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Public execution

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Execution of Louis XVI
Execution of Louis XVI, copperplate engraving, 1793

A public execution is a form of capital punishment which "members of the general public may voluntarily attend."[1] This definition excludes the presence of only a small number of witnesses called upon to assure executive accountability.[2] The purpose of such displays has historically been to deter individuals from defying laws or authorities. Attendance at such events was historically encouraged and sometimes even mandatory.

While today most countries regard public executions with distaste, they have been practiced at some point in history nearly everywhere.[3] At many points in the past, public executions were preferred to executions behind closed doors because of their capacity for deterrence.[4] However, the actual efficacy of this form of terror is disputed.[5] They also allowed the convicted the opportunity to make a final speech, gave the state the chance to display its power in front of those who fell under its jurisdiction, and granted the public what was considered to be a great spectacle.[6] Public executions also permitted the state to project its superiority over political opponents.[6][4]



The ancient world

The Crucifixion of Jesus, as depicted by James Tissot

People were crucified in ancient Macedonia, Persia, Jerusalem, Phoenicia, Rome, and Carthage.[7]



Public executions were common in China from at least the Tang Dynasty.[8]

Medieval Islam


There are reports of public executions in early Islam.[9]

Medieval Europe


Documented public executions date back to at least the late medieval period, and peaked in the later sixteenth century.[3] This peak was due in part to the witch trials of the early modern period. In the late Middle Ages, executioners used increasingly brutal methods designed to inflict pain on the victim while still alive and to generate a spectacle in order to deter others from committing crimes. The cruelty of the mode of execution (including the amount victims were tortured before the actual execution) was also more or less extreme depending on the crime itself.[10] Punishments often invoked the "purifying" powers of earth (burial), water (drowning), and fire (burning alive). Victims were also decapitated, quartered, hanged, and beaten.[11] Bodies or body parts were often displayed in public places and authorities took pains to ensure that remains would stay visible for as long as possible.[12][3]

However, the death penalty was not used in all parts of Europe. Vladimir the Great abolished the death penalty in Kievan Rus' following his conversion to Christianity in 988.

Modern Europe


During the seventeenth century, the use of premortem torture decreased; instead bodies were desecrated after death and for display purposes.[3] By the beginning of the eighteenth century, the number of capital punishments in Western Europe had fallen by about 85% from the previous century as the legal system shifted toward one that considered human rights as well as a more rational approach to criminal justice that centered around identifying the best methods for deterrence.[3][13] However, there were several resurgences throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially during times of social unrest.[3] Executions were condemned by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers like Jeremy Bentham and Cesare Beccaria.[14] Enlightenment thinkers were not universally opposed to public executions—many anatomists found executions useful because they supplied healthy body parts to study and experiment on.[15] People also found postmortem torture (which was typically part of a public execution) disrespectful to the dead and believed that it could prevent the victim from getting into heaven.[16][3]

Public garroting of 23-year-old Juan Oliva Moncusí [es], on 4 January 1879 at the Campo de Guardias in Madrid, for having attempted to assassinate [es] the King of Spain Alfonso XII.

The first modern abolition of capital punishment was in Tuscany in 1786.

In Europe, the 19th and early 20th centuries saw a shift away from the spectacle of public capital punishment and toward private executions and the deprivation of liberty (e.g. incarceration, probation, community service, etc.).[17] This coincided with a general tendency to shield all death from public view.[18]

In Great Britain, 1801 saw the last public execution at Tyburn Hill, after which all executions in York took place within the walls of York Castle (but still publicly) so that "the entrance to the town should not be annoyed by dragging criminals through the streets."[19] In London, those sentenced to death at the Old Bailey would remain at Newgate Prison and wait for their sentences to be carried out in the street. As at Tyburn, the crowds who would come to watch continued to be large and unruly. The last public execution in Great Britain occurred in 1868,[17] after which capital punishment was carried out in the privacy of prisons.

In France, authorities continued public executions up until 1939.[17] Executions were made private after a secret film of serial killer Eugen Weidmann's death by guillotine emerged and scandalized the process. Disturbing reports emerged of spectators soaking up Weidmann's blood in rags for souvenirs, and in response President Albert Lebrun banned public executions in France for "promoting baser instincts of human nature."[20]

Nazi Germany utilized public execution by hanging, shooting, and decapitation.[21]

United States


The last public execution in the United States occurred in 1936.[17] As in Europe, the practice of execution was moved to the privacy of chambers. Viewing remains available for those related to the person being executed, victims' families, and sometimes reporters.

Frances Larson wrote in her 2014 book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found:

"For as long as there were public executions, there were crowds to see them. In London in the early 19th century, there might have been 5,000 to watch a standard hanging, but crowds of up to 100,000 came to see a famous felon killed. The numbers hardly changed over the years. An estimated 20,000 watched Rainey Bethea hang in 1936, in what turned out to be the last public execution in the U.S."[22]

Modern day

2013 public hanging of the murderer Ali Mohammadzadeh in Iran

Most countries have abolished the death penalty entirely, either in law or in practice.[23]

According to Amnesty International, in 2012 "public executions were known to have been carried out in Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Somalia."[24] Amnesty International does not include Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen in their list of public execution countries, but there have been reports of public executions carried out there by state and non-state actors, such as ISIL.[25][26][27] Kuwait has sometimes executed people in public. The prisoners are taken to the gallows and once a senior police officer gives the signed warrant, the prisoners are hanged.[28]

