Public humiliation is a form of physical punishment or shaming that dates back to man's early history. The sentence of public shaming and humiliation has been passed down for many varieties of crimes, from the most trivial to the most heinous. In all cases, public punishment has had one desired result: to dissuade the prisoner and the public from committing further acts that could be deserving of such punishment by making a public example of the prisoner.
In the majority of historical cases, cultures that used public humiliation as a punishment for crimes have also had strong religious backgrounds. This common religious background and public fervor has made it possible for government and religious leaders to use public humiliation as an effective form of punishment. Although public humiliation was not generally intended to be a death sentence, sometimes, the mob justice mentality that took over created a situation in which the death of the prisoner occurred.
Although public humiliation has had a place in the torture and punishment of prisoners at least since the time of ancient Babylon, the most commonly recognized instances of public humiliation occurred early in Spanish and American history. Notable historic time periods that are commonly thought of when public shaming or humiliation are mentioned include the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem witch hunts of 1692. During these two time periods, thousands of prisoners suffered public punishments and shaming for crimes against the government or religious leaders.
In ancient Babylon, the laws were often very stringent, and the punishment for crimes often included torture and public humiliation. A surgeon who caused death or loss of a limb, for example, could have both of his own hands amputated. Cases of extreme debt could result in the debtor or his family members being sold into slavery and marked with a branding iron, thus displaying their status as slaves publicly until the brand was surgically removed. In the case of more serious crimes, public beatings and the public amputation of limbs was also a common punishment handed down by the court system.
During the Spanish Inquisition from 1478-1834, torture and public humiliation were commonly used to extract confessions from prisoners. Physical punishments or the threat of torture and public shaming were the primary tools used by the Spanish government and the Catholic church to control members of the public with a strong grip. It was a common occurrence for prisoners, who were sometimes innocent victims, to confess to crimes and be shamed in public or to be tortured to death publicly when they refused to confess.
In colonial American law, which was largely governed by the religious sentiments of the Puritan leaders who founded the country, public humiliation was also common form of punishment. Whether it was branding or time spent in the stocks or the bilboes, the Puritan law offered severe punishments for crimes that most people would consider inconsequential. Under these colonial American laws, an individual could be publicly punished for gossiping, public displays of affection or even arriving late to church services. These same Puritan laws were in effect in 1692 Salem, Massachusetts, when the Salem witch hunts and trials resulted in the public humiliation and torture of more than 150 people accused of witchcraft.