History is full of horrifying spectator events where the public came in droves to witness the brutal killing of animals and even other humans. Think MMA is violent? Check out horse fighting in the Philippines. Still too tame? There are still place in the world where you can watch cockfights, dogfights, and even bear baiting. And let's not forget about bullfighting in Spain and Latin America...
Hands down, the worst public events in history were public executions. There's no getting around it: people showed up by the thousands to watch another person die. That's horrifying. But plenty of blood sports in history are not too far behind. In fact, for sheer number of lives lost (animal or human), it's hard to beat "sports" like ancient Roman venationes or 19th-century rat baiting in England. Read on for some of the worst, most horrifying public events in history.
Public Executions Drew Crowds of Up to 100,000 Spectators
Public executions, as anthropologist Frances Larson notes, used to not only be acceptable, but wildly popular: “The lesson of history is that it is within our capacity as humans to witness decapitations and other forms of execution and, more than that, to enjoy them as popular public events.”
Larson notes that lynching, decapitations, burning-at-the-stake, and whatever you call getting killed via Catherine wheel almost always drew a crowd. Even just run-of-the-mill hangings in 19th century London drew crowds of around 5,000, while “famous felons” getting the rope brought out “crowds of up to 100,000.”
If the idea of a public execution sounds archaic to you, remember: the last public execution in America was a hanging in Kentucky in 1936. The crowd? 20,000 people.
Thousands Flocked to Insane Asylums to Gawk at the Mentally Ill
The Bethlem Royal Hospital in London (AKA Bedlam) was founded in 1247 as an institution for the mentally ill, but it wasn't until the 17th century that they started charging admission to spectators who would come to observe the disordered actions of the disturbed patients. And if the patients weren't acting "crazy" enough, spectators were even allowed to poke them with sticks to rile them up.
Bedlam was a popular destination with both Londoners and tourists. These outings were particularly popular during holidays like Christmas and Easter. In 1814 alone, there were 96,000 visits.
Bedlam was not the only mental hospital to allow - or even encourage - visitors. Admission fees were a source of revenue for some hospitals, and it was believed that the suffering of the patients might also provide a cautionary tale to viewers about the dangers of sin.
Venatio Battles Killed 5,000 Bears, Elephants, and Lions in Three Months
Venatio sounds like the name of a Shakespearean hero, but it’s actually a bonkers blood sport cooked up by the ancient Romans. "Venatio" means hunting, but so-called venationes, or hunts, were not really hunting excursions in the modern sense, but instead just man vs. beast battles in an amphitheater.
At their most extreme, dozens of animals (including bears, elephants, and lions) were slaughtered for sport daily, such as at the inauguration ceremonies for the Colosseum, which saw 5,000 animals killed in just 100 days. Sometimes the brutality was just too much for the crowd, as Cicero explained:
The last day was that of the elephants, on which there was a great deal of astonishment on the part of the vulgar crowd, but no pleasure whatever. Nay, there was even a certain feeling of compassion aroused by it, and a kind of belief created that that animal has something in common with mankind.
Gladiatorial Combat Was Brutal (But Tamer Than You Might Think)
Hollywood spectacles such as Ridley Scott's Gladiator have led people to believe that gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome was a blood-soaked free-for-all, with a half-dozen fighters hacking away at one another until there's only one left standing.
The reality is a bit more tame. Professor David Potter (editor of Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire) told Entertainment Weekly back in 2000 when Gladiator came out that only about 1 in 10 gladiators died in the ring. Gladiators were considered celebrities, and they were "too profitable" to just kill off. Most fights were one-on-one, and actually ended "with first blood or surrender, not death."
Still, there's no doubt that the public was coming out in droves to watch a couple of guys try to do some serious harm to each other, and criminals and POWs were, in fact, often killed off in the arena (some by tigers!).