Sunday, May 10, 2009

Shuffling off this mortal coil, part deux

In the course of my research for a section of a book I am trying to put together, I made a listing of the various ways that capital punishment was administered throughout history. The article was not about the moral debate surrounding capital punishment, only the methods used.

I found it interesting that most of the "new and improved" methods were adopted (the more recent ones, I mean) because people thought the new method would be more "humane" to the person who was in the process of settling his debt to society. By "humane" I think they mean "quicker" or "less painful". This was not a consideration earlier, since slow and painful was part of the attraction. Societies change. I won't make a comment on why "fast and painless" is felt to be a good thing, because then I would be getting back into the moral aspect of capital punishment (not to mention our constitution prohibits "slow and painful") and I don't want to do that - except to say that if societies feel guilty about doing it then maybe they ought to stop doing it.

In the U.S., currently, most states have switched to "lethal injection" as their means of execution. The jury is still out, metaphorically speaking, on whether "lethal injection" is more "humane" than, say, the gas chamber. Both induce a feeling of suffocation. This feeling is because of the fact that the person is being suffocated.

The electric chair still exists. In recent years the gas chamber was widely used. A firing squad is available in some places. Hanging used to be very prevalent. In Washington D.C., they probably try to talk you to death. There is much lethal gas there as well.

In Europe, the practice of separating a person's head from his body was a crowd favorite for a long time. At the beginning, this usually meant using an ax, but later the technique was refined in the form of a guillotine, although this was mainly used in France and, earlier, Ireland, I think.

Joan of Arc was burned at the stake, if you want to talk about slow and painful. So were several witches. But this was not considered cruel and unusual since it was the Christian thing to do. Sorry - I see I am slipping in more moralizing again. Stopping that now.

The garrote, in its various forms, seems to have been limited to South America. It was perfected almost to the point of automation: a person was seated in a special chair near a sturdy post and the garrote was placed around the neck and tightened by twisting it with a rod until just the slightest jolt would snap the neck. Then it was, ummmm.... jolted. Usually the person had already passed out from the twisting part. In a normal garroting, you will probably recall, the garrote (usually piano wire, in mafia movies) is attached to a handle on either end and then looped over the garrotee's neck from behind and tightened. Connie's husband in Godfather One met his demise this way. Kicked out the windshield, as you remember. This is only Hollywood, though - in real life, a piano wire garrote would have the messy side-effect of decapitating the loved one.

I found many fascinating articles on executioners and their techniques, as well as anecdotal information on actual executions. This includes the odd relationship, never fully explained by psychoanalysts, between the condemned and his executioner. A bond is often formed, even to the point of love. Odd. In medieval times, the condemned would embrace the executioner and often was expected to thank him. Sometimes, back in ax-chopping days, the family would tip the executioner in order to insure his complete attention to making the first cut count. I'm guessing the family of Mary Queen of Scots neglected the tipping and got the shoddy job history relates.

One of the things that was also of interest was the methods of putting doubt in the minds of executioners in modern times. I personally don't believe an executioner acting on behalf of the state has anything to be ashamed or guilty about, but apparently some executioners do let it eat at them over time. As a result, the states have come up with various "doubt-inducing" devices to ease the poor executioner's troubled mind.

For example, when the execution involves a firing squad (for example in the military or in the state of Utah) the mental salvation of doubt comes in the form of a blank cartridge which is loaded into one of the (usually six) weapons that will be used in the execution. The executioners do not load their own weapons, and since they pick up their weapons in random order, even the person who loaded them no longer knows which contains the blank cartridge. The point is, of course, that each member of the firing squad is given a reasonable doubt that his bullet did not take the life of the condemned.

In an execution involving an electric chair, at least one state used two executioners who pushed separate buttons simultaneously, and thus neither could say for sure that it was his button (a switch which directed the electrical current) was the "live" button or not. It has been reported (but not confirmed by me) that in some cases this deception was also extended to gas chamber executions, where the actual dunking of the cyanide pellets into the waiting sulfuric acid tank was accomplished by two levers being thrown simultaneously. Could work. Don't know.

Before the invention of the guillotine, the executioner sometimes (often enough to be of more than passing interest) missed his mark with the ax. A famous case was the execution of Mary Queen of Scots where history tells us the executioner had to take tw0 extra ummm... mulligans, as it were.

History also tells us that fast deaths were often reserved for noblemen, and that the normal riff raff were often tortured to death. It didn't say whether an admission was charged, or whether attendance was free, just as a royal perk to the working class.

On special occasions, though, noblemen were treated to a much slower death. Treason against the crown - for example, when those involved in the conspiracy against queen Elizabeth were found out they were tortured until their consciousness was no longer in attendance. This in public, to boot. Presumably, this was done to get the attention of others who may have been thinking of saying something bad about HRH Bess. The torturee was laid out on an operating (surgery) table of sorts and disemboweled without benefit of anesthetic, and then his intestines were sauteed on a grill that was burning next to the table. Without actually cutting them out, of course. It was amazing how long a person can go on living if the executioner is careful. The point of course, was pain.

Oddly the "more accurate and humane" machine that replaced the ax (the guillotine) was the source of scientific experiment.

It was noticed by the executioner that the eyes in the decapitated head would continue to blink for some time after the separation occurred. Executioners, indeed, would sometimes pick up the head and stare into the eyes to see if there were any recognition, and it was believed this was so.

It makes sense: the brain would not immediately die, and would presumably still have control of the items above the severed portion of the spinal cord, such as the lips and cheeks and eyes. Obviously, with no air to send up over the vocal cords, even if those cords were still intact, there could be no speech.

