Human branding

Last updated

Human branding or stigmatizing is the process by which a mark, usually a symbol or ornamental pattern, is burned into the skin of a living person, with the intention that the resulting scar makes it permanent. This is performed using a hot or very cold branding iron. It therefore uses the physical techniques of livestock branding on a human, either with consent as a form of body modification; or under coercion, as a punishment or to identify an enslaved or otherwise oppressed person. It may also be practiced as a "rite of passage", e.g. within a tribe, or to signify membership of or acceptance into an organization.


Modern strike branding Strike Branding.jpg
Modern strike branding


The English verb to burn, attested since the 12th century, is a combination of Old Norse brenna "to burn, light", and two originally distinct Old English verbs: bærnan "to kindle" (transitive) and beornan "to be on fire" (intransitive), both from the Proto-Germanic root bren(wanan), perhaps from a Proto-Indo-European root bhre-n-u, from base root bhereu- "to boil forth, well up." In Dutch, (ver)branden mean "to burn", brandmerk a branded mark; similarly, in German, Brandzeichen means "a brand" and brandmarken, "to brand".

Sometimes, the word cauterize is used. This is known in English since 1541, and is derived via Medieval French cauteriser from Late Latin cauterizare "to burn or brand with a hot iron", itself from Greek καυτηριάζειν, kauteriazein, from καυτήρ kauter "burning or branding iron", from καίειν kaiein "to burn". However cauterization is now generally understood to mean a medical process – specifically to stop bleeding.

Historical use

Marking the rightless

Branding of a naked female slave in Africa The Negro in American history (microform) - men and women eminent in the evolution of the American of African descent (1914) (14597416438).jpg
Branding of a naked female slave in Africa

The origin may be the ancient treatment of a slave (often without legal rights) as livestock.

As punishment

Branding of the Huguenot John Leclerc during the 16th century persecutions. History of the great reformation in Europe in the times of Luther and Calvin.. (1870) (14765446082).jpg
Branding of the Huguenot John Leclerc during the 16th century persecutions.
Whipping and branding of thieves in Denmark, 1728 Whipping and hanging of thieves.jpg
Whipping and branding of thieves in Denmark, 1728

In criminal law, branding with a hot iron was a mode of punishment consisting of marking the subject as if goods or animals, sometimes concurrently with their reduction of status in life.

Brand marks have also been used as a punishment for convicted criminals, combining physical punishment, as burns are very painful, with public humiliation (greatest if marked on a normally visible part of the body) which is here the more important intention, and with the imposition of an indelible criminal record. Robbers, like runaway slaves, were marked by the Romans with the letter F (fur); and the toilers in the mines, and convicts condemned to figure in gladiatorial shows, were branded on the forehead for identification. Under Constantine I the face was not permitted to be so disfigured, the branding being on the hand, arm or calf.

The Acts of Sharbil record it applied, amongst other tortures, to a Christian between the eyes and on the cheeks in Parthian Edessa at the time of the Roman Emperor Trajan on a judge's order for refusal to sacrifice.

In the 16th century, German Anabaptists were branded with a cross on their foreheads for refusing to recant their faith and join the Roman Catholic church. [1]

In the North-American Puritan settlements of the 17th century, men and women sentenced for adultery were branded with an "A" letter on their chest, and for other crimes, such as "D" for drunkenness and "B" for blasphemy. [2] [ failed verification ]

The mark in later times was also often chosen as a code for the crime (e.g. in Canadian military prisons D for Desertion, BC for Bad Character; most branded men were shipped off to a penal colony).[ citation needed ] Branding was used for a time by the Union Army during the American Civil War. Surgeon and Oxford English Dictionary contributor William Chester Minor was required to brand deserters at around the time of the Battle of the Wilderness.[ citation needed ]

Until 1832 in France, various offenses carried the additional infamy of being branded with a fleur de lis and galley-slaves could be branded GAL or, once the galleys were replaced by the bagnes on land, TF (travaux forcés, 'forced' labor, i.e. hard labour) or TFP (travaux forcés à perpetuité, hard labour for life).[ citation needed ] In most of the German-speaking states, however, branding people was unlawful.

Following the Conspiracy of the Slaves of 1749 in Malta, some slaves were branded with the letter R (for ribelli) on their forehead and condemned to the galleys for life. [3]

Branding tended to be abolished like other judicial mutilations (with notable exceptions, such as amputation under sharia law), sooner and more widely than flogging, caning, and similar corporal punishments, which normally aim 'only' at pain and at worst cause stripe scars, although the most severe lashings (not uncommon in penal colonies) in terms of dosage and instrument (such as the proverbial knout) can even turn out to cause death.

