Barbarous Punishments.

By Sidney W. Clarke.


THAT the world has become more merciful as it has grown older, is a truism at once apparent to anyone who gives even a cursory glance at any of the numerous works dealing with the criminal laws of the olden time. Still the approach to the most excellent quality has been regretably and painfully slow, and it is surely a stain on the boasted enlightenment of the nineteenth century, that the century had run through nearly three-fourths of its existence before the terrible and vindictive punishment of drawing and quartering disappeared from our statute book. In most States the early laws have been of a blood-thirsty and fear-inspiring nature, but what excuse can be urged for the fact that until the fourth day of July, in the year of Grace 1870, the punishment ordained by law for the crime of high treason, was that the unfortunate offender should be drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution, there to be hanged by the neck till he be dead; that his head be severed from his body; that his body be divided into four quarters; and that his head and quarters be at the disposal of the Crown. In Blackstone’s time the sentence was still more savage, or, as the great Commentator puts it, “very solemn and terrible.” It was that the offender be drawn to the gallows, and not be carried or walk; “though usually,” says Blackstone, “by connivance, at length ripened by humanity into law, a sledge or hurdle was allowed to preserve the offender from the extreme torment of being dragged on the ground or pavement;” that he be hanged by the neck and then cut down alive; that his entrails be taken out, and burned before his eyes, while he was still alive; that his head be cut off, his body be divided into four parts, and his head and quarters be at the King’s disposal. What our tender-hearted monarchs did with the quivering pieces of flesh let the stones of Temple Bar, the City Gates, and the Tower bear witness. Here are a couple of extracts from that perennial fountain of information, the diary of Mr. Samuel Pepys. Under date of October 13th, 1660, he writes, “I went out to Charing Cross to see Major-General Harrison,” one of the regicides, “hanged, drawn, and quartered, which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition.” Note the grim humour of the words in italics. “He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.” Again, on October 20th, in the same year:—“This afternoon going through London and calling at Crowe’s, the upholsterer’s, in St. Bartholomew’s, I saw the limbs of some of our new traytors set upon Aldersgate, which was a sad sight to see; and a bloody week this and the last have been, there being ten hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

It will be observed that the masculine gender is used in the foregoing sentences for high treason; for, if the offender was a woman, the law with a delicacy (!) one would hardly have expected, recognised that “the decency due to the sex forbids the exposing and publicly mutilating their bodies;” so a woman was simply to be drawn to the gallows, and there burned alive. And these punishments for treason Sir Edward Coke attempted to justify on Scriptural grounds, adding “it is punishment undoubtedly just, for our liege lord the King is lord of every one of our members, and they have severally conspired against him, and should each one suffer.” Evidently justice has not always spelt humanity.

Another of the horrible punishments decreed by English law was that of boiling to death, which in the reign of Henry VIII. was inflicted for poisoning, and recalls the most cruel tortures of China and the Orient, where slicing to death and impalement alive are or were common forms of punishment. The awful fate of being boiled alive was specially devised for the benefit of John Roose, a cook, who had been convicted of throwing poison into a pot of broth intended for the family of the Bishop of Rochester and for the poor of the Parish; in 1542, Margaret Davey suffered the same lingering death at Smithfield. So fearful were our ancestors of poison, that in Scotland, in 1601, Thomas Bellie, a burgess of Brechin, and his son were banished for life by the High Court of Justiciary, for the heinous offence of poisoning a couple of troublesome hens belonging to a neighbour. Even the laws of Draco, said on account of their severity to have been written not in ink but in blood, can scarcely compete with these examples of British barbarity. Among the Romans strangulation, precipitation from a rocky height (a mode of carrying out the death sentence still found amongst savage tribes), and lashing to death were forms of punishment. Soldiers guilty of military offences had to run the gauntlet. Upon a given signal all the soldiers of the legion to which the offender belonged fell upon him with sticks and stones, and generally killed him on the spot. If, however, he succeeded in making his escape, he was thenceforth an exile from his native country. Offending slaves were first scourged and then crucified. They were compelled to carry the cross to the place of execution, and after being suspended were left to perish by slow degrees. Crucifixion was abolished throughout the Roman Empire by Constantine, out of reverence to the sacred symbol. Other cruel punishments were burning alive, exposure to wild animals, and condemnation to fight as gladiators in the arena for the amusement of the citizens. The second of these modes of death, for death was the invariable result, was the one usually meted out to the early Christians—“If the Tiber overflows its banks; if there be a famine or plague; if there be a cold, a dry, or a scorching season; if any public calamity overtakes us; the universal cry of the people is—“To the lion with the Christians Christiani ad leonem!”

