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Disembowelment or evisceration is the removal of some or all of the organs of the gastrointestinal tract (the bowels), usually through a horizontal incision made across the abdominal area. Disembowelment may result from an accident but has also been used as a method of torture and execution. In such practices, disembowelment may be accompanied by other forms of torture, and/or the removal of other vital organs.
Disembowelment as torture
If a living creature is disemboweled, it is invariably fatal without major medical intervention. Historically, disembowelment has been used as a severe form of capital punishment. If the intestinal tract alone is removed, death follows after several hours of gruesome pain. However, in some forms of intentional disembowelment, decapitation and/or the removal of the heart and lungs would hasten the victim's death.
Nezahualcoyotl, a 15th-century Acolhuan ruler of Texcoco, a member of the Aztec Triple Alliance (now Mexico), promulgated a law code that is partially preserved. Those who had engaged in the passive role of homosexual anal intercourse had their intestines pulled out, then their bodies were filled with ash, and finally, were burnt. The active or penetrating partner was simply suffocated in a heap of ash.
In Japan, disembowelment played a central part as a method of execution or the ritualized suicide of a samurai. In killing themselves by this method, they were deemed to be free from the dishonor resulting from their crimes. The most common form of disembowelment was referred to in Japanese as seppuku (or, colloquially, hara-kiri), literally "stomach cutting," involving two cuts across the abdomen, sometimes followed by pulling out one's own viscera. The act of decapitation by a second (kaishaku-nin) was added to this ritual suicide in later times in order to shorten the suffering of the samurai or leader, an attempt at rendering the ritual more humane. Even later the knife was just a simple formality and the swordsman would decapitate before the subject could reach for it. The commission of a crime or dishonorable act was only one of many reasons for the performance of seppuku; others included the atonement of cowardice, as a means of apology, or following the loss of a battle or the surrender of a castle.
Various accounts have asserted that during the Vietnam War, members of the Viet Cong sometimes made calculated use of disembowelment as a means of psychological warfare, to coerce and intimidate rural peasants. Peer De Silva, former head of the Saigon department of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), wrote that from as early as 1963, Viet Cong units were using disembowelment and other methods of mutilation as psychological warfare. The extent, however, to which this punishment was perpetrated may be impossible to gauge and while detailed accounts survive regarding how civilians were disemboweled by Viet Cong, the use of this torture appears to have been quite arbitrary and there is no record that such actions were sanctioned by the North Vietnamese government in Hanoi. Disembowelment and other methods of intimidation and torture were intended to frighten civilian peasants at a local level into cooperating with the Viet Cong or discourage them from cooperating with the South Vietnamese Army or its allies.
On 10 July 1584, Balthasar Gérard shot and killed William of Orange, who had advocated for Dutch independence from the King of Spain. The assassin was interrogated and condemned to death almost immediately. On 14 July, after suffering various tortures during each of the five days since the assassination, Gérard was disemboweled and dismembered while still alive, after which his heart was torn out and then he was beheaded by his Dutch executioners.
Catholic tradition states that Erasmus of Formiae, also known as Saint Elmo, was finally executed by disembowelment in about A.D. 303, after he had suffered extreme forms of torture during the persecutions of Emperor Diocletian and Maximian.
In England, the punishment of being "hanged, drawn and quartered" was typically used for men convicted of high treason. This referred to the practice of drawing a man by a hurdle (similar to a fence) through the streets, removing him from the hurdle and hanging him from the neck (but removing him before death), disembowelling him slowly on a wooden block by slitting open his abdomen, removing his entrails and his other organs, and then decapitating him and dividing the body into four pieces. The man's head and quarters would often be parboiled and displayed as a warning to others. As part of the disembowelment, the man was also typically emasculated and his genitals and entrails would be burned. Women who were convicted of high treason were, for modesty's sake, instead burned at the stake.
