What exactly would happen if you boiled a person alive?
March 15, 2010 2:14 PM   Subscribe

What exactly would happen if you boiled a person alive?

I should probably say at the outset that this is for a class I'm taking and my interest is purely hypothetical and academic. Seriously.

So what would happen? Walk me through the process, step by step- ie, what would happen to the person's various bits, how long would it take to lose consciousness, what would the end result look like, etc.

I promise not to ask how exactly you guys know this information. Thanks!
posted by Dormant Gorilla to Food & Drink (31 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
What you mean by "boiling"?
posted by phrontist at 2:20 PM on March 15, 2010

Putting them in a giant vat of boiling water until they are cooked.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 2:22 PM on March 15, 2010

Are they totally sub-merged, or can they still breathe?
posted by Diplodocus at 2:24 PM on March 15, 2010

Oh, good question. Yeah, let's say their head is above the water. Sorry, will bow out of this thread now.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 2:25 PM on March 15, 2010

No, no, heavy OP participation in AskMe threads is useful. This isn't the Blue. :D

Are you looking for, like, physiological effects? Like, what would happen as the cells of the body heat up, fat rises to scalding temperatures, etc? Are you throwing the person right into boiling water or raising the temperature slowly?
posted by Pope Guilty at 2:32 PM on March 15, 2010

I read the question as dropping a person into a pot of water that is already boiling, the water level reaching their neck. I think steam burns would be a problem from the beginning; beyond that I have no idea what happens. Wikipidia has a bit of historical info.
posted by craven_morhead at 2:37 PM on March 15, 2010

I feel weird sitting in my own thread. Ok, so: How long could you stay conscious for, how long could you stay alive for, how much would you be able to feel, WHAT would you feel as you undergo this process. I mean, I assume the actual cooking process would be the same as for any piece of meat, but I'm trying to get an idea of exactly what a sentient being would experience during the process. Assume you have been thrown into a vat of boiling water out of which you can't escape, but you can thrash around in there, and your head is above the water line.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 2:37 PM on March 15, 2010

not an answer, but: i have been curious about this as well after reading in the news recently about two russian men who boiled to death after jumping into a plunge pool that had accidentally been set far too hot.
posted by lia at 2:42 PM on March 15, 2010

I'm trying to get an idea of exactly what a sentient being would experience during the process.

You can always read David Foster Wallace's excellent "Consider the Lobster."
posted by sallybrown at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

The class is on meat and all the various types of meat and ways to cook it, and we were all assigned terms that we had to come up with interesting facts and stories about, and I got "boiling", which is really boring, so I am going this way with it.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 2:45 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I don't have any concrete data, but here's some random speculation:
Basically, water that hot is going to be killing all your cells and throwing off homeostasis of many of the bodies processes. Obviously it's safe to assume some pretty extreme pain, perhaps enough to make you pass out. You'd have trouble breathing, because of factors such as steam, the air in your lungs being far too hot and losing muscle control as your cells died and chemical processes are thrown off. I'm sure it wouldn't be long before your heart lost the ability to beat, again due to heating up chemicals needed to create muscle contraction, as well as general cell death. The brain cannot function long without oxygen, and I'm sure it wouldn't take long before it would be no longer receiving oxygen properly due to blood heating up and muscle problems... so I'd ballpark you would be dead in under 10 minutes and unconscious considerably before that.

