Well, it seems I’ve just accidentally celebrated Halloween. For some reason I spent last night reading about forms of capital punishment on Wikipedia, and I’ve come up with some interesting things.
(For those of you already feeling squeamish, I recommend instead Garfield’s Halloween Adventure.)
We’ve all heard the term coup de grâce. Some of you probably even know how to prononounce it properly. It’s not as close in meaning to tour de force as I’ve always thought; it’s actually best known as the single shot fired by an officer commanding a firing squad, if the first volley from all those rifles isn’t actually immediately fatal.
(This was apparently possible because despite loading some rifles with blank cartridges, the feeling of guilt from some soldiers was still so intense they’d intentionally miss, forcing the responsibility of killing the poor sap onto their commanding officer.)
To be “shot at dawn” obviously comes from the tradition of firing squad executions at first light.
Less obviously, and arguably more gruesome, is the origin of the Catherine wheel. Nowadays, they’re fireworks displays; giant spinning wheels with sparks or flames and otherwise pretty stuff coming off them. They used to be known as breaking wheels, which the condemned person was tied to by rope, and then beaten to death with a club. While spinning around, so the executioner wouldn’t have to walk around them in a circle.
The original Catherine wheel was so named because a Saint Catherine of Alexandria was meant to have been executed on one.
Here’s a nicer tale: People used to be so freaked out by the idea of being buried alive, a Belgian fellow invented a device that watched for movement of the corpse’s chest in the coffin, and would trigger alarms and raise flags above the grave if such a thing occurred so the prematurely interred could be rescued.
This was back in 1897, though, so there were no computers or anything to do the job for us; undertakers were hired to watch the graveyards at night for these signs of life, and so came into being the graveyard shift.
I don’t care if that’s actually vandalism or something, that’s a bloody cool story.
The death of a thousand cuts sounds almost pathetic in comparison to the gas chamber or lethal injection, until you connect it with its more accurate name: Slow slicing, or Ling Chi in the Chinese. Basically your body would be very slowly and carefully hacked apart – fingers, toes, ears, nose – in order to desecrate it. Confucius say body alteration is unfilial practice, and I wholly agree.
Creepiest part of that article: Your family having to pay a bribe to the executioner to supply the coup de grace. To hell with being evil enough to deserve it in the first place, I reckon.
(Coolest fact in a related article: A eunuch invented paper.)
I’ve got nothing to say about scaphism, though. Seriously, don’t even read that article. It goes beyond cruel and unusual.
That’s all I’ve got. Hope you ate dinner before reading this.