Branding in American slavery

A replica of a slave branding iron originally used in the Atlantic slave trade, on display at the Museum of Liverpool, England. Slave branding iron (replica), Museum of Liverpool.jpg
A replica of a slave branding iron originally used in the Atlantic slave trade, on display at the Museum of Liverpool, England.
Depiction of slave branding, from Illustrations of the American Anti-slavery Almanac for 1840 Branding slaves.tif
Depiction of slave branding, from Illustrations of the American Anti-slavery Almanac for 1840

In Louisiana, there was a "black code", or Code Noir , which allowed the cropping of ears, shoulder branding, and hamstringing, the cutting of tendons near the knee, as punishments for recaptured slaves. Slave owners used extreme punishments to stop flight, or escape. They would often brand the slaves' palms, shoulders, buttocks, or cheeks with a branding iron. [4]

Branding was sometimes used to mark recaptured runaway slaves to help the locals easily identify the runaway. Mr. Micajah Ricks, in Raleigh, North Carolina, was looking for his slave and described, "I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M." [5]

Most slave owners would use whipping as their main method, but at other times they would use branding to punish their slaves. Another testimony explains how a slave owner in Kentucky around 1848 was looking for his runaway slave. He described her having "a brand mark on the breast something like L blotched." [6] In South Carolina, there were many laws which permitted the punishments slaves would receive. When a slave ran away, if it was the first offense, the slave would receive no more than forty lashes. Then the second offense would be branding. The slave would have been marked with the letter R on their forehead signifying that they were a criminal, and a runaway. [7]

As religious initiation

Ceremonial Branding is an integral part of religious initiation in most Vaishnava sects. References to this practice can be traced in texts such as Narad Panchratra, Vaikhnasagama, Skanda Purana etc. [8] This practice is still in vogue among Madhava sect Brahmins of Karnataka in India. [9]

Branding in Britain

The punishment was adopted by the Anglo-Saxons, and the ancient law of England authorized the penalty. By the Statute of Vagabonds (1547) under King Edward VI, vagabonds and Gypsies were ordered to be branded with a large V on the breast, and brawlers with F for "fraymaker"; slaves who ran away were branded with S on the cheek or forehead. This law was repealed in England in 1550. From the time of Henry VII, branding was inflicted for all offences which received Benefit of clergy (branding of the thumbs was used around 1600 at Old Bailey to ensure that the accused who had successfully used the Benefit of Clergy defence, by reading a passage from the Bible, could not use it more than once), but it was abolished for such in 1822. In 1698 it was enacted that those convicted of petty theft or larceny, who were entitled to benefit of clergy, should be "burnt in the most visible part of the left cheek, nearest the nose." This special ordinance was repealed in 1707. James Nayler, a Quaker who in the year 1655 was accused of claiming to be the Messiah, was convicted of blasphemy in a highly publicized trial before the Second Protectorate Parliament and had his tongue bored through and his forehead branded B for "blasphemer".

In the Lancaster Criminal Court, a branding iron is still preserved in the dock. It is a long bolt with a wooden handle at one end and an M (malefactor) at the other; close by are two iron loops for firmly securing the hands during the operation. The brander would, after examination, turn to the judge exclaiming "A fair mark, my lord." Criminals were formerly ordered to hold up their hands before sentence to show if they had been previously convicted.

In the 18th century, cold branding or branding with cold irons became the mode of nominally inflicting the punishment on prisoners of higher rank. "When Charles Moritz, a young German, visited England in 1782 he was much surprised at this custom, and in his diary mentioned the case of a clergyman who had fought a duel and killed his man in Hyde Park. Found guilty of manslaughter he was burnt in the hand, if that could be called burning which was done with a cold iron" (Markham's Ancient Punishments of Northants , 1886).

Such cases led to branding becoming obsolete, and it was abolished in 1829 except in the case of deserters from the army, who were marked with the letter D, not with hot irons but by tattooing with ink or gunpowder. Notoriously bad soldiers were also branded with BC (bad character). The British Mutiny Act of 1858 provided that the court-martial might, in addition to any other penalty, order deserters to be marked on the left side, 2 inches (5 cm) below the armpit, with the letter D, such letter to be not less than an inch long. In 1879 this was abolished.

Branding in Australia

Offenders in Australia were subject to branding in accordance with British law. In 1826, in Hobart, Joseph Clarke was charged with manslaughter and ‘sentenced to be burnt in the hand’. In 1850, in New South Wales, deserter Daniel O’Neil was tattooed with the letter ‘D’. [10]

Branding in Russia

Branding in Russia was used quite extensively in the 18th century and the first half of the 19th century. Over time, red hot iron brands were gradually replaced by tattoo boards; criminals were first branded on the forehead and cheeks, later on the back and arms. Branding was totally abolished in 1863. [11]

Branding prostitutes

Forced and enslaved prostitutes have often been tattooed or branded with a mark of their owners. Women and girls being forced into prostitution would have their boss’s name or gang symbol inked or branded with hot iron on their skin. In some organizations involved with the trafficking of women and girls like the mafias nearly all prostitutes are marked. Some pimps and organisations use their name or well-known symbol, others are using secret signs. [12]

The branding is both painful and humiliating for the victim, especially when done with a branding iron, and may be also a form of punishment and of psychological submission for the prostitutes.

