Beheaded revolutionists in Wuchang, 1911
The death penalty in the Far East has a notorious past, with some extremely inhumane execution methods having been practiced. In the 19th century "death by elephant" – in which elephants were used to crush, maim or otherwise torture prisoners – was one method of public execution that was still being practiced.
Execution of Boxer leaders at Hsi-Kou, 1900-1901
However, in the early part of the 20th century there were many different methods used to kill people as punishment for alleged crimes, and what makes this more macabre is that often these executions were carried out in public – and with photographs taken. This article will examine some of these shocking images. They're not for the faint-hearted.
Garrote Execution, Manila, the Philippines, 1901
The man above is being garrotted to death in Manila Bilibid Prison. Garrotting is essentially strangling someone to death using a chain or a wire. However, during executions, a post with a seat to which the captive was tied was generally used, with a metal band placed around the victim's neck that was tightened until the condemned suffocated to death. In some cases (especially in Spain, which used the garrotte until 1973) there was a spike on the band to break the spinal cord more quickly. In the Philippines, the use of the garrotte was banned in 1902, with three priests accused of taking part in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny against the Spanish among the most famous victims of this means of execution. Not a pleasant way to die.
Execution in China ca. 1900s
Beheadings were very common in the Far East, and often the head was displayed to the public afterwards. (An executioner who decapitates people is known as a "headsman".) In China beheading was thought of as a more extreme form of punishment than strangulation because in the Chinese tradition it was considered disrespectful to return the body of an individual to their ancestors in a dismembered state.
Spy being beheaded, Liaoning, China in Russo-Japanese War, 1905
In Japan, beheadings were also considered a severe punishment before the practice was abolished. One particularly extreme example of this involved a would-be assassin who was buried up to his neck in the ground in order that his head could be slowly sawn off over several agonizing days. However, in Japan there was a context in which decapitation was considered honorable – when someone committed the ritual suicide, an act known as seppuku. After the individual disemboweled themselves, another warrior would come along and slice off their head to hasten death. However, most beheadings were carried out by courts or during wartime.
Beheading during the Qing Dynasty (1636 ~ 1912), China
In the North-West Frontier Province of British India (now Pakistan), it has been written that women practiced decapitation during the Anglo-Afghan war. Pathan women would behead (and castrate) non-Muslims like British and Sikh POWs, according to the autobiography of British officer John Masters.
Beheaded corpses, Caishikou, China, 1905
The public laying out of the headless bodies in the above image is as disturbing as any shown here. The information that comes with the photo says that the victims were lined up according to rank at the crossroads of a vegetable market in Beijing, China.
Chinese civilians to be buried alive, 1937/38
In this extremely macabre photo, Chinese people are being forced into a pit ready to be buried alive by Japanese troops during the Nanking Massacre, as Japanese forces invaded China. As an execution method, premature burial might be seen to have a practical purpose – there is no need to move the body for burial – but any trace of humanity is sadly lacking.
In feudal Russia premature burial was also the punishment handed out to women who had killed their husbands and was called "the pit". The last known execution in Russia by such a method was in 1927.
Public executions, Peking, China, c. 1927
Desecrating the bodies of the condemned and executed was also far from unknown in the Far East. In some cases the heads of people who had been decapitated were stuck on sticks or pikes as a warnings to others. In the image above, a man's head was placed between his legs and left there. The photographer marked the image "a ghastly joke".
Mancage in Afghanistan, 1921
Banditry in Afghanistan had been a serious problem in the early 1900s and the authorities set out to curb it. They would imprison those captured in iron cages like this one and leave them up there to die without food or water. By 1921 the crime had become less of a problem. No wonder!
Exhibition of strangled Chinese malefactors, c. 1907
This image shows an instance of public execution in which Chinese criminals had been strangled before their bodies were put on display in these wooden cages – more for the sake of deterring others from crime than anything else, one suspects.
There is one other truly abhorrent example of the death penalty too graphic to be shown here (if you want to see an image of it, go here). Known as Ling Chi, it has also been called death by a thousand cuts, slow slicing, the lingering death or the slow process. Although officially abolished in China in 1905, the image above was taken in 1910, so Ling Chi clearly still went on afterwards. The condemned was tied naked to a post, often publicly, and their flesh gradually cut away with small slices from a knife until they died of blood loss or shock. Occasionally the victims were given opium to stop them from fainting or perhaps (small possibility!) as an act of mercy.
None of these execution methods are pleasant to say the least, but men have been putting each other to death for hundreds of years and have been alarmingly creative in finding methods that are especially painful. These sinister images show the worst side of mankind and the worst side of some ideas of justice.