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Trial by Ordeal

Posted by Andrew Segal | Sep 11, 2017 | 0 Comments

If you've ever wondered where the saying "trial by fire" or "you're in hot water" came from, you're about to find out. And while some people went through a trial by fire or water, some went through a trial by cake.

In the last video, I explained about trial by oath. Basically, a person would swear didn't not commit a crime and because of the belief that if you swore a false oath you would spend eternity in hell, that was often good enough. What I left out of that video was the fact that this only applied to men who are considered of "good repute" if the local authorities considered you an " “untrustworthy man” you had to go through some sort of "Trial by Ordeal".

The theory was that God would protect the innocent by performing some form of miracle and he would allow the guilty to be punished.

One type of trial by ordeal was "Trial by Fire". Trial by fire the accused person would be made to hold a red-hot piece of iron. If they could do so without their hands being burned they were not guilty. In some versions of this, the accused's hand would be examined a few days after to determine whether and how it was healing. If the wound was healing well they might be declared not guilty but if the wound had become infected they were guilty. One famous example of this was when the accused who was one day to become Emperor avoided trial by fire by insisting that he would only submit to this if his accuser would himself pick up and hand him the red-hot iron.

The other type of trial by fire involved the accused walking upon red-hot coals or red-hot plowshares.

As a lawyer, I represent a lot of people in hot water. And I've spent a lot of time in hot water myself but fortunately, I've never had to go through a trial by hot water. In a trial by hot water person would have to fetch something, typically a stone out of a boiling cauldron of water. If they could do so without injury they were not guilty. And it wasn't always trial by hot water sometimes the cauldron was filled with things like boiling lead.

The other form of trial by water occurred frequently during the Salem witch trials. The idea was that since water was pure it would reject that which was un pure. So if you bound a person and put in the water and they sank and drowned that meant they were innocent. If they floated, they were on pure and rejected by the water in which case they had to be a witch and you would hang them.

Of course, my personal favorite is trial by cake. Yes, this was a real thing. Trial by cake was usually meant as a merciful kind of trial. Before there was a separation of church and state it was usually reserved for the

clergy. They would have to eat a piece of bread or cheese or cake after reciting a prayer that if they were guilty they should choke to death. If they managed to eat the food and not choked to death, they weren't guilty. Piece of cake!

Of course if you find yourself in hot water or going through the ordeal of the criminal case just give us a call here at Segal and Segal.

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About the Author

Andrew Segal

Andrew Segal is a former judge and prosecutor who now represents the accused as a criminal defense attorney in Huntsville, Alabama, area courts. Andrew graduated cum laude from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1982. and Washington College of Law at American University in 1988.


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