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A History of "Trial By Ordeal"

Northern Kentucky University
Northern Kentucky University

Have you ever undergone a “trial by fire”? In its modern use, this refers to any ordeal meant to test one’s strength, endurance, or resolve. These trials and tribulations can be mentally and physically taxing, and can sometimes push a person to their breaking point.

Originally, however, “trial by fire” was a much more literal term, and was one of the many categories of “trial by ordeal” that permeated the judicial system of Europe, Asia, Africa, and colonial America. The thought behind trial by ordeal was that, during the process, the gods intervene and show a sign that indicates guilt or innocence.

Of course, the system was far from foolproof; many of the trials were easily manipulated by the administering judges (or priests) to “prove” a verdict that they thought was correct. Still, some authors, such as George Mason University economist Peter Leeson, say that in a society that unflinchingly believes in the efficacy of these trials, the ordeals and ordealists would have resulted in the “correct” verdict more often than not. After all, if a person was guilty, but believed that the trials always showed the truth, they’d be unlikely to be willing to undergo them—the punishment for pleading guilty was almost always far more lenient than the punishment for being “shown” to be guilty under trial by ordeal.

Though the trial by ordeal was forbidden by Pope Innocent III in 1215, its prevalence in Europe continued to be wide enough that it even came over to colonial America. Other trials by ordeal were also found throughout India, Southeast Asia, and in many parts of Africa. Both the Ramayana (a Hindu epic) and the Old Testament (in the Book of Numbers) describe trials by ordeal. Even to this day, trial by ordeal is known to take place in Liberia, concerning many human rights organizations. Here's a brief rundown of 11 trials by ordeal.

Trial by Fire

Courtesy of Nirmukta

The defendant on trial must pick an object out from within flames, or walk over hot coals. If they were burned in the process, they were presumed guilty. In the Hindu version of the trial by fire, a woman suspected of adultery must stand in a circle of flame, or on top of a pyre, and not be burned. This was exemplified by the trial of Sita in the Ramayana, who was said to have not had a single flower petal in her hair be wilted by the heat of the flames, for she was so pure the flames avoided her.

Trial by Hot Iron

Courtesy of Brittania

A one-pound iron was heated in a fire, and pulled out during a ritual prayer. The defendant had to carry this iron the length of nine feet (as measured by the defendant’s own foot size). Their hands were then examined for burns. If the crime of the accused was particularly egregious, such as betrayal of one’s lord, or murder, the iron would be three pounds.

Trial by Water

Courtesy of Wikipedia

The defendant was bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Contrary to popular belief, those that sank weren’t drowned but were hauled out of the water, and those that floated didn’t float because they could swim: If he or she floated, they were guilty, and if they sank, they were presumed innocent. This was the most common ordeal undergone in the New World, and was seen during the time of the Salem witch trials. A surprisingly high number of people were deemed “innocent” by this method, but it was largely the younger women and the men who were exonerated in these trials. Their lower body fat levels probably helped them sink down in the water.

Trial by Hot Water


Courtesy of Fordham University

The arm was plunged elbow-deep into hot water, often to grasp a ring, stone, or holy object at the bottom of a cauldron. After several days, if no blistering or peeling was present, the defendant was presumed innocent. Since it was not always boiling water that was used, this was one of the most easily-manipulated trials for the ordealists to work over.

Trial by Host

Relegated to priests accused of crimes, or suspected of lying regarding someone else’s crime (perjury). The priest would go before the altar and pray aloud that God would choke him if he were not telling the truth. He would then take The Host (the holy eucharist), and if he was guilty of perjury or the crime, he would either choke or have difficulty swallowing. This had a degree of psychosomatic truth behind it, if the priest truly believed in the trial, but it was one of the easiest of the “trial by ordeal” ceremonies to overcome by the defendant.

Trial by Ordeal Bean

A trial of “Old Calabar” (Akwa Akpa—now part of Nigeria), involving the “E-ser-e,” or “the ordeal bean,” now known as the calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum). A common use was in trials where someone was accused of witchcraft. The defendant would ingest the calabar beans. If they vomited up the beans, they were presumed innocent, and if they digested the beans they were presumed guilty. Most defendants who digested the beans were killed by their effects. The physostigmine effects of the calabar beans are similar to the effects of nerve gasses that have been used in war; they disrupt the communication between muscles and the nervous system, and the victim dies of asphyxiation when the diaphragm fails to respond.

