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Answered by Eugene Byrne
Published: August 16, 2012
St Thecla of Iconium (died early first century AD) was supposedly saved from burning by a miraculous downpour. Or there’s Lassi Didriksson, sentenced to burning for sorcery in Iceland in 1675, whose fire was put out by rain three times. The most famous rained-off burning wasn’t an execution, but a trial by fire in which the Italian preacher Girolamo Savonarola (1452–98) would demonstrate his divine protection as the rain fell.
Although burning was a common method of execution from prehistory on, there are few recorded cases of rain stopping the proceedings. More usually, rain simply made the fire burn more slowly. Damp or freshly cut wood was sometimes deliberately used to prolong the victim’s agony. For instance, the Scottish reformer Patrick Hamilton, who was burned in 1528, suffered greatly due to his executioners’ incompetence (they hadn’t provided enough wood) and rain.
At some times and places, the condemned person was strangled before the fire was lit, and by the 16th century bags or small barrels of gunpowder were sometimes attached to the victim’s body to hasten death. Rain could delay the flames reaching the powder, or even stop it exploding. So actually, rain was the last thing you wanted if you were going to the stake.
What delayed or postponed burnings more often than rain was wind. Foxe’s Book of Martyrs mentions at least three cases in which strong winds blew out the fire, or blew it away from the victim. In all cases, the fires were simply re-lit until the flames had done their work.