Nathan Le Master
September 28, 2016
The Mona Lisa, democracy, Tesla motors, vaccines, space travel, the Great Pyramids, Infinite Jest. There is no cap to human creativity. We invent. We tinker. We create. We excel in every field we put our mind to, from art to zoology. As the anecdote goes, James Joyce spent a day working on Ulysses with only two sentences to show for his labor, yet was extremely proud. Similarly, humanity has a patient but tireless resolve to achieve perfection; but perfection isn’t limited to only art, science, and culture. We’re also perfectionists when it comes to the macabre, sadism, war, and execution. While some people might argue that we invent new technologies in these fields in order to tidy up–just as Richard Jordon Gatling, inventor of the first machine gun, intended for his Gatling Gun to “discourage large battles, and show the folly of war”–sadism is still sadism, execution is still execution. While we strive to make execution more clinical and conscientious, it’s still a dirty business, never mind that every method was perceived by its contemporaries as fair and just. And so, capitalizing on the Halloween spirit around the corner, enjoy the list of 10 horrible ways to go out.
As a disclosure, my interest in such a grim subject is less in the gore and ultraviolence, and more a fascination with the type of individual who deliberately thinks up techniques and new modus operandi to maximize pain and suffering. Similar to how Saudi Arabia publicly announced a need for state executioners, perhaps kings and emperors once had fliers posted throughout their kingdoms asking for creatively disposed citizens to come forward and suggest more excruciating means of torture and execution. So by reading this, it’s safe to assume that you share the same mix of curiosity and bewilderment towards human beings that are capable of doing this to fellow human beings. This is real life Tarantino.
1. Diele: Three centuries before Joseph Guillotine’s namesake machine beheaded the likes of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, the lesser known diele was used. Unlike its later descendant, the diele was a very short and small contraption. And instead of relying on momentum and gravity for it’s coup de grâce, the executioner would rest the blade on the back of the kneeling victim’s neck, and aggressively strike the blade with a mallet. Bone isn’t so easy to pierce, so it’s easy to imagine a few blows to the victim before a clean decapitation.
2. Necklacing: Necklacing originally traces it origins to South Africa, where rivaling gangs would place car tires around a victim’s neck, and set them on fire. Between the asphyxiating fumes, the burning molten rubber, and the heat and flames, the victim suffers an agonizing death. As terrible as this sounds, the democratically elected Haitian former president, President Aristide, had a soft spot for this practice, even going so far as to encourage his supporters to inflict it on his political rivals. Regarding necklacing, he is recorded saying, “What a beautiful tool! What a beautiful instrument! What a beautiful piece of equipment! It’s beautiful, yes it’s beautiful, it’s cute, it’s pretty, it has a good smell, wherever you go you want to inhale it.”
3. Spanish Donkey: Jokingly titled, this method involved the tied-up victim sitting on an upside down V-shaped raised wall, in which the straddling legs of the victim would be tied down with weights. With downward pressure being applied to both legs, the body could potentially be split into two. However, this method didn’t necessarily mean death for the victim. It was more often used as a punishment for soldiers in the British and Spanish armies, but was terminated due to the fact that victims could suffer permanent damage after riding the Spanish Donkey, ultimately making them unfit for work. Today, the Spanish Donkey has returned from retirement, this time utilized for a more pleasurable type of pain by the BDSM community.
4. Judas Cradle: With a penchant for the macabre, the Spanish Inquisition employed the Judas Cradle as one of their “encouragements” into Catholicism. This device involved the victim being bound by ropes, descending onto a pyramid shaped seat, with the triangular point penetrating either the anus or vagina. Having control of the ropes and thereby the descent, the inquisitor could seize the opportunity to converse with the victim, trying to extract information or facilitate a painful conversion into the Christian faith.
5. Scaphism: Dating back to antiquity, the Greeks recorded this torturous Persian invention. Scaphism involved joining two boats or hollow logs in a way that constricted the victim’s naked body, but left the head and limbs exposed. He or she would be forced to consume milk and honey, then would be covered with additional honey to attract insects, and left exposed to the elements. As feces would fill up the container, bugs would breed within the victim’s flesh. Death would come as combination of dehydration, starvation, as well as gangrenous infections from the burrowing insects. A less theatrical variation of this resurfaced with the Soviet KGB, who relied on the biting of bed bugs on bound prisoners as an interrogation technique.
6. Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered: As Geoffrey Abbot put it, “If a man committed murder, he was hanged or, if an aristocrat, he was beheaded. The only offense worse than that was high treason, the equivalent of murdering one’s country by killing, or plotting to kill, its sovereign lord, the king.” The consequence of such a crime was obliteration, both physical and symbolic. This multi-step process began with the prisoner being dragged on a hurdle pulled by a horse. Then the condemned was hanged, just short of death by strangulation. The victim was then disemboweled–his entrails being burned on a fire–and castrated to symbolize the death of that traitor’s line. Death would only then occur when the condemned was beheaded and sliced into four quarters, the parts of which were hung up around the city as a reminder of England’s most heinous offense. As is well known, the heads were situated on pikes on London Bridge as a friendly admonishment to both natives and foreigners.
7. Thousand Cuts: If some of the means listed above are rather straightforward, there is a kind of artistry in the Chinese Lingchi, or “thousand cuts.” This involved mutilating the victim’s flesh with razor-sharp knives, and removing his or her appendages in non-fatal ways, until the executioner would end the spectacle with decapitation. The quantity of cuts prior to beheading was determined by the severity of the crime. Some could get as few as eight, while others had to experience up two a hundred and twenty. This method was still in use as late as the 20th century, such as during the Communist uprising of 1927-28, so if you can stomach it, you can find B&W photos of Lingchi victims online.
8. Cauldron: This horrendous method made appearances at various times in history, first, as a Roman torture toward Christian martyrs, then as a execution of Protestants by the Catholic Church, as well as by tribes in Central Africa. While there existed nuances between the various practitioners, the principle was the same. This involved an upside down cauldron or cage placed on the prisoner’s abdomen. Mice or feral cats were placed inside and taunted from without, whether by fire or sharp sticks. Harassed into a frenzy, the animals would then try to escape by boring into the victim’s stomach. Similar to the rat torture in 1984, the poor victim would feel and sometimes see the animals tearing his flesh, adding a psychological dimension to this torture.
9. Sawn in Half: Unlike the magic trick where the beautiful assistant is severed at the abdomen, sawing in half as an execution often involved sawing on a Y axis. However, this custom was not limited to the callous Roman despot Caligula, but was also used by Europeans, North Africans, Hebrews, and Chinese. In fact, it was the Chinese who perfected the method by having the standing victim pinned between two boards of wood, allowing two executioners to saw downwards. While the Chinese preferred going from head to toe, other countries had the victim upside down, beginning with the groin. It’s difficult to conceive of the horror one must have felt towards a slow death, having the saw pierce through the lower body before reaching more vital organs.
10. Euthanasia Coaster: To lighten the mood a little, this type of death has, as its name denotes, an element of fun. And this method only exists at its concept stage. The Euthanasia Coaster is an idea for a roller coaster reaching up to 220 mph, with such lethal G-force that it would deprive the brain of oxygen, thereby killing the riders via asphyxiation. While conversations about doctor-assisted suicides are becoming more common in state legislatures, perhaps going out “with elegance and euphoria” as its designer, Julijonas Urbonas intended, isn’t so bad of an idea. Maybe this is something to include at the very bottom of our bucket lists?
As recent as the 1980s, some countries had state-sponsored doctors facilitating state-sponsored torturers in order to “help keep prisoners alive who are not supposed to die by calibrating the severity of torture to their medical conditions and treating injuries caused by torture before their patients are returned to torture centers.” This combination of medicine and torture to insure the longest duration of punishment is, in my opinion, the ultimate hell, worse than anything the Marquis de Sade could think up. After all, if hell is punishment without death or a final oblivion, but an infinite suffering, isn’t this the closest to achieving hell on earth? But, while I don’t want to moralize on how capital punishment has evolved, if things have changed for better or worse, I think it’s absolutely fascinating to think about how to this day, humanity still has almost no cap when it comes to inflicting suffering on those we believe to deserve suffering.