Parricide was punished in a strange manner. The criminal, after being scourged, was tied or sewed up in a leather bag, with a dog, a cock, a viper, and an ape to keep him company, and so cast into the sea. The Egyptians punished the same offence by sticking the prisoner all over with pointed reeds, and then throwing him upon a fire of burning thorns, where he lay till he was consumed.

With most nations the Lex talionis, or punishment of retaliation—an eye for an eye, a limb for a limb—has found a place in the penal system. It was not, indeed, always carried out to its logical conclusion, but rather became the subject of many subtle distinctions. Among the Athenians, Solon decreed that whoever put out the eye of a one-eyed person should for so doing lose both his own. But what, it was asked, should be done where a one-eyed man happened to put out one of his neighbour’s eyes? Should he lose his only eye by way of retaliation? If so, he would then be quite blind, and would so suffer a greater injury than he had caused. The law of the Jews and Egyptians compelled anyone, who without lawful excuse was found with a deadly poison in his possession, to himself swallow the poison. An instance of a kind of lex talionis in our own country is found in the reign of Edward I., when incendiaries were burnt to death. Another example is that, from the reign of Henry VIII. to that of George IV., to strike a blow and draw blood within the precincts of the King’s palace, entailed on the offender the loss of his right hand. Here are some of the regulations prescribed by the statute 33 Henry VIII., chapter 12, for the infliction of the punishment:—

“viii. And for the further declaration of the solemn and due circumstance of the execution appertaining and of long time used and accustomed, to and for such malicious strikings, by reason whereof blood is, hath been, or hereafter shall be shed against the King’s peace. It is therefore enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the Sergeant or Chief Surgeon for the time being, or his deputy of the King’s household, his heirs and successors, shall be ready at the time and place of execution, as shall be appointed as is aforesaid, to sear the stump when the hand is stricken off.

“ix. And the Sergeant of the Pantry shall be also then and there ready to give bread to the party that shall have his hand so stricken off.

“x. And the Sergeant of the Cellar shall also be then and there ready with a pot of red wine to give the same party drink after his hand is so stricken off and the stump seared.

“xi. And the Sergeant of the Ewry shall also be then and there ready with cloths sufficient for the Surgeon to occupy about the same execution.

“xii. And the Yeoman of the Chandry shall also be then and there, and have in readiness seared cloths sufficient for the Surgeon to occupy about the same execution.

“xiii. And the Master Cook shall be also then and there ready, and shall bring with him a dressing-knife, and shall deliver the same knife at the place of execution to the Sergeant of the Larder, who shall be also then and there ready, and hold upright the dressing-knife till execution be done.

“xiv. And the Sergeant of the Poultry shall be also then and there ready with a cock in his hand, ready for the Surgeon to wrap about the same stump, when the hand shall be so stricken off.

“xv. And the Yeoman of the Scullery to be also then and there ready, and prepare and make at the place of execution a fire of coals, and there to make ready searing-irons against the said Surgeon or his deputy shall occupy the same.

“xvi. And the Sergeant or Chief Ferror shall be also then and there ready, and bring with him the searing-irons, and deliver the same to the same Sergeant or Chief Surgeon or to his deputy when they be hot.

“xvii. And the Groom of the Salcery shall be also then and there ready with vinegar and cold water, and give attendance upon the said Surgeon or his deputy until the same execution be done. “xviii. And the Sergeant of the Woodyard shall bring to the said place of execution a block, with a betil, a staple, and cords to bind the said hand upon the block while execution is in doing.”