It's really hard to say what the exact process and sequence would be with so much going on at once. The body has so many very precise processes that depend on water, other chemicals and exact conditions, and they'd all be thrown out of whack really quickly. And with your blood transferring heat all through your body, I'd expect pretty much every organ to be failing at once.
posted by Diplodocus at 2:50 PM on March 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Participating in your own AskMe thread is good if you're clarifying what exactly you're asking (i.e. your comments). If you've seen people saying it's a bad thing, that's because they're thinking of people who explain why they disagree with every single comment right after it's posted.
posted by Jaltcoh at 2:51 PM on March 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Dunno if it's the same as boiling to death (this might come under the heading of "baking"), but many of the victims of the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire died from the heat rather than smoke inhalation, which is unusual in fire situations. In this case, according to the many texts I've read, the fat in the human body literally "cooks" and then causes the epidermis to split open. The muscles and ligaments contract from the heat, causing the victim to assume the "pugilistic posture" - that is, his arms and hands will constrict and he'll end up in somewhat of a fetal position, with his fists clenched, and elbows bent bringing the fists close to the face. The scalp will split open as will the charred skull and brain matter will bubble up through the opening. In arson investigations, these particular body manifestations from the heat often make it appear at first glance that the victim was fending off blows and was struck forcefully in the head.
posted by Oriole Adams at 2:51 PM on March 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

Put a two-quart pot of water on the stove. Heat to boiling. Drop in two hot dogs. After maybe 30 seconds, you'll hear the outer skin ripping/popping, though you won't necessarily notice anything different through the boiling water, except for the hot dogs deepening a bit in hue. I imagine this is how it might be, though I can't speak for the snapping synapses, etc.
Come on, people; answer the O.P.'s question! I live for questions like this on AskMe. Such a refreshing change from the usual computer-related tedium.
posted by BostonTerrier at 2:54 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am not sure how fast it would occur, but basically a body temperature above ~106 F (41 F) results in many things pretty quickly, including unconsciousness and seizures. Boiling water is 212F/100C. My guess is if someone is immersed in boiling water massive pain for a short duration followed by seizures and unconsciousness. Whether or not the skin would flay off before unconsciousness, or if the nerve ending would get cooked before unconsciousness I don't know. It would take more than a few seconds for death/unconsciousness as there are reports of torturers repeatedly dunking the same person in the boiling water to prolong the torture.

I imagine also raising the core body temp would necessitate immersion at least up to the neck, as there are countless stories of just sticking people up to their legs to "just" remove the skin.

ugh, I think I'm done with this topic.
posted by edgeways at 2:58 PM on March 15, 2010

Gruesome and horrible, but intriguing. I am thinking aloud here, so waiting to be contradicted.

Subject is a healthy adult. Water is boiling before immersion of subject. Subject is immersed to the neck, and restrained from movement outside the water.

The first thing that comes to mind is that this would not be a full-thickness burn, but a partial thickness burn, and so exquisitely painful. The subject might pass out from the pain alone.

Stream burns to the nose, mouth and airways may cause them to swell and subject to die of asphyxiation.

The skin will lose integrity (unsure of timescale). In severe burns there is often hypovolaemic shock from the loss of fluid from the burns; but in this case the subject is immersed in water. I don't know how this would affect fluid balance; water is of a lower osmolality than body tissue/fluid, so might there even be water taken in by the body? In that case water intoxication could be an issue. It rather depends on whether those osmotic reactions are changed by the temperature. Skin compromise can also lead to bleeding.

Assuming that water isn't a factor, the next thing is the temperature. Wikipedia tells me that 40 degrees represents serious trouble for the body; the body will be trying to compensate for the heat by various methods, including vasodilation. This will exacerbate any bleeding caused by skin failure, and again we may be talking about hypovolaemic shock.

Short version: agonising pain, ?respiratory failure, shock, multiple organ failure, death.
posted by Coobeastie at 3:01 PM on March 15, 2010

This is a gross but detailed example. There are probably more accounts along these lines but I feel kind of nauseous now.
posted by restless_nomad at 3:05 PM on March 15, 2010

You don't need to stay in for long.

I found this while searching for descriptions of what happens if you leave the path in geothermal areas in New Zealand.

There are lots of places in and around Rotorua where the soil crust over a hot water pool is too thin to support your weight, even though the ground looks solid. Every few years someone falls through into boiling water and dies or is severely injured. Alas, I found no reports grisly enough for your reading pleasure.