From the 15th century, a number of ordinances are retained that threaten with a terrible punishment for those who stripped off the bark of a standing tree in the common woods. A typical wording is found in the 1401 ordinance from Oberursel:
" und wo der begriffen wird, der einen stehenden baum schälet, dem wäre gnad nützer dan recht u. wann man deme sol recht thun, soll man ihm seinen nabel bei seinem bauch aufschneiden u. ein darm daraus thun, denselbigen nageln an den stamm u. mit der person herumgehen, so ,lang er ein darm in seinem leib hat"
"and whoever is caught stripping off a standing tree, mercy would have been more benificial to him than the law is; for when law is to be fulfilled, then one is to cut up his stomach at the navel, and pull out a length of the gut. The gut is to be nailed to the tree, and one is keep going around that tree with the person, so long as he still has any part of the gut left in his body"
Jacob Grimm observes, that no actual case where this punishment was carried out has been found in records from that time period (15th century). However, some 300-500 years earlier, the Western Slavic tribes like the Wends are said to have revenged themselves upon Christians in this way, by binding the guts to an erect pole, and driving them around until the person was fully eviscerated. In the 13th century, members of the now extinct Baltic ethnic group of Old Prussians in one of the battles against the Teutonic Knights, are said to have captured one such knight in 1248, and made to undergo this punishment.
The Japanese tradition of seppuku is a well known example of highly ritualized suicide, within a wider cultural world of norms and symbolism. However, reported examples of suicides exist, in which a person performed disembowelment on himself or herself, without any ambient culture of approved, or expected, suicide.
In 1593, a terrible tragedy of suicide occurred in Wimpfen. A young, pregnant woman, who had become a widow a few weeks before, was lying in her bed. She took a large knife, and opened her belly in a cross, and threw out the fetus, her own intestines, and dug out her spleen and flung that out as well. She lived for 10 hours after the act, and when the priests sought to bring her a final consolation and blessing, she said it would all be in vain, because she was a daughter of the devil, and was beyond any sort of redemption. Then, she died, was put in a sack and thrown in the river. She was well off, so it was clear it was not poverty that had driven her to this act.
In 1617, a merchant in the municipality Grossglockau slit up his abdomen so that the intestines fell out; he then pulled out his stomach and threw it on the bed. The chronicler notes he lived long enough to regret his action.
When a portion of the intestinal tract is forcefully pulled from or expelled from the body through the anus, it is referred to as transanal evisceration. Cases of transanal evisceration of children whilst sitting over uncovered swimming pool drains have been reported; notable cases include Valerie Lakey (1993) and Abigail Taylor (2007). In Taylor's case, the suction dislodged and damaged her liver and pancreas; several meters of her small intestine were forcefully pulled through her anus. In both these cases, the victims were left with short bowel syndrome and required feeding by total parenteral nutrition. After multiple operations, Taylor later died from transplant-related cancer.
A person, usually a child, can suffer a similar injury if a heavy weight such as a vehicle is applied directly over the abdomen. The downward pressure forces a portion of the intestine to burst from the anus.
In Japanese folklore, it was believed that malicious Kappa – water-goblins that inhabited ponds and rivers – might thrust a hand into the anus of a human swimmer, seeking a mythical sphere called a shirikodama.
The process of embalming sometimes includes removing the internal organs. Mummification, especially as practised by the ancient Egyptians, entailed the removal of the internal organs prior to the preservation of the remainder of the body. The organs removed were embalmed, stored in canopic jars and then placed in the tomb with the body.
James Cook, on his second voyage, noted an embalming custom on some of the Pacific islands his crew visited, a custom utilizing transanal evisceration:
We found the body not only entire in every part; but, what surprised us much more, was, that putrefaction had scarcely begun (...); though the climate is one of the hottest, and Tee had been dead above five months.(...) Such were Mr. Anderson's remarks to me, who also told me, on his enquiring inte the method of effecting this preservation of their dead bodies, he had been informed, that, soon after their death, they are disemboweled, by drawing their intestines, and other viscera, out at the anus; and the whole cavity is then filled or stuffed with cloth; introduced through the same part(...)
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