Trial by Tagena

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Very similar to “trial by ordeal bean,” but used in Madagascar. The nut of the tagena tree (Cerbera odollam) contains cerberin, which is related to the toxin found in foxglove (digoxin). This causes the heart to fibrillate (an uncoordinated spasmodic contraction that fails to pump blood), and in many cases, completely stop beating. The “trial by Tagena” has been used against alleged witchcraft practitioners in Madagascar for over 500 years, and in the mid-19th century, was responsible for over 2 percent of the deaths (3000 people) in Madagascar every year.  Its use was banned in 1861 by King Radama II, but is still known to be used in homicide and suicide in Madagascar and India, and in trial by ordeal that continues in remote Madagascar provinces.

Sassywood

The sassywood rituals of Liberia and the West African coast come in several different forms, but all feature the “Ordeal tree” (Erythrophleum suaveolens). This tree produces a toxin similar to the tagena of Madagascar throughout its tissues, but also produces a hemolytic (blood-thinner), and a convulsant toxin. In the most common ritual, the defendant is called to ingest a concoction of the sassywood bark. If they vomit it back up, they are presumed innocent. Another common ordeal is to place a machete into burning sassywood, and when it’s red-hot, rub the blade on the legs of the defendants. Whichever defendant is burned is presumed guilty.

Since the disruption of the court systems during Liberia’s civil war, the sassywood rituals have been regaining ground as “legitimate” alternatives to “Western justice”. Despite being officially outlawed, the belief in the validity of the rituals has kept the tradition alive, even in well-educated parts of the country, such as Monrovia.  Nevertheless, many people have died because of being forced through them (unlike the other trials by ordeal, the choice to “plead guilty” instead of undergoing sassywood is not usually an option – even if it were, it would mean accepting death by machete rather than death by poisoning), and international justice communities are seeking to bring down the use of these rituals.

Trial by Diving

This trial, found in India, Thailand, Burma, and Borneo, involved a test of breath-holding, and was most often used in disputes of contested cock-fights. Two stakes were secured beneath the water of a clear pond, and both parties involved in the dispute would dive and grasp onto a stake. Whichever claimant stayed beneath the water longest was declared to have truth on his side.

Trial by Snake

A cobra and a ring are placed in an earthenware pot, and the defendant is tasked with retrieving the ring from beneath the snake without being bitten. This trial was most commonly used when someone was accused of making a false accusation against another person, or lying to get another person punished (the equivalent of perjury in the Western court system).

Sotah Ritual

Mentioned in the King James version of the Old Testament (Numbers 5:11-31), this ritual was to be undertaken by a woman suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. It was called the “ordeal of bitter water,” and had the woman ingesting a concoction of dirt from a temple floor and holy water, in an earthenware vessel. If her “belly swell an’ her legs fall away” (if she got very bloated or lost muscle in her legs) after the ritual, she was deemed guilty of adultery. However, if she was unharmed by the ritual, she was seen as not guilty, and her husband was made to stop falsely accusing her. Despite appearing in fairly explicit instruction in the early Bible, there’s no evidence that this ritual was ever undertaken by anyone either anywhere else in the Bible, or in life.

Our current court systems work best when those involved are skeptical, analytical, and not biased toward any one viewpoint, but in the days of Trial by Ordeal, the opposite would have been true—the more people involved in a case brought to “court” who were thoroughly vested in the idea that these ordeals were accurate in showing guilt and innocence, the more effective these trials were. The guilty would refuse the trials, and the innocent would undergo the trials with such confidence in their success that they would oftentimes succeed, even in a trial that hadn’t been “helped” along by the ordealists.

Additional Sources: "Ordeals," Peter T. Leeson [PDF]; Asian Review: Trial by Ordeal in Siam. Demetrius Charles Boulger, 1895; The cyclopædia of India and of eastern and southern Asia: Trial by Ordeal. Edward Balfour, 1885; Protabase Records; Erythrophleum suaveolens; Wicked Plants. Amy Stewart, 2009; Reason Magazine; Trial By Ordeal. Radley Balko, 2010.

