After a spate of lethal injection executions described by the press as “botched,” (a description challenged by some participating correctional facilities.) there has been much controversy about appropriately humane methods for capital punishment. Drug shortages, lack of physician involvement, and the inherent difficulties of using drug combinations which cannot legally be tested on humans, have led to a resurgence of the old tried-and-true methods. Utah recently approved the return of the firing squad. Tennessee’s “back-up plan,” is now the electric chair.
The newfangled “Nitrogen Gas Chamber” was just approved by the Governor of Oklahoma. This method is described as “fool-proof,” and “painless” although it has never been tested.
The protocols of capital punishment have been debated for over a century in the press. The electric chair, the gas chamber, and the guillotine were all once hailed by some as the latest in painless, humane death, while being denounced by others as inhumane and barbaric. Here are several articles which give an idea of the historic debate over humane capital punishment as well as commentary on the abolishment of the practice altogether:
Mr. Weed has introduced into the Assembly a bill making the punishment for murder in the first degree imprisonment for life. That is, it abolishes capital punishment in the State. Capital punishment ought to be abolished in all civilized countries; but we can afford to wait for the result, so sure to come within a period not distant. When it comes, it will be in response to a public sentiment better informed as to the merits of the question than seems to be the case now. The introduction of Mr. Weed’s bill serves a valuable purpose in keeping the subject before the mind of the people; he deserves commendation accordingly. If, however, the present legislature passes Mr. Stein’s bill abolishing execution by electricity, and returning to the old method of hanging, it will go as far as we have a right to expect, and so far it will do well and wisely. Electrical execution is simply a barbarous experiment, cruel and revolting, as the London Lancet and the Medical Record of New York justly describe it. It casts a reproach on the civilization of this State, and ought to be removed forthwith. New York alone, of all the States in the Union and of the world, has legalized this horrible experiment with living men, and it should proceed to relieve itself of the odious distinction by passing the bill to return to hanging as the method of execution, which in the opinion of mankind is the most disgraceful, and which has been tested and approved by centuries of experience. That necessary work accomplished, the way will be open for the discussion of the abolition of capital punishment altogether.—New York Sun. The Flaming Sword 30 April 1892 [The Flaming Sword,was the organ of Koreshan Unity, the hollow-earth cult founded by Cyrus R. Teed (1839-1908).]
The next article opened with an account of putting down a St. Bernard dog belonging to W.H. Vanderbilt, Jr.
But note the difference of his execution from that of the human criminal. Instead of being hanged, or decapitated, or burned at the stake, or placed in an electric chair to receive a bolt of lightning, he was chloroformed and passed painlessly and peacefully into dreamless sleep from which he never awoke….Why should not the human murderer be put to sleep in the same humane way? Why should not he prepare himself for burial, and upon the day of execution, with hands folded across his breast have chloroform administered to him upon his couch? Why the gruesome execution with all its horrors, more terrible to the executioner than to the victim? Augusta [GA] Chronicle 19 April 1899: p. 4
This piece argued that it was the cultural practices surrounding executions that needed to be changed:
There is something even more horrible in disorder at an execution than in levity at a funeral, for in the former case the corpse, so to speak, feels the outrage as much as the spectators. When, therefore, in one case a man has, as it were, to be executed twice—this was not [Bartholomew] Binns, however,—and in another the noose does not kill at once, and in a third the executioner is said to be too intoxicated to perform his duty, and when, in addition to these things, the executions are succeeded and preceded by noisy “receptions,” sales of “relics,” and bouts of drinking, opinion is naturally outraged; and an unthinking cry arises for some change in the method of execution, of which this time the Times has made itself the exponent. That journal deliberately pleads for the abolition of hanging, as the most odious of methods, and the substitution of death by shooting, or by some other of the many methods of terminating life which scientific men could suggest.
