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What is Public Humiliation?

By Larry Ray Palmer
Updated May 16, 2024
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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.

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Discussion Comments

By Rotergirl — On May 07, 2014

@Pippinwhite -- That was *college*? Seriously? Good Lord. I remember the stupid high school sororities doing that kind of junk, but I had no idea it still went on in colleges. At least the national sororities and fraternities have rules against hazing, even if they're not always followed. At least someone has some recourse if they're hazed and something bad happens as a result.

I never saw the point in humiliating someone publicly as a prerequisite for them joining your group. That is beyond stupid.

By Pippinwhite — On May 06, 2014

And sometimes, people take on public humiliation voluntarily. I went to a private college my first two years and they had private sororities and fraternities. Pledge times were nothing but humiliation. I remember the girls had to wear pajamas to class and around campus all day. They weren't supposed to shave their legs or under their arms for the whole pledge time, and so forth.

Then there was hell night. That was the last night before they were officially initiated. The senior members got the pledges drunk and they had to stand on chairs and sing in front of the crowd at a really rough truck stop. Then they rolled them in garbage and poured Crisco on their hair. When they came into the dorm afterward, I could smell them through my closed door. It was awful. But since they weren't national organizations, there was no one to complain to.

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