In addition to losing his hand, the unfortunate offender was imprisoned for life. It was not until 1829 that this punishment was abolished, after having been in existence for a period of 287 years.

A curious mode of punishment, intended to make its victim the object of popular ridicule, was in vogue in the ancient German Empire, where persons who endeavoured to create tumults and to disturb the public tranquility were condemned to carry a dog upon their shoulders from one large town to another.

The penal laws of France were every wit as inhuman as our own—burning alive, breaking on the wheel, hanging, beheading, and quartering were common forms of punishment. Awful atrocities were committed on living victims, such as tearing off the flesh with red-hot pincers, pouring molten lead and brimstone into the wounds, and cutting out the tongue. The following is the sentence passed upon Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV., in 1610:—He was first to be privily tortured and then carried to the place of execution. There the flesh was to be torn with red-hot pincers from his breasts, his arms and thighs, and the calves of his legs; his right hand, holding the knife wherewith he committed his crime, was to be scorched and burned with flaming brimstone; on the places where the flesh had been torn off a mixture of melted lead, boiling oil, scalding pitch, wax, and brimstone was to be poured; after this he was to be torn in pieces by four horses, and his limbs and body burned to ashes and dispersed in the air. His goods and chattels were confiscated; the house in which he was born was pulled down; his father and mother were banished, and his other relatives commanded to change the name of Ravaillac for some other. This sentence was not, surely, a vindication of outraged justice, but rather a purile and barbarous legal revenge.

To return to the laws of our own country. Mutilation of one sort or another was long a favourite mode of punishment; pulling out the tongue for slander, cutting off the nose for adultery, emasculation for counterfeiting money, and so on. In Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” there is an account of a miracle which was worked on the person of a mutilated criminal. A Bedfordshire man was convicted of theft, and for his crime his eyes were pulled out and other abominable mutilations were inflicted on him. The sufferer repaired to the shrine of St. Thomas at Canterbury, where after devout and steadfast prayer the parts he had lost were, so we are told, miraculously restored. Anyone who fought with weapons in a church had an ear cut off, or if he had already lost both his ears was branded in the cheek with the letter F.

By an Act passed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the punishment for forgery was that the offender should stand in the pillory and have his ears cut off by the common hangman, his nostrils slit up and seared, and then suffer imprisonment for life. In 1731 Joseph Cook, aged 70 years, underwent this punishment, the mutilation taking place while he stood in the pillory at Charing Cross.

The Coventry Act (22-23 Charles II., chapter 1.) was passed in consequence of Sir John Coventry having been assaulted in the street and his nose slit, out of revenge as was supposed. It enacted that if any person should of malice, aforethought, and by lying in wait, cut out or disable the tongue, put out an eye, slit the nose, or cut off or disable any limb or member of any other person, with intent to maim or to disfigure him, such person, his councillors, aiders, and abettors, should be guilty of felony without benefit of clergy, which implied the punishment of death. This Act was not repealed until 1828, and resulted in at least one curious case. In 1772, one Coke and a labourer named Woodburn were indicted under the Act—Coke for hiring and abetting Woodburn, and Woodburn for the actual offence of slitting the nose of one Crispe, who was Coke’s brother-in-law. The intention of the accused was to murder Crispe, and they left him for dead, having terribly hacked and disfigured him with a hedge-bill, but he recovered. An attempt to murder was not then a felony, but under the Coventry Act to disfigure with an intent to disfigure was; and the accused were indicted for the latter offence. Coke, in the course of his defence, raised the point that the attack on Crispe was made with intent to murder him and not with intent to disfigure, therefore, he contended, the offence was not within the statute under which he was indicted. But the court held that if a man attacked another intending to murder him, with such an instrument as a hedge-bill, which could not but endanger a disfiguring of the victim, and in such attack happened not to kill but only to disfigure, he might be indicted for disfiguring. The jury found the prisoners guilty, and they were condemned and duly executed.