We cannot agree. That order and certainty should be restored to executions by the appointment of a more capable officer to superintend them, and by a great alteration in the method of actually terminating life, is imperatively necessary; but the rope will remain, we think, the fittest instrument with which to carry out the sentence of the law. We think it to be demonstrable that so long as the sentence of death is retained—that is, so long as the nation retains its present creed, and feels for society more than for the individual—three conditions as to the method of inflicting it should be resolutely maintained. The mode of execution adopted should be sudden, it should visibly shatter the corpse as little as possible, and it should be one held by opinion to be in itself disgraceful; and no method, except hanging, fulfils all those conditions. Sudden death could, of course, be inflicted in a hundred ways, many of them more, rapid even than the noose. Shooting, if the heart is pierced, or the brain, is probably as rapid as any; the guillotine is swifter than the hangman, despite some doubts as to the instantaneous loss of the victim’s consciousness, and it would be easily possible to employ agencies more rapid than either. There are poisons too rapid in their action for pain, and one of them could be administered, we believe, during sleep. Electricians can prove, we are told, that the electric fluid moves more rapidly than sensation does, and hold it, therefore, probable that an electric shock sufficient to kill instantly would never be felt by the criminal at all, death preceding sensation, a view borne out, so far as such views can be, by the usual testimony of those who have received and survived a stroke of lightning. Any one of these methods, therefore, would be as satisfactory, so far as suddenness and the absence of any approach to torture is concerned, as hanging; but the first two diminish that respect for the body which the whole history of brutal assaults shows it so necessary to maintain, and which is, we think, the true objection to that ghastly but painless mode of execution, blowing from a cannon; and the third is liable to an objection of its own, that it is not wise to make death for crime much more painless than natural death usually is. We should not make it painful, but we should not artificially reduce its terrors. The awe with which the punishment is regarded would be gravely diminished by the use of painless poison, such as the Athenians used, while a new doubt would be begotten among the ignorant as to the reality of its infliction. They would begin talking of strong sleeping draughts, and of drugs which could produce apparent death—that is, catalepsy—without actually killing. It is most important that no colour should be given to such stories, and important, too, not to degrade science by making it an accomplice in the executioner’s task, as it would be if the electric battery were employed. Men ought not to lose the sense that there is something rough and brutal about capital punishment, that it is essentially a last appeal to force in its most direct and savage form, when every other means appear from experience to have failed. We greatly doubt, moreover, whether the multitude would believe in the painlessness of death by electricity, and whether the lightning-stroke would not evoke that shudder of sympathy with the condemned which so utterly “demoralises the guillotine,” and which the idea of torture, in this age at all events, never fails to elicit in England. There would be too much of the air of a scientific experiment in every execution, and a single instance of failure would, till the rapid increase of murder recalled the people to themselves, be fatal to the punishment of death. The Spectator, Vol. 57, 1884: p. 57
When William Kemmler was electrocuted in 1890, it was argued that electricity was “the least cruel yet devised.” Just a few years later, gas was the favorite.
GAS TO KILL CRIMINALS
Allegheny Physicians Indorse a New Method of Execution.
Pittsburg, Pa., Dec. 14. The committee appointed by the Allegheny County medical Society to investigate the different methods of making condemned criminals pay the death penalty and report on the advisability of doing away with hangings and electrocutions has decided in favor of gas. Its report will be made at the next meeting of the society, and will be sent to the State Medical society for approval. A bill will then be prepared and presented to the legislature this winter abolishing the scaffold in this state and substituting gas. It is proposed to turn the gas into an airtight cell while the condemned prisoner is asleep. Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 15 December 1896: p. 2
DEATH FROM WANT OF SLEEP.
The question how long can a person exist without sleep is oftener asked than answered, and the difficulties and inhumanity of answering the question by experiment would seem to leave it ever unsolved. A recent communication to a British Society whose fields of operation are in Asia, would seem to answer the inquiry, is a description of a cruel mode of punishment peculiar to, and we believe, original with the Chinese. It appears that a Chinese merchant had been convicted of murdering his wife, and was sentenced to die by being totally deprived of the privilege of going to sleep. This painful and singular mode of quitting an earthly existence was carried into execution at Amoy under the following circumstances:
“The condemned was placed in prison under the care of three of the police guard, who relieved each other every alternate hour, and who prevented the prisoner from falling asleep night or day. He thus lived for nineteen days without enjoying any sleep. At the commencement of the eighth day, his sufferings were so intense that he implored the authorities to grant him the blessed opportunity of being strangulated, garroted, guillotined, burned to death, drowned, shot, quartered, blown up with gunpowder, or put to death in any conceivable way which their humanity or ferocity could invent. This will give a slight idea of the horrors of death from want of sleep.” The Spiritual Age 18 December 1858 p. 3
As mentioned in a previous post on “Capital Improvements,” the papers of the past delighted in stories of exotic oriental tortures and methods of execution. I can’t say whether any of these articles are accurate descriptions of actual ways of execution. The first sounds an unnecessarily elaborate version of peine et fort dure.