Having all or most of your skin slough off is probably enough to do you in even if you get pulled out before your interior cooks.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 3:06 PM on March 15, 2010

Given that it's fairly well documented as a method of capital punishment (boiling in water or oil or, I think, lead), I'd guess that you can find a lot of information on this from historical sources. This frontline page says it could take up to 2 hours before you died, including time taken to get the water to boiling.
posted by jeather at 3:07 PM on March 15, 2010

Via craven morhead's wiki link I got to this page on the torture of Muzafar Avazov (warning: extremely graphic) which includes pictures of the boiled victim.

Note: these pictures may be a little much for a class on cooking meats.
posted by 6550 at 3:07 PM on March 15, 2010

I don't know how accurate it is, but a character in James Clavell's Shogun is slowly boiled to death. They bind him in a huge cauldron and stoke the fires under it all night. He screams constantly and at one point tries to commit suicide by bashing his head against the rim of the cauldron, prompting his captors to restrain his head. They called it "the night of one thousand screams" I believe.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 3:09 PM on March 15, 2010

Well, this is half remembered from a trip to el tatio and the puritama hot springs in Northern Chile, but they have very hot (boiling) springs that our tour guide told us were named after various tourists that had fallen in - the Japanese, the Spaniard, etc. Apparently, after falling in and being quickly dragged out, death is not quick and occurs on the several hour long trip to the nearest hospital. Wish I could find a source online, but my limited googling has failed me. Terrifying, and very effective at keeping me far away from the edges (which may have been my tour guide's intent).
posted by fermezporte at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2010

Your delightfully horrible question has made me log in and reply for the first time in several years. Whilst hungover, I would be frequently struck by a paralysing fear of death and its certain imminence. Once, after a severe boozing bender, I found myself reading a New Scientist article about death and its multifarious forms. The article seems to be behind a paywall now as I can't find it now after a cursory search.

The facts of the most hideous method of death I recall from this article, namely boiling, are listed below. They're from my memory which was addled by alcohol so will be incorrect, and I'm not a physicist but it gives you an idea:

Boiling water to 99.97 degrees at sea level requires 4.186 Joule/gram °C of water. Assuming a bathtub is 160 litres and water is 1000g/l, there's 160,000g of water, that's 700k joules, 167m calories of energy. The article stated that the searing pain of the energy being applied to your skin, would depend on whether one were put in the water cold and a fire lit underneath, or dropped unceremoniously into the boiling water. In the latter case, the nerve endings would be rendered unreceptive to further pain about ten minutes in. In the former case, you would experience the entire gamut of pain from mild discomfort at being dipped in cold water, to sheer agonising excrutiation as each nerve ending was boiled away.

Secondary considerations made in the article were, briefly; inability to breathe, absorption of heat from water interfering with blood pressure leading to unconsciousness, loss of skin past the subcutaneous level, muscle matter sloughing off into the water. I think there was a reference to someone who had jumped into a thermal spring and was able to get out, but died soon after.

For your delectation:

Boiling People and Cannabalism

Choice quote : "Cannibals who chose to boil their victims alive might have had to worry about the abdominal cavity bursting under pressure due to the lack of disembowelment, or the victim excreting wastes into their carefully prepared soup"
posted by snailer at 3:12 PM on March 15, 2010

The first thing you should give consideration to is the age of your subject. As with most food, the age of the livestock before preparation affects how the cooking process will go. Young humans, along with the very old, with their delicate skin will scald significantly faster than a mature adult. Further, care should be given to how you choose to boil the meat. With humans as with frogs, your best bet may be to slowly raise the temperature of the water to avoid having them jump out of the pot in pain. Further, as with lobster, the noises the human might make if dropped directly into boiling water can, for those with a more sensitive disposition, prove unpleasant.

The first thing to expect from boiling a human, visually, would be severe blistering. the outer layer of any blisters will be dead skin, and the fluid underneath will serve as an extra layer of protection for the far more sensitive skin layers underneath the blister. However, assuming this is continued steady boiling, the blisters will not prevent the boiling from continuing to cause the subject extreme pain. In time, the blisters will also burst and the skin will be a mostly shredded and disfigured mass.

