A Brief History of Execution

Jonathan Fink Click to

finkpicJonathan Fink is an Associate Professor and the Director of Creative Writing at the University of West Florida.  He has received fellowships from the NEA, the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, the St. Botolph Foundation and Emory University.  His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, New England Review, TriQuarterly, Slate, Witness, VQR and other journals.  Fink has received the Editors’ Prize in Poetry from The Missouri Review.

1.  Written in 1772 BC, Hammurabi’s Code contains the earliest known laws for justifiable execution.

2.  For example, if a man accuses another man of an injustice, the accused man will be plunged into a river, and, if innocent, he will rise to the river’s surface.  Conversely, unseen hands will draw him, if guilty, to the silt and darkness of the river bottom.  Should the man reach the river’s shore, the accuser will be put to death, and all he owns will be forfeited to the innocent man.

3.  Lex talionis, the law of retaliation, undergirds Hammurabi’s Code: “If a man put out the eye of another man, his eye shall be put out.”

4.  Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Hebrew Bible, also advocates for lex talionis.

5.  Christ advocated for the law of forgiveness, as did Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

6.  Mid-execution, Christ called out, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”

7.  The word “excruciating” derives from the Latin word, “excruciates,” meaning, “out of the cross.”

8.  When Narayan Godse, Gandhi’s assassin, was executed by hanging in 1949, Gandhi’s two sons pleaded unsuccessfully for Godse’s life to be spared.

9.  King’s assassin, James Earle Ray, evaded execution with a guilty plea, which he later attempted to recant, and then died in prison from complications of hepatitis C.

10.  Robert Kennedy, when telling a gathered crowd in Indianapolis of King’s death, read aloud a poem by Aeschylus.

11.  From a podium erected on a flatbed truck, Robert Kennedy stayed the swelling anger of the crowd: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart…

12.  His own assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted to life in prison when the California Supreme Court invalidated all pending death sentences in 1972.

13.  As bodyguards and crowd members attempted to subdue Sirhan Sirhan, a seventeen-year-old busboy named Juan Romero cradled Robert Kennedy’s head and placed a rosary in Kennedy’s palm.

14.  When Robert Kennedy addressed the crowd in Indianapolis, he spoke in public for the first time about his brother’s assassination.

15.  Five years prior, while his dog Sheba waited in the car, Jack Ruby, on national television, executed Lee Harvey Oswald with a snub-nosed Colt .38 revolver.

16.  Sentenced to death and awaiting a new trial, Jack Ruby was executed by pulmonary embolism brought on by lung cancer.  Ruby and Oswald both died at Parkland Hospital, the same hospital at which John F. Kennedy had been pronounced dead.

17.  Jacqueline Kennedy introduced Robert Kennedy to Aeschylus’ writing when he was grieving the death of his brother.

18.  Aeschylus, the father of tragedy, believed that knowledge arises from suffering.

19.  In his plays, Aeschylus executes character after character.  Even Cassandra, whose ears were licked clean by snakes in Apollo’s temple so that she might hear the future, could not escape her execution by Clytemnestra.

20.  In 456 BC, Aeschylus himself, the legend claims, was executed when an eagle dropped a tortoise from the sky.

21.  Animals figure prominently in execution lore.

22.  In the Twelve Tablets of the Roman Law, the crime of patricide called for the condemned to be drowned inside a sack that also contained a dog, a rooster, a viper, and an ape.

23.  In an execution for sport, three hotel owners in Niagara, NY, in 1827, obtained a condemned schooner, decorated it as a pirate ship, filled it with animals, and sent it over Horseshoe Falls to the delight of 15,000 spectators.

24.  The boat (the Michigan) was supposed to contain “animals of the most ferocious kind, such as panthers, wild cats and wolves,” yet when the boat went over the falls, it contained only a buffalo, two raccoons, a dog, and a goose.

