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Northern Kentucky University

A History of "Trial By Ordeal"

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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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6 East Coast Castles to Visit for a Fairy Tale Road Trip
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Once the stuff of fairy tales and legends, a variety of former castles have been repurposed today as museums and event spaces. Enough of them dot the East Coast that you can plan a summer road trip to visit half a dozen in a week or two, starting in or near New York City. See our turrent-rich itinerary below.

STOP 1: BANNERMAN CASTLE // BEACON, NEW YORK

59 miles from New York City

The crumbling exterior of Bannerman Castle
Garrett Ziegler, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannerman Castle can be found on its very own island in the Hudson River. Although the castle has fallen into ruins, the crumbling shell adds visual interest to the stunning Hudson Highlands views, and can be visited via walking or boat tours from May to October. The man who built the castle, Scottish immigrant Frank Bannerman, accumulated a fortune shortly after the Civil War in his Brooklyn store known as Bannerman’s. He eventually built the Scottish-style castle as both a residence and a military weapons storehouse starting in 1901. The island remained in his family until 1967, when it was given to the Taconic Park Commission; two years later it was partially destroyed by a mysterious fire, which led to its ruined appearance.

STOP 2. GILLETTE CASTLE STATE PARK // EAST HADDAM, CONNECTICUT

116 miles from Beacon, New York

William Gillette was an actor best known for playing Sherlock Holmes, which may have something to do with where he got the idea to install a series of hidden mirrors in his castle, using them to watch guests coming and going. The unusual-looking stone structure was built starting in 1914 on a chain of hills known as the Seven Sisters. Gillette designed many of the castle’s interior features (which feature a secret room), and also installed a railroad on the property so he could take his guests for rides. When he died in 1937 without designating any heirs, his will forbade the possession of his home by any "blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The castle is now managed by the State of Connecticut as Gillette Castle State Park.

STOP 3. BELCOURT CASTLE // NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND

74 miles from East Haddam, Connecticut

The exterior of Belcourt castle
Jenna Rose Robbins, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Prominent architect Richard Morris Hunt designed Belcourt Castle for congressman and socialite Oliver Belmont in 1891. Hunt was known for his ornate style, having designed the facade of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Breakers in Newport, Rhode Island, but Belmont had some unusual requests. He was less interested in a building that would entertain people and more in one that would allow him to spend time with his horses—the entire first floor was designed around a carriage room and stables. Despite its grand scale, there was only one bedroom. Construction cost $3.2 million in 1894, a figure of approximately $80 million today. But around the time it was finished, Belmont was hospitalized following a mugging. It took an entire year before he saw his completed mansion.

STOP 4. HAMMOND CASTLE MUSEUM // GLOUCESTER, MASSACHUSETTS

111 miles from Newport, Rhode Island

Part of the exterior of Hammond castle
Robert Linsdell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Inventor John Hays Hammond Jr. built his medieval-style castle between 1926 and 1929 as both his home and a showcase for his historical artifacts. But Hammond was not only interested in recreating visions of the past; he also helped shape the future. The castle was home to the Hammond Research Corporation, from which Hammond produced over 400 patents and came up with the ideas for over 800 inventions, including remote control via radio waves—which earned him the title "the Father of Remote Control." Visitors can take a self-guided tour of many of the castle’s rooms, including the great hall, indoor courtyard, Renaissance dining room, guest bedrooms, inventions exhibit room, library, and kitchens.

STOP 5. BOLDT CASTLE // ALEXANDRIA BAY, THOUSAND ISLANDS, NEW YORK

430 miles from Gloucester, Massachusetts

It's a long drive from Gloucester and only accessible by water, but it's worth it. The German-style castle on Heart Island was built in 1900 by millionaire hotel magnate George C. Boldt, who created the extravagant structure as a summer dream home for his wife Louise. Sadly, she passed away just months before the place was completed. The heartbroken Boldt stopped construction, leaving the property empty for over 70 years. It's now in the midst of an extensive renovation, but the ballroom, library, and several bedrooms have been recreated, and the gardens feature thousands of plants.

STOP 6. FONTHILL CASTLE // DOYLESTOWN, PENNSYLVANIA

327 miles from Alexandria Bay, New York

Part of the exterior of Fonthill castle

In the mood for more castles? Head south to Doylestown, Pennsylvania, where Fonthill Castle was the home of the early 20th century American archeologist, anthropologist, and antiquarian Henry Chapman Mercer. Mercer was a man of many interests, including paleontology, tile-making, and architecture, and his interest in the latter led him to design Fonthill Castle as a place to display his colorful tile and print collection. The inspired home is notable for its Medieval, Gothic, and Byzantine architectural styles, and with 44 rooms, there's plenty of well-decorated nooks and crannies to explore.

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7 Famous People Researchers Want to Exhume
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This week, the surrealist painter Salvador Dali is being exhumed from his grave in Figueres, northeastern Spain, where he has lain beneath the stage of a museum since his death in 1989. Researchers hope to collect DNA from his skeleton in order to settle a paternity suit brought by a tarot card reader named Pilar Abel, who claims that her mother had an affair with the artist while working as a maid in the seaside town where the Dalis vacationed. If the claim is substantiated, Abel may inherit a portion of the $325 million estate that Dali, who was thought to be childless, bequeathed to the Spanish state upon his death.