The laws for the protection of trade decreed many cruel punishments. Thus, in the reign of Elizabeth, an Act passed for the encouragement of the woollen industry prescribed that the penalty for taking live sheep out of the country should be forfeiture of goods, imprisonment for a year, and that at the end of the year the left hand of the prisoner should be cut off in a public market, and be there nailed up in the most public place. A second offence was punishable with death. By statute 21 James I. chapter 19, anyone unfortunate enough to become a bankrupt was nailed by one ear to the pillory for two hours, and then had the ear cut off. Under the Romans a bankrupt was treated still more unmercifully, for at the option of his creditors he was either cut to pieces or sold to foreigners beyond the Tiber.

A longstanding disgrace to the intelligence and humanity of our countrymen was the fact that in former times burning alive was the inevitable fate of poor wretches convicted of witchcraft, the penal laws against which were not repeated until 1736.

So late as 1712, five so called witches were hung at Northampton, and in 1716 Mrs. Hicks, and her daughter, aged nine, were condemned to death at Huntingdon for selling their souls to the devil. Even children of tender years were not spared, but with their elders alike fell victims to our law’s barbarity; there are many recorded instances of children under ten years of age being executed. In Scotland the last execution for witchcraft took place in 1722.

Space will not permit any attempt to run through the whole gamut of legal iniquities; at most we can only attempt a very incomplete catalogue of the inhumanities at one time or another incident to our penal codes, and with a final horror we must bring this article to an end. The punishment with which we are now about to deal, that of pressing to death, peine forte et dure as it was called, is perhaps the most noteable example of the former barbarity of our law, since it was inflicted before trial on innocent and guilty alike, who refused to plead “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” to an indictment for felony. What this punishment was, which was first instituted in 1406, can best be told by giving the form of the judgment of the court against the person who refused to plead:—That the prisoner shall be remanded to the place from whence he came, and put in some low, dark room, and that he shall lie without any litter or other thing under him, and without any manner of covering; that one arm shall be drawn to one quarter of the room with a cord and the other to another, and that his feet shall be used in the same manner; and that as many weights shall be laid upon him as he can bear, and more; that he shall have three morsels of barley bread a day, and that he shall have the water next the prison, so that it be not current; and that he shall not eat the same day on which he drinks, nor drink the same day on which he eats; and that he shall continue so till he die or answer.

Peine forte et dure was not abolished till 1772, and was frequently undergone by accused persons in order to preserve their estates from being forfeited to the Crown, which would have been the case if they had stood their trial and been found guilty. The year 1741 is probably the last date on which the punishment was inflicted. In 1721, two men, Thomas Cross and Thomas Spigot, were ordered to be pressed to death at the Old Bailey. Cross gave in on seeing the preparations made for his torture, but Spigot was made of sterner stuff. In the “Annals of Newgate” is a description of his sufferings:—“The chaplain found him lying in the vault upon the bare ground with 350 pounds weight upon his breast, and then prayed by him, and at several times asked him why he would hazard his soul by such obstinate kind of self-murder. But all the answer that he made was—‘Pray for me, pray for me!’ He sometimes lay silent under the pressure, as if insensible to pain, and then again would fetch his breath very quick and short. Several times he complained that they had laid a cruel weight upon his face, though it was covered with nothing but a thin cloth, which was afterwards removed and laid more light and hollow; yet he still complained of the prodigious weight upon his face, which might be caused by the blood being forced up thither, and pressing the veins as violently as if the force had been externally upon his face. When he had remained for half-an-hour under this load, and 50 pounds weight more laid on, being in all 400 pounds, he told those who attended him he would plead. The weights were at once taken off, the cords cut asunder; he was raised by two men, some brandy was put into his mouth to revive him, and he was carried to take his trial.” In 1735, a man, who pretended to be dumb at the Sussex Assizes, was sent to Horsham Gaol to be pressed to death unless he would plead. He endured in agony a weight of 350 pounds, and then the executioner, who weighed over 16 stones, laid himself upon the board upon which the weights were placed, and killed the wretched man instantly.

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