Some years ago the brands were usually small[ citation needed ], only recognized by other pimps, sometimes hidden between the inner vaginal lips, though other instances show that pimps have no issue with larger more noticeable brands [13]

Persisting practices


In symbolic solidarity with Calf 269, protesters in Israel subjected themselves to branding on World Farm Animals Day (Gandhi's birthday): October 2, 2012. This act was emulated by others in England and the Czech Republic. An English protester who was interviewed justified the extremism as a reaction to the extreme cruelty perpetrated by the dairy industry such as shooting calves at birth. [15]

See also


Related Research Articles

Tattoo art form consisting of images created by ink placed in human skin, permanently or semi-permanently

A tattoo is a form of body modification where a design is made by inserting ink, dyes and pigments, either indelible or temporary, into the dermis layer of the skin to change the pigment. The art of making tattoos is tattooing.

Scarification body modification

Scarifying involves scratching, etching, burning / branding, or superficially cutting designs, pictures, or words into the skin as a permanent body modification. In the process of body scarification, scars are formed by cutting or branding the skin by varying methods, to purposely influence wound healing to scar more and not scar less. Scarification is sometimes called cicatrization.

Mutilation or maiming is cutting off or injury to a body part of a person so that the part of the body is permanently damaged, detached or disfigured.

Pillory Whipping-post

The pillory is a device made of a wooden or metal framework erected on a post, with holes for securing the head and hands, formerly used for punishment by public humiliation and often further physical abuse. The pillory is related to the stocks.

Labor camp prison

A labor camp or work camp is a detention facility where inmates are forced to engage in penal labor as a form of punishment. Labor camps have many common aspects with slavery and with prisons. Conditions at labor camps vary widely depending on the operators.

Gibbeting post-mortem punishment of encasing a criminals body in an iron cage (gibbet cage) and suspending it from a tall, often wooden, post

A gibbet is any instrument of public execution, but gibbeting refers to the use of a gallows-type structure from which the dead or dying bodies of criminals were hanged on public display to deter other existing or potential criminals. Occasionally the gibbet was also used as a method of execution, with the criminal being left to die of exposure, thirst and/or starvation. The term gibbet may also be used to refer to the practice of placing a criminal on display within a gibbet. This practice is also called "hanging in chains".

Public humiliation form of punishment whose main feature is dishonoring or disgracing a person

Public humiliation or public shaming is a form of punishment whose main feature is dishonoring or disgracing a person, usually an offender or a prisoner, especially in a public place. It was regularly used as a form of judicially sanctioned punishment in previous centuries, and is still practiced by different means in the modern era.

Branding iron tool used to burn a mark on livestock, tools, or manufactured goods to indicate ownership

A branding iron is used for branding, pressing a heated metal shape against an object or livestock with the intention of leaving an identifying mark.

Livestock branding technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner, traditionally with a hot iron

Livestock branding is a technique for marking livestock so as to identify the owner. Originally, livestock branding only referred to hot branding large stock with a branding iron, though the term now includes alternative techniques. Other forms of livestock identification include freeze branding, inner lip or ear tattoos, earmarking, ear tagging, and radio-frequency identification (RFID), tagging with a microchip implant. The semi-permanent paint markings used to identify sheep are called a paint or colour brand. In the American West, branding evolved into a complex marking system still in use today.

Criminal tattoo Tattoos associated with criminal activity and gang membership

Criminal tattoos are a type of tattoos associated with criminals to show gang membership and record the wearer's personal history—such as their skills, specialties, accomplishments, incarceration, world view and/or means of personal expression. Tattoos are strongly empirically associated with deviance, personality disorders, and criminality.

During the Edo period, Japan (1603-1868) used various punishments against criminals.

Galley slave Historical profession

A galley slave is a slave rowing in a galley, either a convicted criminal sentenced to work at the oar, or a kind of human chattel, often a prisoner of war, assigned to his duty of rowing.

Slavery in Britain

Slavery in Great Britain existed and was recognised from before the Roman occupation until the 12th century, when chattel slavery disappeared, at least for a time, after the Norman Conquest. Former slaves merged into the larger body of serfs in Britain and no longer were recognized separately in law or custom.