25.  In 1903, Thomas Edison, in an execution for business, electrocuted Topsy, a twenty-eight-year-old elephant from Coney Island’s Luna Park.  The execution was sanctioned because Topsy had killed three men over the previous three years.

26.  J.F. Blount, one of Topsy’s keepers, had tried to feed her a lit cigarette, and she lifted him with her trunk and dashed him on the ground.

27.  Hanging had been considered as a means of execution for Topsy, but Edison stepped in and suggested electrocution by alternating current.  To alert the public of the current’s danger, Edison insisted that the execution be filmed.

28.  George Westinghouse, Edison’s chief competitor, championed alternating current.  Edison championed direct current.

29.  To guarantee Topsy’s execution, Topsy was fed carrots laced with cyanide.

30.  One newspaper reported, “The execution was witnessed by 1,500 or more curious persons, who went down to the island to see the end of the huge beast, to whom they had fed peanuts and cakes in summers that are gone…”

31.  When Edison’s stunt couldn’t impede the rise of alternating current, Edison advocated for its use in the electric chair.  He even tried to make Westinghouse’s name into a verb.  To Edison, death by electric chair meant getting “Westinghoused.”

32.  In 1890, the first execution by electric chair was less than a rousing success.

33.  William Kemmler, a citizen of Buffalo, NY who killed his common-law wife with a hatchet, received 1,000 volts for seventeen seconds.  When the doctors noticed that Kemmler was still breathing, they increased the voltage to 2,000 volts.  Blood vessels ruptured under his skin, and the stench of singeing hair filled the chamber.

34.  When he heard of the debacle, George Westinghouse said, without irony, “They would have done better using an axe.”

35.  The word “electrocution” initially only referred to intentional execution by electricity, but soon encompassed accidental death by electricity as well.

36.  “Old Sparky,” the electric chair at Sing Sing prison, was used in all executions in New York State from 1914 to 1963.

37.  Willie Francis, in 1946, became the first person to survive the electric chair.

38.  An intoxicated prison guard in Angola, Louisiana incorrectly installed a portable electric chair named “Gruesome Gertie.”  When the switch was thrown, Willie Francis allegedly yelled, “Take it off!  Let me breathe!”

39.  His case went to the Supreme Court, and his lawyers argued that even though Willie Frances did not die, he had, in fact, been executed.

40.  The Supreme Court was not persuaded, and Willie Francis was re-executed successfully in 1947.

41.  Yet there have been successful escapes.

42.  Back in Niagara, New York, before the Michigan went over Horseshoe Falls, two small bears that had been placed on the boat leapt into the Niagara River and swam to Goat Island when the Michigan began to tear apart in the rapids.

43.  Rescued downriver after going over the falls, the goose also survived.

44.  In 1915, Wenseslao Moguel survived nine shots from a firing squad during the Mexican Revolution.  Presumed dead, he waited until the solders left and then crawled to safety, making a business from his mangled face and touring the country for the second half of his life.

45.  To conclude, there is this: If knowledge rises from suffering, what is to be made of Frano Selak?

46.  Frano Selak: the Croatian music teacher who escaped death seven times, who survived a train crash into an icy river, a fall from a plane where he landed in a haystack, a bus crash, two car crashes (one of which burned away all of his hair when fuel spewed from the air vents), being knocked down by a van, and, lastly, having his car hit by a United Nations bus as he turned a corner on a mountain road, catapulting him to the canopy of a tree as his car exploded below him on the mountainside.

47.  In 2006, Frano won one million dollars with a lottery ticket he bought in celebration of his fifth wedding.

48.  The ticket was the first he had ever purchased.

49.  In an interview, he said he was the happiest he had been in his life.  He said, “All I need at my age is my Katarina.  Money would not change anything.”

50.  He donated most of the winnings to charity and relatives, setting aside funds only for his hip replacement and to build a shrine for St. Mary, whom he viewed as the mother of all, whose own son, like Frano, had demonstrated power over the grave.


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