When Public Executions
Were the Crowd’s Delight
Immortality is one of those dreams that would turn into a nightmare if it’d ever become reality. Even without the proverbial zombies roaming the earth, we still need desperately to die on a regular basis.
Not pretty, for sure, but a vow of support to all blessed forms of natural death, the economics of crime and punishment, and the ecology of making sure we dispose properly of the bodies of those who passed on.
According to the Annals of Improbable Research, modern forms of execution went through considerable changes until reaching the efficiency and swiftness of contemporary death rows. Or so that was the plan. Such evolution also reflects changes in our footprint on the planet.
Thus, if ancient Hebrews, living in barren lands, executed people by stoning, Arabs in nearby deserts used a sword to decapitate them. Impaling was an ancient and popular method, and the Romanian Prince Vlad III, likely to have inspired the myth of the Dracula, was an avid adopter. Turks preferred metal spears, but in most of Asia and the Tropics, bamboo was the preferred method to exact justice. To each its own horror theater.
DEATH METHODS & CROWD FAVORITES
Arguably, few could beat crucifixion as a public spectacle, though. It was the Roman way, and Jesus, its cèlebre poster boy. It even had an opening act where the condemned had to drag his own wooden crossbar to the site of the execution to the crowds’ delight. Romans could be cruel but not free of ecological concerns, though.
They saw how wasteful the method was – not of blood and guts, which there were plenty to go around – but of trees. And soon, an alternative was devised. They’d bend and tie with ropes two trees, and have the arms and legs of the doomed attached on each of them. Then the ropes would be cut, for a clean, quick end, with no waste of timber.
In Medieval Europe, the auto-de-fé, i.e., to burn alive at the stake, was the sanctioned method of execution. It killed Joana D’Arca and countless others, accused of heresy, witchcraft, and other peccadillos.
HEADS ROLLED, FIRING SQUADS SHOT
In the 18th century, a new method made people literally lose their heads over it, and became forever associated with the French Revolution: the guillotine. It replaced the sword executioner and it killed thousands but it could not slay two popular beliefs: it was not invented by Joseph Guillotin and it did not kill him either.
It never caught on in North America, where hanging was the preferred way. Still, forest depletion was a constant concern, so with the Civil War, death by firing squad was a more economical alternative.
With the added convenience of serving to execute more than one person at a time. As we mentioned before, (more)
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