Does the severed head retain several seconds of actual consciousness after the guillotine has dropped? In spite of the various stories, I personally don't believe it: the massive drop in blood pressure from the brain would certainly cause immediate unconsciousness, would it not?

But there are those who disagree. The following report was written by a Dr. Beaurieux, who experimented with the head of a condemned prisoner by the name of Henri Languille, on June 28, 1905:

Here, then, is what I was able to note immediately after the decapitation: the eyelids and lips of the guillotined man worked in irregularly rhythmic contractions for about five or six seconds. This phenomenon has been remarked by all those finding themselves in the same conditions as myself for observing what happens after the severing of the neck...

I waited for several seconds. The spasmodic movements ceased. [...] It was then that I called in a strong, sharp voice: 'Languille!' I saw the eyelids slowly lift up, without any spasmodic contractions – I insist advisedly on this peculiarity – but with an even movement, quite distinct and normal, such as happens in everyday life, with people awakened or torn from their thoughts.

Next Languille's eyes very definitely fixed themselves on mine and the pupils focused themselves. I was not, then, dealing with the sort of vague dull look without any expression, that can be observed any day in dying people to whom one speaks: I was dealing with undeniably living eyes which were looking at me. After several seconds, the eyelids closed again[...].

It was at that point that I called out again and, once more, without any spasm, slowly, the eyelids lifted and undeniably living eyes fixed themselves on mine with perhaps even more penetration than the first time. Then there was a further closing of the eyelids, but now less complete. I attempted the effect of a third call; there was no further movement – and the eyes took on the glazed look which they have in the dead.


  1. Whilst you're pondering upon the guillotine, I've some information...
    It's often said that the device was invented by the eponymous Doctor Guillotine. In fact, such a device was lopping the heads off yorkshiremen from the year 1286 (maybe earlier, but that is the first written record) in the town of Halifax. There was a similar device in Scotland, known as the Scottish Maiden.

  2. Being drawn and quartered was a part of the type of execution you mention where a person's was disemboweled and then the bowels being barbecued. This was only reserved for crimes worse than murder ie. treason. The criminal was "drawn" to the place of execution on a type of sled called a hurdle. He was hanged and cut down while still alive, disemboweled and his entrails were burned before his eyes. As if that were not enough the condemned man was then cut into quarters often this was done by being hitched to horses and spurred in four directions. This was done in England from 1283 to 1867. Finally I have something to contribute! I LOVE the picture you chose for my blog on your blog of the week. Design my blog now would you? Awesome!

  3. We could go into partnership on a project - your methods of capital punishment, my graveyards?

  4. No, I retract that suggestion.

  5. @Soubriquet - I had come across the Scottish maiden. But it was described as more of a blunt force trauma that crushed the neck (though sometimes to the extent of depapitation.) And I found out early on the actual device later known as the guillotine was used much before France "invented" it. I don't know why this stuff is interesting to me. Why: the subject of another post. :)

    I am still reading your link. Interesting. I guess I should not be surprised that Halifax is really in Scotland. :) I seems we and Canada share all of your names at some place or another. A. tells me you also have a Southampton even. :)

    More comment after I have read all that URL.

  6. @Ettarose - Thank you for that. I remember the term drawing and quartering but had only associated it with the horse thing. That's very interesting.

  7. @Soubriquet - I am still reading the fascinating Yorkshire history. Did you read the part about if the guy is being executed for stealing a bull, the rope is attached to the (or another) bull and the animal is then driven so as to pull out the pin and let the blade drop? Now that is truly an eye for an eye. Sort of like our Descartes' (I think) telling us about if you injure someone in a car accident, then they get to run over you too. This is a cool subject. Sorry to see this side of me oozing out. :)

  8. Actually, I remember reading about the death of William Wallace and thought they'd gone overboard in violence in the movie (let's ignore the FRIGHTENING historical accuracies), only to find out they had actually lessoned it.

    It occurs to me that serial killers might be a modern phenomena if only because prior to the 1800s, they could be gainfully employed as executioners.

    On the other hand, given my take on many violent criminals, I feel confident I could pull the switch with a clear conscience.

    It would probably be difficult to explain that combination to an outsider (i.e., someone who didn't live in my brain).

  9. Ah. Halifax is in England, not Scotland, but confusingly is also in Nova Scotia. There are probably several more Halifaxes but none in Scotland. The Handley-Page Halifax was a second world war bomber, like the Wellington but not very much, because the Wellington had a very clever and strong geodesic framed fuselage.....
    I read elsewhere that sometimes, in Halifax, they let the jury, or the plaintiffs wronged by the condemned person , all hold separate cords which would release the chopper... That way "justice" is done by the people, rather than by the state executioner.
    The truth or otherwise of these stories is not easy to verify, unless I go spend a long time in the West Yorkshire archives.
    William Wallace? Scots wha hae wi' Wallace bled....
    "Following the trial, on 23 August 1305, Wallace was taken from the hall, stripped naked and dragged through the city at the heels of a horse to the Elms at Smithfield. He was hanged, drawn and quartered — strangled by hanging but released whilst he was still alive, emasculated, eviscerated and his bowels burnt before him, beheaded, then cut into four parts. His preserved head was placed on a pike atop London Bridge. It was later joined by the heads of the brothers, John and Simon Fraser. His limbs were displayed, separately, in Newcastle upon Tyne, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Stirling, and Aberdeen."



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