by Darcia Helle
In our modern, enlightened American culture, we keep our executions quietly behind closed doors. There was a time, though, in the pre-modern world, when this would have been regarded as no better than murder. Executions were public events. When our ancestors decided a person needed to die for his/her crimes, the entire town was expected to attend.
Many people of that time believed executing a criminal privately robbed that person of the right to say his final words, which was often a full-blown speech. A private execution also deprived the government of its show of power, as the criminal was paraded through town in an elaborate spectacle.
Staging state-sanctioned murders as public entertainment made for a wide array of imaginative and gruesome methods, prolonging death ever longer, as leaders continually looked for new forms of cruelty to punish the condemned. Here are some once popular death penalty options that make the electric chair look comforting.
Breaking The Wheel – Also Known As The Catherine Wheel
This method was popular from the Middle Ages into the 19th century. The condemned person was strapped to a large, heavy wooden wheel, his arms and legs stretched out and tied to the spokes. The executioner carried a hammer or large iron bar and, as the wheel was turned, he stuck the hammer through the spoke and pressed it against the limb, so that the pressure would crush the victim’s bones. The victim was left in excruciating pain, alive, but helpless, and could take days to die.
Occasionally a sympathetic court ordered ‘the mercy blow’. In this case, the executioner struck the victim on the stomach and chest, typically two or three times. Afterward, the victim was strangled for a quicker death.
Vicious beatings while the condemned was strapped down to the wheel were also common. Criminals convicted of major offenses were bludgeoned ‘bottom up’, starting with their legs, in order to inflict the most possible pain while keeping the victim conscious. Those convicted of lesser crimes were beaten ‘top down’, starting with the throat, which might have allowed them to slip into blissful unconsciousness.
Sometimes fires were lit beneath the wheel, adding tremendous heat in order to heighten the victim’s pain.
Historian Joseph Ben Matthias (Flavius Josephus) wrote about an account he witnessed, with two criminals being executed on the wheel:
“The executioners were ordered to bring the Christian prisoner in. His tunic was torn off and he was bound hand and foot with thongs, and fixed to the great wheel. All his joints were dislocated and all his limbs smashed. The wheel was stained with blood and the burning coals in the grate beneath it were extinguished by the blood pouring into it. Lumps of flesh clumped around the axle and everywhere there were bits of flesh and bone. Another was fastened to the wheel and stretched and burned with fire. Sharp spits, heated until they were red-hot, were applied to his back and stuck in his sides and inwards, burning him dreadfully.”
Mystery surrounds Catherine of Alexandria, who was sentenced to be broken on the wheel but, perhaps miraculously, did not die there. Catherine was a Christian who lived in the early fourth century, during the time when the pagan Emperor Maxentius relentlessly persecuted Christians. A beautiful girl of just 18, Catherine was perhaps also a bit of an activist. She went to Maxentius and berated him for his religious tyranny. Maxentius must have been enticed by her beauty and, rather than putting her to immediate death, he commanded 50 of his best philosophers to convince her to take his side. Instead of becoming a convert to paganism, Catherine managed to persuade several of the philosophers to convert to Christianity.
Further intrigued by her charms and ability, Maxentius then tried to seduce her. He asked the entrancing young woman to become his new bride. Catherine refused, stating that her spouse was Jesus Christ and to him she’d pledged her virginity. The irate Maxentius had her whipped and thrown in prison.
Unbeknownst to Maxentius, his wife had become fascinated by Catherine. When he left on a trip to inspect his military camp, the empress visited Catherine at the prison. By the time the emperor arrived back at his castle, the empress and 200 of the soldiers had converted to Christianity. They were all put to immediate death, though historians do not provide details on how that was done, and Catherine was sentenced to death on the wheel.
Catherine, evidently, wasn’t about to make things easy on Maxentius. After she was strapped to the wheel, her bonds inexplicably came apart and the wheel broke. Maxentius then demanded Catherine be beheaded, which she wasn’t able to escape. Legend tells us that, when her head was severed, a milky substance flowed from her veins.