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12 Solid Facts About New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain
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On May 3, 2003, the craggy rock face known as New Hampshire's Old Man of the Mountain tumbled to the ground in spectacular fashion. For a landmark that had been in the state's DNA for generations, its collapse was like a death in the family to some. The day after it fell, people left flowers at the base of Cannon Mountain in Franconia Notch State Park as a sort of funeral tribute, and plans were immediately launched to create a longer-lasting memorial. So what was so great about the Old Man of the Mountain, pre- and post-crumble? Read on for the stone-cold facts.

1. THANKS TO NATHANIEL HAWTHORNE, THE OLD MAN WAS ALSO KNOWN AS “THE GREAT STONE FACE.”

Although not explicitly named, it’s widely believed Hawthorne based his 1850 short story "The Great Stone Face"—which was set in an anonymous state that happens to look like New Hampshire—on the Old Man. At that time, the mountainous figure was already a tourist draw to the Granite State. Hawthorne described it as an “enormous giant, or a Titan,” with a “broad arch of the forehead,” a long-bridged nose, and having “vast lips.” Eventually Hawthorne’s nickname stuck, along with other loving titles like “Old Man” and “the Profile.”

2. THE "FACE" WAS ACTUALLY A SERIES OF LEDGES.

These granite cliff ledges, 40 feet tall and 25 feet wide, when viewed from the north at certain angles looked like a jagged face. Hawthorne corroborated this, writing in “The Great Stone Face”: “If the spectator approached too near, he lost the outline of the gigantic visage, and could discern only a heap of ponderous and gigantic rocks ... Retracing his steps, however, the wondrous features would again be seen; and the farther he withdrew from them, the more like a human face, with all its original divinity intact, did they appear."

3. HE COULD HAVE BEEN 12,000 YEARS OLD.

An 1856 postcard of The Old Man of the Mountain
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Old Man was first discovered and recorded in 1805 by road surveyors Francis Whitcomb and Luke Brooks, which put the landmark at nearly 200 years old by the time it fell. But it likely first formed when water inside cracks in the granite bedrock froze and thawed following the retreat of glaciers about 12,000 years ago. (This freezing and thawing process was what hastened its eventual collapse.) According to geologist Brian Fowler in a research report by the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund, the lower ledge—or chin—of the Old Man is assumed to have fallen first. Once that support was gone, the rest of the rock fell in formation.

4. CANNON MOUNTAIN WAS SO NAMED BECAUSE IT LOOKS LIKE ANTIQUE ARTILLERY.

The Old Man jutted from a cliff in Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, within Franconia Notch State Park. Originally named Profile Mountain, it took on a new name since its granite dome resembles a cannon from select vantage points. There are even three sub-peaks, nicknamed “The Cannon Balls.”

5. SOME OF THE STRONGEST SURFACE WINDS EVER IN THE U.S. WERE RECORDED ON TOP OF CANNON MOUNTAIN.

The gusts measured 199.5 mph on April 2, 1973. While impressive, they were likely even higher since 199.5 mph was the limit of what the researchers' instruments could record at the time. The highest surface wind gust in the U.S. still belongs in-state, though, with New Hampshire's Mount Washington recording 231 mph winds in 1934.

6. A SERIES OF TURNBUCKLES AND IRON TIES WERE PLACED WITHIN ITS FACE TO KEEP IT TOGETHER.

By 1916, as it became clear the Old Man might not live forever, the first efforts to protect the rock formation were made. By the 1920s, a crack in the Old Man’s "forehead" was clearly noticeable, and residents who were worried about its safety used chains, turnbuckles, and iron ties to keep the crack from separating. Many of those metal rods used to hold the Old Man together were still attached to the mountain years later.

7. THE STATE EVENTUALLY SPENT A SMALL FORTUNE TRYING TO SAVE IT.


Julius Hall, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

In 1957, the New Hampshire state legislature passed a $25,000 appropriation for the necessary repairs to slow the Old Man's deterioration. These steps included quick-drying cement and steel rods meant to fill in and fortify cracks. The rocky Band-Aids were maintained every summer.

