Here’s What Actually Happens During an Execution by Molten Gold

It’s probably not the gold itself that kills you, but rather the steam

Photo: Atlantide Phototravel/Corbis

Fans of Game of Thrones know that, in Westeros, death is almost always grisly. Back in season one, for example, a character was killed by having molten gold poured over his head. However terrible this might seem, though, real-life history one-ups it. Centuries ago, having molten gold poured down your throat was actually the preferred means of death by molten metal.   

Marcus Lincinius Crassus, an astoundingly wealthy Roman general, is rumored to have died this way, as is Roman Emperor Valerian the Elder (though others contest that he was flayed alive). Spanish inquisitors used this technique and so did tribes in South America—as one corrupt, gold-loving Spanish governor found out in 1599.

Horrific as this sounds, it begs the question: just what killed the victim? Was it the hot gold itself, the steam, perhaps suffocation? The blog It's Interesting points to a 2003 study in the Journal of Clinical Pathology in which investigators decided to find out. Instead of gold, they used lead, another historically accurate (if less expensive) agent of execution:

We obtained a bovine larynx from a local slaughter house (no animal was harmed or killed specifically for this purpose). After fixing the larynx in a horizontal position to a piece of wood and closing the distal end using tissue paper, 750 g of pure lead (around 450°C) was heated until melting and then poured into the larynx. Immediately, large amounts of steam appeared at both ends of the specimen, and the clot of tissue paper was expelled with force by the steam. Within 10 seconds, the lead had congealed again, completely filling the larynx.

After the lead and larynx cooled down, the experimenters examined the larynx by taking cross-sections and looking at them under a light microscope. The throat mucus layer had been completely burned off, and the muscle was cooked or damaged to the depth of about 1 cm, they report.

Having molten lead or gold poured down your throat, they conclude, is a pretty sure way to die: it might rupture your organs, burn your lungs and choke you. Ultimately, though, it's probably the steam that pulls the plug. 

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