Badge of shame

A badge of shame, also a symbol of shame, mark of shame or stigma, is typically a distinctive symbol required to be worn by a specific group or an individual for the purpose of public humiliation, ostracism or persecution.

Vagrancy Condition of homelessness without regular employment or income

Vagrancy is the condition of homelessness without regular employment or income. Vagrants usually live in poverty and support themselves by begging, garbage scraping, petty theft, temporary work, or welfare.

The Five Punishments was the collective name for a series of physical penalties meted out by the legal system of pre-modern dynastic China. Over time, the nature of the Five Punishments varied. Before the time of Western Han dynasty Emperor Han Wendi they involved tattooing, cutting off the nose, amputation of one or both feet, castration and death. Following the Sui and Tang dynasties these were changed to penal servitude, banishment, death, or corporal punishment in the form of whipping with bamboo strips or flogging with a stick. Although the Five Punishments were an important part of Dynastic China's penal system they were not the only methods of punishment used.

Chinese calligraphy tattoos Tattoos of Chinese characters in calligraphic style

Chinese calligraphy tattoos are tattoos of Chinese characters in a calligraphic style. Today, Chinese calligraphy tattoos can be found worldwide.

Russian criminal tattoos

During the 20th century in the Soviet Union, Russian criminal and prison communities maintained a culture of using tattoos to indicate members' criminal career and ranking. Specifically among those imprisoned under the Gulag system of the Soviet era, the tattoos served to differentiate a criminal leader or thief in law from a political prisoner.

The Yoruba tribal marks are scarifications which are specific identification and beautification marks designed on the face or body of the Yoruba people. The tribal marks are part of the Yoruba culture and are usually inscribed on the body by burning or cutting of the skin during childhood. The primary function of the tribal marks is for identification of a person's tribe, family or patrilineal heritage. Other secondary functions of the marks are symbols of beauty, Yoruba creativity and keeping mischievous children alive. This practice was popular among Yoruba people of Nigeria, Benin, and Togo. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, tribal identification and facial stripes became important. Some repatriated slaves later reunited with their communities by looking at facial stripes.

Face tattoo

A facial tattoo is a tattoo located on the bearer's face or head. Originally taboo, socially unacceptable, and considered extreme in body art, this style and placement of tattoo has become more popular in recent years. This is due to its acceptance in criminality, the continuing acceptance of tattoos overall in society, and the emergence of hip-hop culture popularizing styles such as the teardrop tattoo. Artists such as Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, Gucci Mane and, in recent years Post Malone, XXXTentacion, Lil Pump, Lil Xan, and 21 Savage contribute to its acceptance in popular culture.


  1. Edward Bean Underhill, Martyrology of the Churches of Christ Commonly Called Baptists during the Era of the Reformation, (1850), pg 118
  2. John A. Grigg; Peter C. Mancall, eds. (2008). British Colonial America: People and Perspectives. ABC-CLIO. p. 54. ISBN   9781598840254.
  3. Sciberras, Sandro. "Maltese History - E. The Decline of the Order of St John In the 18th Century" (PDF). St. Benedict College. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-10-06.
  4. "punishments". The Underground RailRoad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe. Retrieved Oct 3, 2013.
  5. Weld, Theodore Dwight (1968). American Slavery As It Is. New York: Arno Press, Inc. pp. 21, 77, 108, 112.
  6. Howe, S. W. (Winter 2009). "Slavery As Punishment: Original Public Meaning, Cruel and Unusual Punishments and the Neglected Clause in the Thirteenth Amendment". Arizona Law Review. 51 Ariz. L. Rev. 983. Retrieved Sep 20, 2013.
  7. Higginbotham Jr., A. Leon (1978). In The Matter of Color Race and the American Legal Process: The Colonial Period. New York: Oxford University. pp. 176–184.
  8. "Tapta Mudra Dharana". Uttaradi Math. Archived from the original on 2014-04-19. Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  9. Udupi, July 11, DHNS (2013-05-21). "'Tapta Mudra Dharana' ceremony held". Retrieved 2014-06-09.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  10. Barnard, Simon (2016). Convict Tattoos: Marked Men and Women of Australia. Melbourne: Text Publishing. pp. 54–55. ISBN   9781925410235.
  11. "Murders". Retrieved 2014-06-09.
  12. CNN: Old mark of slavery is being used on sex trafficking victims
  13. Irish Mirror: Pictured: Trafficked prostitutes BRANDED by pimps to show they ‘own’ them
  14. Posey, Sandra, "Burning Messages: Interpreting African American Fraternity Brands and Their Bearers Archived 2017-01-18 at the Wayback Machine ", New York Folklore Society Voices, Fall-Winter 2004.
  15. Starke, Jonathan. "Vegans are branding their flesh in Leeds". Vice. Retrieved 10 April 2013.