8. THE CARETAKERS’ MAINTENANCE ROUTINES WERE METICULOUS.

One longtime caretaker, Niels Nielsen, took great pains to keep the Old Man clean since 1965. Nielsen would spray bleach on the rock face and in its cracks, then carefully remove moss and lichen in an effort to prevent cracks from spreading further. He would even clean out the Old Man’s ear with a garden hoe. When Nielsen retired, he passed the job on to his son, David. The face continued to be groomed until its collapse.

9. NIELS NIELSEN SAW THE OLD MAN AS A GIFT FROM GOD.

According to Yankee Magazine, Nielsen was rather enchanted by the rock formation. “I had sailed around the world as a merchant seaman, yet I had never seen anything like the Old Man," he said. "I don’t believe anyone can be up there and not feel the presence of God."

10. BUT EVEN NIELSEN KNEW IT MIGHT FALL SOME DAY.

Nielsen was asked by Yankee what would happen if the Old Man ever fell. “The Lord put him here, and the Lord will take him down," Nielsen replied. Research concluded its collapse was natural—that the freezing-thawing process and subsequent erosion over time caused its downfall.

11. YOU CAN STILL "SEE" THE OLD MAN.


Rob Gallagher, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The image of the Old Man has lived on as a state emblem since 1945, appearing on highway signs, on the back of drivers licenses, and on the reverse of the state quarter. But residents weren’t done with honoring the now-deceased rock face. At Old Man of the Mountain Profile Plaza and Historic Site in Franconia, special viewfinders and steel “profilers” at vantage points near Profile Lake offer a glimpse of what the formation used to look like.

12. THERE’S EVEN AN OLD MAN OF THE MOUNTAIN FLOWER.

Old-Man-of-the-Mountain, or tetraneuris grandiflora, is found in the Intermountain Regions and Rocky Mountains in states like Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Colorado, and Idaho. It’s sometimes called an alpine sunflower and got its common name from the wooly hairs that cover its leaves.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Take a Closer Look at the $17 Billion 'Holy Grail of Shipwrecks'

Feast your eyes on these new images of the treasure among the wreckage of the Spanish ship San José, often called the "holy grail of shipwrecks." When it sank on June 8, 1708, it was carrying gold, silver, jewels, and other precious cargo worth roughly $17 billion today. Now, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is revealing the major role it played in the 2015 expedition to find the San José.

The three-masted, 62-gun Spanish galleon exploded and sank at the hands of the British during the War of the Spanish Succession. It was carrying its riches to the Colombian city of Cartegena to finance the war. Archaeologists had been trying to find the San José for decades before it was finally located on November 27, 2015, during an expedition organized by Colombia, Maritime Archaeology Consultants (MAC), and WHOI. The multibillion-dollar treasure, which still sits nearly 2000 feet below the surface of the ocean near Cartegena, is just now being revealed.

WHOI's autonomous underwater vehicle REMUS 6000 was responsible for finding the elusive wreck. REMUS has been with the project since the beginning: The machine created the first side-scan sonar images of the site. After that, REMUS journeyed to a point 30 feet above the site and captured high-resolution photos of the ship's distinctive bronze cannons, which are engraved with dolphins. REMUS's documentation of this defining feature allowed scientists to positively identify the wreck as the fabled San José. (Thanks to whoever had the idea to put dolphins on the cannon in the first place.)

WHOI also released REMUS's photos of the wreckage, which show details of the horde, including ceramics and those famous cannons. "This constitutes one of the greatest—if not the biggest, as some say—discoveries of submerged patrimony in the history of mankind,” Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos said back when the treasure was discovered.

The San José's treasure is the subject of a legal battle for ownership between Colombia and U.S. salvage company Sea Search Armada, which helped look for the wreck. In 2011, four years before the San José was even found, the court ruled that the booty belongs to Colombia, but the dispute is ongoing. Because of the legal drama, the exact location of the wreck remains a government secret.

Below, check out the newly released pictures for a closer look at cannons, teacups, and other ceramics.

cannons from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

pots from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

teacups from the San Jose
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

REMUS 6000
REMUS 6000
Mike Purcell, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution


A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
A mosaic of images taken by the REMUS 6000 depicts the whole site.
Jeff Kaeli, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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