The grave opening may seem like a fittingly surreal turn of events, but advances in DNA research and other scientific techniques have recently led to a rise in exhumations. In the past few years (not to mention months), serial killer H. H. Holmes, poet Pablo Neruda, astronomer Tycho Brahe, and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, among many others, have all been dug up either to prove that the right man went to his grave—or to verify how he got there. Still, there are a number of other bodies that scientists, historians, and other types of researchers want to exhume to answer questions about their lives and deaths. Read on for a sampling of such cases.

1. LEONARDO DA VINCI

An international team of art historians and scientists is interested in exhuming Leonardo da Vinci's body to perform a facial reconstruction on his skull, learn about his diet, and search for clues to his cause of death, which has never been conclusively established. They face several obstacles, however—not the least of which is that da Vinci's grave in France's Loire Valley is only his presumed resting place. The real deal was destroyed during the French Revolution, although a team of 19th century amateur archaeologists claimed to have recovered the famed polymath's remains and reinterred them in a nearby chapel. For now, experts at the J. Craig Venter Institute in California are working on a technique to extract DNA from some of da Vinci's paintings (he was known to smear pigment with his fingers as well as brushes), which they hope to compare with living relatives and the remains in the supposed grave.

2. MERIWETHER LEWIS

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

As one half of Lewis and Clark, Meriwether Lewis is one of America's most famous explorers, but his death belongs to a darker category—famous historical mysteries. Researchers aren't sure exactly what happened on the night of October 10, 1809, when Lewis stopped at a log cabin in Tennessee on his way to Washington, D.C. to settle some financial issues. By the next morning, Lewis was dead, a victim either of suicide (he was known to be suffering from depression, alcoholism, and possibly syphilis) or murder (the cabin was in an area rife with bandits; a corrupt army general may have been after his life). Beginning in the 1990s, descendants and scholars applied to the Department of the Interior for permission to exhume Lewis—his grave is located on National Park Service Land—but were eventually denied. Whatever secrets Lewis kept, he took them to his grave.

3. SHAKESPEARE

A black and white portrait of Shakespeare
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Shakespeare made his thoughts on exhumation very clear—he placed a curse on his tombstone that reads: "Good frend for Jesus sake forebeare/ To digg the dust encloased heare/ Bleste be the man that spares thes stones/ And curst be he that moves my bones." Of course, that hasn't stopped researchers wanting to try. After Richard III's exhumation, one South African academic called for a similar analysis on the Bard's bones, with hopes of finding new information on his diet, lifestyle, and alleged predilection for pot. And there may be another reason to open the grave: A 2016 study using ground-penetrating radar found that the skeleton inside appeared to be missing a skull.

4. JOHN WILKES BOOTH

A black and white photograph of John Wilkes Booth
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The events surrounding Abraham Lincoln's death in 1865 are some of the best-known in U.S. history, but the circumstances of his assassin's death are a little more murky. Though most historical accounts say that John Wilkes Booth was cornered and shot in a burning Virginia barn 12 days after Lincoln's murder, several researchers and some members of his family believe Booth lived out the rest of his life under an assumed name before dying in Oklahoma in 1903. (The corpse of the man who died in 1903—thought by most people to be a generally unremarkable drifter named David E. George—was then embalmed and displayed at fairgrounds.) Booth's corpse has already been exhumed from its grave at Baltimore's Greenmount Cemetery and verified twice, but some would like another try. In 1994, two researchers and 22 members of Booth's family filed a petition to exhume the body once again, but a judge denied the request, finding little compelling evidence for the David E. George theory. Another plan, to compare DNA from Edwin Booth to samples of John Wilkes Booth's vertebrae held at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, has also come to naught.

5. NAPOLEON

A portrait of Napoleon
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Napoleon has already been exhumed once: in 1840, when his body was moved from his burial-in-exile on St. Helena to his resting place in Paris's Les Invalides. But some researchers allege that that tomb in Paris is a sham—it's not home to the former emperor, but to his butler. The thinking goes that the British hid the real Napoleon's body in Westminster Abbey to cover up neglect or poisoning, offering a servant's corpse for internment at Les Invalides. France's Ministry of Defense was not amused by the theory, however, and rejected a 2002 application to exhume the body for testing.

6. HENRY VIII

A portrait of Henry VIII
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In his younger years, the Tudor monarch Henry VIII was known to be an attractive, accomplished king, but around age 40 he began to spiral into a midlife decline. Research by an American bioarchaeologist and anthropologist pair in 2010 suggested that the king's difficulties—including his wives' many miscarriages—may have been caused by an antigen in his blood as well as a related genetic disorder called McLeod syndrome, which is known to rear its head around age 40. Reports in the British press claimed the researchers wanted to exhume the king's remains for testing, although his burial at George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle means they will need to get the Queen’s permission for any excavation. For now, it's just a theory.

7. GALILEO

A portrait of Galileo
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The famed astronomer has had an uneasy afterlife. Although supporters hoped to give him an elaborate burial at the Basilica of Santa Croce, he spent about 100 years in a closet-sized room there beneath the bell tower. (He was moved to a more elaborate tomb in the basilica once the memory of his heresy conviction had faded.) More recently, British and Italian scientists have said they want to exhume his body for DNA tests that could contribute to an understanding of the problems he suffered with his eyesight—problems that may have led him to make some famous errors, like saying Saturn wasn't round. The Vatican will have to sign off on any exhumation, however, so it may be a while.

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