In the US, members of the public can visit the jail where an execution is about to take place.[29]

Amnesty International's Interim Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa, Rawya Rageh, criticized Kuwait's execution of five individuals, including one for a drug-related offense, as a return to executions with "vigour," urging the establishment of a moratorium on executions towards abolishing the death penalty. The executions were announced on 27 July 2023, after a pause of five years starting from 2017.[30]

See also



  1. ^ Hood, Roger. "Capital punishment". Encyclopedia Britannica. Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 3 October 2018.
  2. ^ Blum, Steven A. (Winter 1992). "Public Executions: Understand the "Cruel and Unusual Punishments" Clause" (PDF). Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly. 19 (2): 415. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2014-03-26.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Ward, Richard (2015), Ward, Richard (ed.), "Introduction: A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse", A Global History of Execution and the Criminal Corpse, Wellcome Trust–Funded Monographs and Book Chapters, Basingstoke (UK): Palgrave Macmillan, ISBN 978-1-137-44401-1, PMID 27559562, retrieved 2022-09-19
  4. ^ a b Garland, David. Meranze, Michael. McGowen, Randall (2011). America's death penalty : between past and present. New York University Press. ISBN 978-0-8147-3266-3. OCLC 630468201.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ McKenzie, Andrea Katherine (2007). Tyburn's martyrs : execution in England, 1675-1775. Hambledon Continuum. ISBN 978-1-84725-171-8. OCLC 255621799.
  6. ^ a b Cawthorne, Nigel (2006). Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day. Chartwell Books. pp. 6–7. ISBN 978-0-7858-2119-9.
  7. ^ Plutarch (1916). "Lives. Fabius Maximus". Digital Loeb Classical Library. doi:10.4159/dlcl.plutarch-lives_fabius_maximus.1916. Retrieved 2022-09-19.
  8. ^ Benn, Charles D. (2004). China's golden age everyday life in the Tang dynasty. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517665-0. OCLC 845680499.
  9. ^ "Welcome to Encyclopaedia Iranica". iranicaonline.org. Retrieved 2022-09-19.
  10. ^ Royer, Katherine (2015-10-06). The English Execution Narrative, 1200–1700. doi:10.4324/9781315654676. ISBN 9781317319788.
  11. ^ van., Dülmen, Richard (1991). Theatre of horror : crime and punishment in early modern Germany. Basil Blackwell. ISBN 0-7456-0616-4. OCLC 229423501.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  12. ^ Ruff, Julius R.; Spierenburg, Pieter (June 1986). "The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression; From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience". The American Historical Review. 91 (3): 652. doi:10.2307/1869169. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 1869169.
  13. ^ Maestro, Marcello (1973). "A Pioneer for the Abolition of Capital Punishment: Cesare Beccaria". Journal of the History of Ideas. 34 (3): 463–468. doi:10.2307/2708966. ISSN 0022-5037. JSTOR 2708966.
  14. ^ Bedau, Hugo (1983-01-01). "Bentham's Utilitarian Critique of the Death Penalty". Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology. 74 (3): 1033–1065. doi:10.2307/1143143. JSTOR 1143143.
  15. ^ Marland, Hilary; Richardson, Ruth (February 1990). "Death, Dissection, and the Destitute". The American Historical Review. 95 (1): 119–120. doi:10.2307/2163011. ISSN 0002-8762. JSTOR 2163011. PMC 5379396.
  16. ^ BANNER, STUART (2009-06-30). The Death Penalty. Harvard University Press. doi:10.2307/j.ctvjght8w. ISBN 978-0-674-02051-1.
  17. ^ a b c d William J. Chambliss (2011). Corrections. SAGE Publications. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-1452266435.
  18. ^ Chambliss, William J. (2011-05-03). Corrections. SAGE Publications. ISBN 978-1-4522-6643-5.
  19. ^ "Executions in York: History of York". www.historyofyork.org.uk. Retrieved 2020-04-13.
  20. ^ Steiker, Carol S.; Steiker, Jordan M. (2019). Comparative Capital Punishment. Edward Elgar Publishing. p. 167. ISBN 978-1-78643-325-1.
  21. ^ Dandō, Shigemitsu (1997). The Criminal Law of Japan: The General Part. F.B. Rothman. ISBN 978-0-8377-0653-5.
  22. ^ Larson, Frances (November 2014). "Very Short Book Excerpt: The Allure of Execution". The Atlantic (This passage was adapted from the book 'Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found.'). p. 27.
  23. ^ Tonry, Michael H. (2000). The Handbook of Crime & Punishment. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-514060-6.
  24. ^ Rogers, Simon; Chalabi, Mona (2013-12-13). "Death penalty statistics, country by country". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-12-13.
  25. ^ "ISIS extremist reportedly kills his mother in public execution in Syria". Fox News. 2016-01-08. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  26. ^ "ISIS Fast Facts". Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. 3 September 2018. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  27. ^ "Video: Taliban shoot woman 9 times in public execution as men cheer". CNN. 2012-07-09. Retrieved 2016-05-30.
  28. ^ "Kuwait executes three for murder (WARNING GRAPHIC IMAGES)". Retrieved 2024-02-08.
  29. ^ Cameron, Claire (2020-12-12). "'There's nothing to prepare you': what it's like to witness an execution". the Guardian. Retrieved 2022-12-02.
  30. ^ "Kuwait: Five hanged as Kuwait continues execution spree into second year". Amnesty International. 2023-07-28. Retrieved 2023-07-31.