NEW AND FEARFUL MODE OF EXECUTION
It appears from the journal of a European traveler, that a new and frightful mode of execution has recently been adopted by the Great Mogul. The instrument and the process are thus described:
“A box, each side of which is fifteen feet square, is constructed of solid timber, about eighteen inches thick, dovetailed together, and braced with iron rods. The outside of the bottom of the box is covered with a plate of beaten iron, one inch in thickness. The interior is filled with perfect cubes of granite, weighing in the aggregate, several thousand tons. A machine is erected after the manner of an ordinary pile-driver, but of course on an enormous scale, and of tremendous strength. The mass is raised by means of powerful machinery, cast in Birmingham for the express purpose; though it is to be presumed that the machinist by whom the work was furnished, had no idea of the horrible purpose for which it was intended. The human victim is placed upon a block of granite, of corresponding surface, buried in the earth immediately beneath the enormous mass, and likewise covered with a plate of iron. At a signal by the vitramadack, the executioner touches a spring.
The mass falls! And the victim crushed at once, is suddenly annihilated, and spread out like a sheet of pasteboard. The huge weight being again raised, the flattened body is withdrawn and dried in the sun. When completely prepared, it is hung up on the walls of a public building, there to serve as a warning to the multitude.” Southern Patriot [Charleston, SC] 5 June 1845: p. 2
This next article, with its tortured transliterations of Russian names and its use of the contemptuous term “Kalmuckian,” is also somewhat suspect, although there are much more recent reports of freezing water thrown on prisoners in Soviet interrogations and prisons.
There were formerly in Russia two methods in use for putting to death superfluous men, each so original, so national and so Kalmuckian that they deserve to be recorded. I heard of ice statues for the first time in Perojaclaw. I stood with a Russian military officer, chatting and looking out of the window, the frost figures upon which began to melt under the influence of the warmth of the chamber fire. The atmosphere and mist without were frozen like fine needles, and jingled sharply against the window panes.
“Just look at that tree,” said I, “it has a perfect ice crust; nothing can be seen of the bark. It is like a diamond, for it sparkles and glistens and is thickly covered over with a substance hard as stone. Do you know that, with such an icy air as this of to-day, when the breath congealing into icicles on being exhaled, it would not be difficult to coat whole houses with such a diamond crust?” continued I, following up the whimsical train of thought; “It would need but to throw water upon the roof which would freeze as it trickled down, and so—“
“Oh, yes; only the idea is unfortunately not new. People have already in this land made ice figures out of everything. Out of real trees, houses and men.”
“I laughed. “Out of real men?”
Paul Ignatzy Wladimirowitsch Repin looked at me with his calm gray eye. “Surely out of real, living men. Else wherein would consist the wit?”
“There was no more joking?” I inquired, and was answered authoritatively:
‘”In the barbarous times of the last century many a lord whose serfs may have deserved punishment, has murdered them in this manner, for his own entertainment or as a surprise for his guests.”
“So cruelly murdered? It can’t be possible,” said I, retreating shiveringly from the window to the side of the warm fireplace.
“Would you hear?” laughed Wladimirowitsch, curling his thick, genuine Kalmuckian lip. “Well, my dear sir, we have at your service here in Russia such an abundance of frightful realities as will make your hair stand on end. So you wish to know how it could be done? I have declarations out of the mouth of my grandfather, an execution of this kind he having witnessed and recorded. The dark times of the middle ages are with us only a hundred year passed. Well then, the unfortunate serf who is to be punished is placed naked in the middle of the court-yard (of course it must be a day like this where the birds in the air, even the air itself would freeze) and is fastened to a take. A pailful of water is then thrown upon him. The whole body of the man then begins to smoke like a chimney. But he is unable to cry out. The terrible sudden effect of the cold contracts the throat and stifles the voice. Then comes the second pailful, the water of which adheres, and in thickening drops creeps downward over the body. At the third pailful the eyelids and lips become glued together, and all the joints are covered with a thin ice crust. Then one pailful after the other, until there remains a misshapen, glittering, white transparent trunk.”
It seems incredible to believe that men could thus punish for the worst transgression their fellow-creatures, much less that such inhumanity could be practiced and considered as an entertaining joke. Yet it is neither romance nor fiction, but the historical facts are extant, and can be consulted in venerable leathern-bound chronicles. In the year 1666, at Karamsin, the peasant Kautemiru, of the Ukraine, was punished in this manner for having spoken evil of the Czar. In 1700 a gentleman was fined and banished for his lifetime from the court, by the Empress Catherine, for having “thrown cold water over a serf until he was frozen to death.” The perpetrator was discovered by the-at the time—favorite Laudskol, who, on his way to Novgorod, found lying in the road the dismal mass of humanity and instigated inquiries concerning it. In the last years of the past century a thief in the domain of Starobjelsk, in the Ukraine, was put to death in this manner, as related in the chronicle of Nikitisch Murawiew. Cincinnati [OH] Daily Enquirer 27 March 1870: p. 2
The ever-efficient Swedes, in response to slow-moving and botched guillotine executions, came up with the Cone of Death.