Something to remember with all boiling is that when water reaches its boiling point, it ceases to rise any further in temperature unless the boiling point of the water is changed (for example, by adding salt or doing your boiling at high altitudes.) Thus, though the pain of the subject will likely increase dramatically, it won't so much be from increased heat as it will be from the increased sensitivity of the lower layers of skin once the tougher outer layers have boiled away.

If you don't intend to have the subject drown during the process, give some strong consideration to the use of some kind of harness to keep them upright, since the pain of the scald could very well cause them to pass out or lose their footing.

Another, very important consideration, is that death causes human beings to evacuate their bowels shortly after they expire. This would give the boiled water a seasoning discerning palates may reject. Give strong consideration to cutting all food intake in your livestock for a few days before boiling.

The last thing to consider is that boiling is considered by man gourmands to be a limited form of meat preparation. If possible, give real thought to broiling, grilling or frying your meat instead, though it bears mentioning that any meat can be made tastefully if boiled with proper seasoning in a stew or soup.

I can't say that I've ever tried to boil a person, myself, but these are the issues that immediately jump to mind. If I think of any more considerations, I'll be sure to post them.
posted by shmegegge at 3:18 PM on March 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

the nerve endings would be rendered unreceptive to further pain about ten minutes in

That's exactly the sort of info I was looking for. Thanks! And yeah, I know this is horrific- I think I assumed you would pass out relatively quickly and not notice any of this happening. So this is fascinating in a really, really awful way.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 3:18 PM on March 15, 2010

the nerve endings would be rendered unreceptive to further pain about ten minutes in

IF your victim is somehow rescued from the boiling water before he dies, that state of shock will fade after a few minutes and he will eventually feel pain. But for the first few minutes after he's rescued, he'll look at the flesh peeling from his arms and be confused. He might see exposed bones protruding from his fingers but he won't understand what they are. The brain is so overwhelmed by all the messages it is receiving that it temporarily shuts down the pain receptors. This also works as a survival mechanism, as it also temporarily prevents the person from panicking in such extreme situations and he'll allow rescue personnel to touch/treat him even though the pain would normally be excrutiating. Eventually the brain will recover its balance and the patient will start to feel pain again, possibly while in the ambulance en route to the hospital. The mere pressure from lying on his blistered back on a stretcher will cause him to cry out. Once at the hospital all the helping hands removing his remaining clothing and transferring him to a gurney will cause extreme anguish, as will the first IV of morphine that is inserted into whatever viable vein is found. Once the painkiller takes over however, the patient's body will continue to swell, and his kidneys are in danger of shutting down due to volume overload - the adrenaline still flowing virulently through the veins can make the patient glucose intolerant. The skin is the body's largest protective organ, and the more of it that is destroyed leaves the body that much more susceptible to infection. When the skin is burned or boiled away, it also lessens the body's ability to retain fluids. So even if the person is removed from the cauldron before he actually boils to death, he still faces a very long and iffy recovery in the hospital burn unit.
posted by Oriole Adams at 4:11 PM on March 15, 2010

At Yellowstone National Park, they're referred to as "thermal fatalities"
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:11 PM on March 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

We didn't get to this topic in tonight's class, so I will be bringing all of this up, in great detail, next week. Thank you for all the insightful and severely disturbing answers! Also, Shmegegge, remind me never to invite you to a dinner party.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 8:10 PM on March 15, 2010

Dormant Gorilla, on that note, don't invite this similarly insightful and disturbing AskMeFi section to dinner anytime soon.
That class, incidentally, is helpful for dealing with the cleanup of this class, though.
posted by joechip at 12:44 AM on March 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

With humans as with frogs, your best bet may be to slowly raise the temperature of the water to avoid having them jump out of the pot in pain.

This is complete and utter crap. The only way to prevent a frog---or a human---jumping out of the pot is by physically restraining it.
posted by FlyingMonkey at 1:59 PM on March 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

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