the last instances of drowning occurred during the latter half of the 16th century. The reported last cases in Esslingen and Württemberg, for example, occurred in 1589 and 1593, respectively.[8] 1562, in Rothenburg, a woman was drowned for infanticide, but from the statistics provided in the source, this was the last such case; later on, women found guilty of infanticide were beheaded here.[9] In 1580 Nuremberg, the executioner Franz Schmidt (who left a diary over his professional career from 1573 to 1617), used his influence to abolish the penalty of drowning, convincing the authorities to use hanging or beheading instead.[10] Within Scotland and German areas, however, the 17th century is regarded as the time when this executional practice began to fade out in favour of beheading, while cases are still found well into the 18th century. The last case in Frankfurt am Main is said to have occurred in 1613.[11] In Großenhain, the last woman to be drowned occurred in 1622, and the punishment was replaced by beheading, or being broken on the wheel.[12] In Quedlinburg, a woman was drowned in 1667 for killing her infant; just 6 years later, a similarly guilty woman was beheaded there on the market place instead.[13] In Switzerland, the last case of judicial drowning occurred in 1652.[14] In Russia, the practice seems to have been abolished in the early 18th century,[15] whereas on Iceland, the last case of judicial drowning is said to have taken place in 1776.

Recent examples

In a recent example, the unrecognized Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant executed captured Iraqi prisoners by drowning them in a cage in June 2015. A video of the event was circulated on the Internet.[16]

See also


  1. ^ Jacobsen (2008), p.127
  2. ^ Felix Carey - 'a colourful and tragic life'
  3. ^ Carey (1815), p.66
  4. ^ Rohman (2005), p.62
  5. ^ Falarti (2012), p.93, footnote 26
  6. ^ Feldman (2008), p.72 The practice of politically motivated fratricide lasted principally from 1451-1648, only to be used once again, in 1808. See Quataert (2005), p.92
  7. ^ Frazer (2012), p.243
  8. ^ Rublack (1999), p.81
  9. ^ von Winterbach (1826), p.198-199
  10. ^ Welch (2013), p.38 A curious parallel had happened in Nuremberg 70 years before, in 1513. A female thief had been condemned to be buried alive, but the woman became so hysterical that she scratched the skin off her arms. The executioner at that time, Deipold, managed to convince the city authorities, that thereafter female thieves should merely be drowned, rather than buried alive. The city authorities formally decreed this in conjunction with the next woman to be executed for theft, in 1515. Siebenkees (1792), p.599
  11. ^ Battonn, Euler (1861), p.223
  12. ^ Chladenius (1788), p.97
  13. ^ Fritsch (1828), p.41
  14. ^ Chambers (1870), p.676 In the canton of Zürich, the last case of drowning was in 1615. von Knonau (1846), p.335
  15. ^ Chambers (1870), p.676
  16. ^ ISIS Video Shows Jihadists Drowning Caged Prisoners in Swimming Pool; New Invasion of Kobane Kills 50