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New Worlds: Death Sentences

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Our previous tour through physical punishments, back in Year Four, stopped short of a rather crucial one: execution.

(Content warnings for basically every form of violence.)

In modern times, more and more governments are moving toward abolishing the death penalty, for a wide variety of reasons ranging from the ethical to the pragmatic. Historically, though, execution has been pretty common — and not only for serious crimes, as you might expect, but for shockingly minor ones as well, on the (deeply flawed) belief that it would act as a deterrent to future criminals.

As with torture techniques, our methods of execution are too numerous to count. They can, however, be grouped into some broad categories. The litany, with examples, is as follows:

Lack of air — hanging, strangulation, drowning, pressing to death, gassing, burial alive. Some approaches to execution by burning kill the victim via smoke inhalation rather than direct heat.

Lack of food or water — starvation, exposure in a cage, immurement (being bricked up in a cell, but not without air).

Poison — “suicide” where the victim is given the poison to eat or drink themself, confinement with venomous creatures, modern lethal injection.

Heat — burning at the stake, boiling in water or oil, confinement in a metal vessel that is then heated, the electric chair.

Loss of blood — throat-cutting, wrist-cutting (which might also be ostensible suicide), lingchi (the proverbial “death by a thousand cuts”), and depending on how you want to look at it, decapitation; that last illustrates the overlap this category can have with the following.

Massive trauma — a wide array of methods that simply inflict so much damage on the body that the victim dies of any number of resulting complications, such as organ failure, internal hemorrhage, and so forth. Some particularly famous approaches include stoning, firing squads, dragging behind horses or a cart, throwing off a high place such as a cliff, impalement, breaking upon the wheel, and drawing and quartering. It’s also worth noting that depending on how it’s performed, hanging can snap the victim’s neck instead of choking them . . . or it can tear the head completely off the body.

What method is chosen depends not only the society in general, but upon the specifics of the crime and the criminal. Some methods, such as giving the victim poison to drink or a knife with which to cut their own wrists, might be considered more “respectful” or “dignified,” in that the victim gets to bring about their own end rather than being subjected to it by force. Others are deliberately disrespectful, as was famously the case with crucifixion in ancient Rome. Death by fire or water might be chosen for the purifying connotations of those elements; death by immurement or being wrapped up in fabric and then trampled or beaten is common where there’s some kind of spiritual prohibition against spilling the victim’s blood. The most lingering and gratuitously complicated methods tend to be used in cases where the powers that be want to make a spectacle that will theoretically discourage others from following in the offender’s footsteps: treason, for example, or heresy.

The lead-up to an execution can often be highly ritualized, for the sake of the victim, the sake of the spectators, or both. In modern times, starting from the guillotine onwards, we’ve had a tendency to try to industrialize and depersonalize executions, but even that hasn’t completely eliminated traditions like giving the prisoner a final meal. When the victim is someone of wealth and influence, or otherwise in possession of a protected status, that might be formally stripped from them before they are subjected to their punishment. (One example that will unfortunately never leave my brain: when the family of the Roman soldier Sejanus was killed for his crimes, Roman law didn’t allow for the execution of a virgin, so his teenaged daughter Junilla is said to have been raped before being murdered.) In a religious society, the condemned may first be given some form of final rites, in a show of spiritual mercy — or, by contrast, they may be cast out of the spiritual community, condemning the soul before condemning the body.

As horrifying as it is to consider, executions have often been considered a great form of public entertainment. This is true not only in ancient times. e.g. with the Roman damnatio ad bestias sending convicts to the arena to be torn apart by wild beasts, but also as recently as eighteenth-century England. Blood sports in general are something I’ll devote an essay to someday, but this is part and parcel of a theme I’ve touched on before, which is the greater acceptability of violence and narrower sphere of empathy that tended to prevail in the past. Executions may have been a miserable failure at deterring future criminals, but it’s possible they succeeded at uniting the community in demonizing whoever was being killed . . . except, of course, when that backfired, creating sympathy and hardening public sentiment against whoever ordered the death.

Certainly there tends to be sentiment against the person with the blood directly on his hands. I’m not aware of any society where professional executioners have been respected instead of reviled. They are often very poorly paid (and might have other jobs to make ends meet), and even where they aren’t drawn from an officially oppressed class, ethnic group, or caste, the job might be hereditary, simply because of the general sense that the person carrying it out is irrevocably stained. One of the modern arguments against capital punishment centers on the harm it does to the executioner; this is especially true where lethal injection is concerned, as many jurisdictions require trained medical personnel to at least prepare if not administer the drugs, which runs counter to medical ethics.

A death sentence may not end with death itself. What happens to the body afterward may, socially and even spiritually speaking, be every bit as important to the process. Allowing the family of the victim to take the remains and give them proper rites is the kind, merciful end of this spectrum, but it stretches a long way in the other direction. I mentioned in the discussion of anatomy (also in Year Four) that multiple societies have believed it is important to keep the body whole, and so mistreating it after execution is a way of making the death worse even after the victim is no longer alive to feel pain. The idea of sticking heads on spikes above the city or castle gate is no historical myth: the authorities absolutely did that, along with displaying the caged, crucified, or impaled bodies of criminals along roads. The corpse of a particularly notorious criminal might be dismembered and the pieces scattered to prevent their followers from gathering them, or simply as a further gesture of contempt. Or the cadavers might be passed off to physicians for anatomical study, as mentioned in that previous essay, because no law-abiding citizen wanted that to happen to their remains. But this gets an odd twist in modern times, as there have been condemned criminals who actively wanted to donate their organs for medical transplantation — an idea which usually runs aground on a number of pragmatic and ethical obstacles.

Of course, when using this in fiction, it all depends on what your story needs! Whether the protagonist is being threatened with execution or the deaths of others are serving as a source of conflict in the background, you can often set the level of horror to exactly where you want it to be.

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