THE SICKLE SHAPED KNIFE SWEDEN’S NEW METHOD OF EXECUTION
HOW IT DOES ITS WORK
On the grounds of humanity the government of Sweden have adopted a novel mode execution. The appalling amount of horrible botch work done by the guillotine made a change in method a merciful necessity, and accordingly a Committee of Scientists were appointed, who, after examining carefully the mode of execution in the various countries in the world, reported the result of their investigations. In their report they discarded hanging, because, they said, in numerous instances it was fraught with untold suffering for the culprit; the guillotine, although, as a general thing, it worked well, but in the case of persons with short necks, was almost inapplicable; shooting, because it was uncertain, several volleys being frequently required to dispatch the sufferers. The committee finally recommended the adoption of a novel mode of execution, which, they said, after mature examination, they were convinced was the best and most humane that had ever been employed as yet. It was as follows: The criminal who was to suffer death was to be placed in a sort of round wooden cone, open at the top, so that only his head and his neck would protrude. Over his shoulders a sort of lid was to be placed, tightly fitting round the lower part of his neck. Then another lid was to be put on it, containing a knife-shaped like a sickle and to which a wooden handle attached. The criminal, after being placed in the wooden cone, and having his neck inclosed in the lower lid, cannot move at all. The executioner then puts a funnel shaped cover on the cone, whereby the culprit is completely concealed from view. Everything, then, is ready; the executioner seizes the handle of the knife and gives it a quick jerk, and the culprit’s head is severed from the body. All the preparations of the execution require but little more than a minute and the sickle-shaped knife does its deadly work with unfailing certainty. The royal government at Stockholm, after subjecting this mode of execution to several tests, found that it was as represented by the committee, and decreed its adoption. It was first applied on the 18th of November last at Tromsoe, in Northern Norway, at the execution of a Russian sailor and two Lapland fishermen, who had been convicted of murder, arson, and robbery, under the most atrocious circumstances. The names of the three doomed men were Nicolai Kneusoff, Aben Tikty, and Freo Lalie. All three of them were brutal-looking young fellows, and everybody said that they had abundantly deserved the terrible sentence passed upon them. it having become generally known that death would be inflicted upon them, not, as had heretofore been the case, by the ax or sword, but in the new manner which we have described above, an immense concourse of people surrounded the mound in the suburbs of the city, where the terrible scene was to be enacted, for hours before the executioner and his victims made their appearance. Nothing was to be seen on the mound in question but the wooden cone, which, with the cover, was about six feet in height.
At eleven o’clock a.m. the three criminals, heavily ironed, emerged from the Lefod fate. They were preceded by some court officials and a drummer, who beat a doleful roll. Behind them marched the executioner and his three assistants. The three doomed men hardly seemed to realize the dreadful position in which they were placed. The Russian sailor had in his mouth a very short clay pipe, from which he drew clouds of smoke. The two Laplanders were singing a weird song, in a low tone of voice. Upon reaching the top of the mound the execution and his assistants lifted the Russian into the open cone, and then adjusted its upper part, which was moveable, so that the criminal’s bare neck and head only protruded, and then the cover was put over his head, and the executioner, with a strong hand, drew the handle of the knife to the right. He waited a moment and then raised the cover. From it fell the Russian’s head, and streams of blood issued from the cone. The Laplanders looked on listlessly, while the assistants of the executioner removed the head and trunk of the dead Russian from the cone. They were then hurried to the same place and were dispatched with equal rapidity. The execution of the three men did not last over seven or eight minutes, while, previously, that of a single criminal had sometimes occupied twice that length of time. Indianapolis [IN] Sentinel 26 January 1873: p. 2
My all-too-vivid imagination places the Cone of Death in the Ikea catalog—available in artistic wood laminate, brushed steel, or white lacquered finish…. But was this a genuine method of capital punishment? I can find no other references to this device. A site on execution by beheading says that the guillotine was only introduced into Swedish criminal justice in 1903.
So many questions about execution methods, so few answers…. Thoughts on giant blocks of granite, icy pails of water, or Swedish Cones of Death? Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.