Public humiliation

Public humiliation

Public humiliation was often used by local communities to punish minor and petty criminals before the age of large, modern prisons (imprisonment was long unusual as a punishment, rather a method of coercion).


Shameful exposure

Punishment in a Pillory.
Flute of Shame displayed at the Torture Museum in Amsterdam.

This involved a variety of methods, most often placing a criminal in the center of town and having the local populace enact a form of "mob justice" on the individual. The punishment of public humiliation could be, amongst other things, an offender being forced to relate his crime, such as by exaggerated physical parody: a 'shame flute' for a bad musician or a wearing giant rosary (Dutch: schandstenen, "stones of shame") for someone late to church. The offender could alternatively be sentenced to remain exposed in a specific public place, in a restraining device.

The arsenal in the Low Countries included the schandstoel ("Chair of shame"), the kaak or schandpaal ("pole of shame", a simple type of pillory), the draaikooi, customary for adulteresses, and the schopstoel, a scaffolding which one is kicked off to land in mud and dirt).

In the more extreme cases being subjected to verbal and physical abuse from the crowd, which could have serious consequences especially when the hands are not free to protect himself. Some sentences actually prescribe additional humiliation, such as shaving, or combine it with painful corporal punishments, see below.

In Colonial America, common forms of public humiliation were the stocks and pillory, imported from Europe. Nearly every sizable town had such instruments of public humiliation, usually at the town square. Historic public humiliation displays can still be seen in the historic Virginia town of Colonial Williamsburg.

Man and woman undergoing public exposure for adultery in Japan, around 1860

In pre–World War Japan, adulterers were publicly exposed purely to shame them.

In recent times, judicial use of public humiliation punishment has largely fallen out of favor since the practice is now considered cruel and unusual punishment, which is outlawed in the United States Constitution. Yet, this is not clearly defined, so some judges do use shaming as a form of punishment, whereby an individual may have to parade in public with a sign explaining their behavior and misdeed.

Just like painful forms of corporal punishment, it has parallels in educational and other rather private punishments (but with some audience), in school or domestic disciplinary context, and as a rite of passage. Physical forms include being forced to wear some sign such as donkey ears (simulated in paper, as a sign one is—or at least behaved—proverbially stupid), wearing a Dunce cap, having to stand, kneel or bend over in a corner, or repeatedly write something on a blackboard ("I will not spread rumors", for example). Here too physical discomfort or even pain can be added, such as having to hold heavy objects or kneeling on an uneven surface. Like physical punishment and harsh hazing, these have become controversial in most modern societies, in many cases leading to legal restrictions and/or (sometimes voluntary) abolishment.

Public humiliation is still practised a lot in the present time, not as a legal punishment, but more informally by the press and media.

Painful humiliation

The 1774 tarring and feathering of British customs agent John Malcolm soon after the Boston Tea Party

Apart from specific methods essentially aiming at humiliation, several methods combine pain and humiliation or even death and humiliation.

In some cases, pain or at least discomfort is insignificant or rather secondary to the humiliation, as school children made to kneel facing the blackboard, possibly on a hard object. In other cases they are roughly matched, as assuming such position while holding heavy objects.

Especially in judicial use the combination often results in a very severe punishment.

Public punishment

The simplest is to administer painful corporal punishment in public - the major aim may be deterrence of potential offenders - so the public will witness the victim's fear and agony. This can either take place in a town square or other public gathering location such as a school, or take the form of a procession through the streets. This was not uncommon in the sentences to Staupenschlag (whipping or birching, generally on the bare buttocks) in various German-speaking states, till the 19th century. A naval equivalent was Flogging round the fleet on a raft taken from ship to ship for consecutive installments of a great total of lashes, that could even be lethal.

Medieval schoolboy birched on the bare buttocks- spanking was often on the spot
  • The humiliation is generally intensified if the victim is unclothed (either partially or completely) as the exposure leaves the victim feeling vulnerable and helpless.
  • Even when not strictly public, humiliation can still be a psychologically "painful" aspect of punishment because of the presence of witnessing peers (such as fellow prisoners), relatives, staff or other onlookers, or simply because the tormentor witnesses how self-control is broken down. This is also true for punishments in class.
  • Sexually promiscuous women and girls were sometimes punished by having their pubic hair cut short or their genital areas shaved bald.[citation needed]
  • Crucifixion was used by the Romans to add public humiliation to a death penalty. Josephus describes how the Roman soldiers would crucify people naked, and using different tortuous positions as a way to further humiliate them. Crucified bodies were left to decay on the cross for weeks, and crows would come to feed on it, which can be seen as post-mortem public humiliation. See also gibbeting.

Torture marks

The humiliation can be extended – intentionally or not – by leaving visible marks, such as scars, notably on body parts that are normally left visible. This also serves as a virtually indelible criminal record. This can even be the main intention of the punishment, as in the case of scarifications, such as branding. It invariably is essential in forms of mutilation, such as ear cropping, though the functional loss is even greater; pain may even be intentionally minimized as in the case of surgical amputation, eliminating the risk of accidental death.

See also

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