Thursday, March 31, 2016


Crucifixion, firing squad, electric chair, lethal injection, gas chambers, beheading, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake, the breaking wheel. Every administration or country and every period has its favourite way of legally killing people.

We British were keen on hanging. Black cap, grave voice and then “Christopher John Thompson you are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.” Hanging doesn't always work cleanly. People choke to death as they dangle from the rope rather than having their neck snapped by the jerk.

No such problem with the French system proposed by Dr. Joseph Guillotin. It always worked as intended. The soon to be dead prisoner was placed face down on a large wooden plank, their head was secured in a brace and steadied by an executioner's assistant known as the photographer who held on to their hair (or, in the case of bald prisoners, their ears). When everything was in place, a 55 kilo blade dropped two metres and made a nice clean cut decapitating the victim instantly.

The Spanish were neck men too but here it was the garotte. It was originally intended as a merciful death for those heretics who admitted their crimes and accepted Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition. The condemned were strangled to death with a sharp cord. Difficult choice – purification by fire or strangulation – to repent or not? The more sophisticated version came later. It was basically a chair or bench with an upright post behind to which was attached an iron collar with a large metal screw in the back. The prisoner sat with their back to the post and the collar was fastened around their neck. The theory was that as the screw was tightened it would crush the brain stem and cause instant death. The stronger the executioner and the slighter the prisoner the better the chance that things would go to plan. The main problem though was that if the screw missed the precise point where the brain meets the spinal column it would simply bore into the condemned person's neck tightening up the iron collar and strangling them, slowly, to death.

My dad told me about having a drink in Albert Pierrepoint's pub in Lancashire. Pierrepoint was a hangman. He executed over 400 people (there are no centralised records as hangmen were hired by local sheriff's whose responsibility it was to hang people) and he is considered the most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history. He resigned in 1956. The last hanging in the UK was in 1964.

Maybe the last Spanish executioner knew Albert in his incarnation as a publican because several of the reports about Antonio López Sierra have him drunk as he executed people. He only executed twenty or so people probably because most of the prisoners “legally” executed in Spain during the 20th Century were shot. His first was in 1952 and his last was in 1974 when he had a lot of trouble putting together the garotte having had a drink or two too many. It took quite a long time for his subject, militant anarchist Salvador Puig Antich, to die. That was the last time the garotte was used here. The last executions in Spain took place in September 1975 when two ETA and three FRAP members were killed by firing squad.

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