Flaying dates back to the time of the Assyrians, and was most popular around 1,000 years ago in the Middle East and Africa. The torture-killing involved removing skin and small bits of flesh from the body of a live prisoner, and was typically reserved for captured soldiers and witches. The condemned prisoner was tied to a stake in a public area. The executioner then carefully cut away strips of skin until the flesh beneath was fully exposed over the victim’s entire body. The victim would usually die of shock or blood loss. Afterward, the skin was nailed to a wall as a warning for others to obey the law.
One African tribe adapted their own form of flaying as punishment for adultery. The guilty couple would first be starved, then tied naked to two posts about four feet apart. Throughout the ordeal to follow, they were given only salt water to drink. The resulting dehydration probably helped speed their deaths.
On the first day of their public execution, the villagers watched as the executioner cut a piece of the woman’s flesh and forced her lover to eat it. On the second day, the executioner cut a chunk of the man’s flesh and force-fed it to the woman. Meanwhile, the executioner’s assistant worked to immediately staunch blood flow from the wounds, in order to keep the victims alive longer. The back-and-forth procedure continued until one of the lovers died. The survivor, though, was given no reprieve and was continually fed bits of flesh until he/she finally – and probably thankfully – died as well.
The execution technique called Lingchi closely resembles flaying. Also translated as death by a thousand cuts, slow slicing, lingering death, and slow process, this ancient Chinese style of execution became somewhat of an art form. The term was derived from a classical description of ascending a mountain slowly.
Lingchi’s use in executions began in China around the year 900 and continued until its abolition in 1905. Reserved for crimes considered particularly severe, such as treason and killing one’s parents, the process entailed slowly slicing off chunks of the condemned person’s flesh.
Execution took place in a public area, where the condemned would be tied to a wooden frame or cross beside a table holding a basket of razor-sharp knives covered by a cloth. Each knife bore the marking for a particular part of the body. The executioner would reach beneath the cloth and pull out a knife. He would then slice the area designated by the knife’s inscription. The torture came to a merciful end only when the executioner pulled the knife with the marking for the heart.
This method appears to have been later changed to a more deliberate procedure, using a specific sequence of slicing and only one knife.
In later years large amounts of opium would first be given to the accused, although it is unclear as to whether this was an act of mercy or to prevent fainting and prolong torture. The condemned fortunate enough to come from wealthy families could offer the executioner a bribe to hasten death.
To the condemned, Lingchi was physical and psychological torture, as well as publicly humiliating. The principle behind the slicing of flesh lay in the spiritual belief that the victim’s body would not be intact in the afterlife. For the Chinese of that time, this may have been more horrifying than the actual torture.
In 1895, Sir Henry Norman witnessed a Lingchi execution. In The People and Politics of the Far East, Norman wrote that the executioner sliced off pieces by “grasping handfuls from the fleshy parts of the body, such as the thighs and the breasts”. He went on to state that “then the limbs are cut off piecemeal at the wrists and the ankles, the elbows and knees, the shoulders and hip. Finally the victim is stabbed in the heart and his head cut off.”
In 1904, in a public square in Beijing, China, accused murderer Wan Weiqin was put to death by a thousand cuts in front of a crowd of onlookers. He is among the last to have suffered this form of capital punishment.
Archeological evidence shows this ancient form of torture and execution has been practiced throughout much of history. Boiling is exactly what it implies. The condemned were immersed in enormous pots of boiling water, oil or tar and left to cook until they died. Eventually executioners began using frying pans instead of pots, so they could flip the victim’s body over like a piece of meat or a fried egg.
Healthy prisoners with strong hearts did not die quickly. Much of the flesh could be cooked and fall away from the bone before the heart, lungs, and brain succumbed to the heat.
In 1530, Richard Roose was convicted of poisoning a pot of both intended for the Bishop of Rochester, his family, and his parish. King Henry VIII passed a special act decreeing he be boiled alive for the offense. Henry’s act, with death by boiling as punishment for poisoning, remained on the law books in England until 1863.
* * * * *
While our modern society looks at these archaic death penalties as horrifying torture, those societies would have considered our secret government prisons cowardly and our closed prison executions nothing more than murder. Perhaps it’s time we put the super-sized frying pans and the electric chairs to rest.
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Suspense, random blood splatter and mismatched socks consume Darcia’s days. She writes because the characters trespassing through her mind leave her no alternative. Only then are the voices free to haunt someone else’s mind.
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