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The practice of hanging people has been used in many cultures, including the times when Sri Lanka’s notorious bandit Saradiel lived. The picture is a sculptor’s depiction of the gallows when Saradiel and two outlaws were sentenced to death. This sculpture of the gallows can be seen in ‘Saradiel Village’ in Uthuwana, Uthwankanda in Mawanella | (Pic by Ravi Nagahawatte)

Civilizations have attempted to curtail acts of crime by instilling horror in criminals and would be criminals by using very harsh forms of punishment

Death is the ultimate end to all human existence. Yet during this mortal lifespan the human mind has for centuries displayed in gruesome and bloody fashion its dark ability to commit, without any remorse, an assortment of crimes, including murder. Seeking revenge or justice was a matter of much controversy in ancient times, and perhaps still is in the present society. This has been impacted by various culture, religion and political mindsets.

The Death Penalty was said to be codified by the defiant ruler King Hammurabi of Babylon. During the 16th Century, Egypt carried out their first execution, punishing a noble for practicing magic. The Romans also codified capital punishment through the Roman Law of the 12 Tablets

Capital punishment, Death Penalty, Execution all refer to punishment by death. The word capital here derives from the Latin Capitalis, meaning head and in this instance cutting off the head, as in beheading. Today the Death Penalty is active in 36 countries, including China, America and India, whilst 103 countries have abolished this form of punishment. It is interesting to note that the United Nations General Assembly, confirmed on November 15, 2007 a Global Moratorium on Execution, which calls for a general suspension of the death penalty. This was also supported by the International group Hands off Cain, founded by Sergio D’Ela a former left wing terrorist, presently a nonviolent politician.

Ancient forms of punishment
Civilizations have attempted to curtail acts of crime by instilling horror in criminals and would be criminals by using very harsh forms of punishment. Crushing by an elephant was certainly scary, and people would come in hundreds to witness this spectacle. Often elephants were raised in Royal palaces simply for this task! Some were thrown into dens where frenzied lions awaited in earnest. It was equally terrible to be thrown into a large pond that was home to blood thirsty crocodiles.

Quartering was another method that was used, where a person’s limbs were tied to four horses and the animals driven in four directions, the body being torn into four segments. The bold Vikings not to be outdone would cut open the accused and pull out the lungs, feeding it to eagles and vultures. The vulture has an inclination to impending death. Still others were buried alive, with Scorpions thrown inside, to induce more agony. During Medieval times women accused of witchcraft were burnt alive or put into the Iron Maiden (an iron casket in the form of a woman. with razor sharp iron spikes that would press into the flesh, and cause heavy bleeding, when the lid was tightly shut).

The Romans, who controlled a mighty Empire were said to be the first to introduce Crucifixion, and also decapitation by sword (beheading). This was later abolished by the Emperor Constantine. Another ancient method was Gibetting where the criminal was shut in a cage and left in a public place to die slowly, due to starvation, and exposure to the elements. Poisoning criminals was also common, especially for crimes of treason against Kings, this was subsequently stopped and the firing squad seemed to perform the execution with much pomp.

Scaphism was a method where the prisoner was fed with milk and honey (symbols of supposed prosperity), tied and left afloat in a large pool, where he would attract bees and insects that would eventually eat into his body. Stoning was punishment for crimes including adultery. Finally there was a maritime law that used Keel Hauling where sailors were punished by being tied and thrown overboard, where they would drown. Certainly all of these punishments would have instilled trepidation and respect for the Law, and yet have they?

The Death Penalty was said to be codified by the defiant ruler King Hammurabi of Babylon. During the 16th Century, Egypt carried out their first execution, punishing a noble for practicing magic. The Romans also codified capital punishment through the Roman Law of the 12 Tablets. During the early 450 BC era the British used to blindfold criminals and throw them into infested quagmires. It was only during the 10th Century that Hanging was introduced to curtail crime. By the early 1700s there were 222 crimes punishable by death. However the first legal execution was of a man named Daniel Frank, who was found guilty of theft. In America the State of Michigan was the first to abolish the Death Penalty in 1846.

The advent of Electrocution has a very impressive story, one which evolved from business rivalry and reads thus- The Edison Company with its DC (direct current) electrical systems began competing with Westinghouse Company and its AC (alternating current) electrical systems as they were pressing for nationwide electrification with alternating current. To demonstrate how dangerous AC could be, Edison Company began public awareness by electrocuting animals. People reasoned that if electricity could kill animals, it can kill people. In 1888, New York approved the dismantling of its gallows. The nation’s first electric chair was created.

It held its first victim, convicted murderer William Kemmler, in 1890, and even though the first electrocution was clumsy at best, other states soon followed. One must watch the English movie the Green Mile, starring Tom Hanks which brilliantly explores the mind of a man condemned to death, and also the judicial system of that time.

In the history of prison inmates being executed by electric chair two men stand out as an embodiment of pure evil. Albert Fish, was a convicted child rapist who proceeded to cook and eat body parts of his victims. He was known as the Brooklyn Vampire. He was sent to the chair in 1936. Some say that it was due to him that we have the character of the Boogey Man, one who bundles kids into a sack, or in local lore the ‘Goni billa’.

Many would be aware of Ted Bundy, a psychotic serial killer, violent rapist and necrophile (a person who has sexual arousal from viewing a corpse). He was sent to the chair in 1989. On July 13, 1928, seven men were sent to the chair at Kentucky State Penitentiary, creating a record number. Today many countries have replaced the Electric chair with the Lethal injection, which is considered a more rapid form of death.

Death by hanging
The practice of hanging a person has also been used in many cultures, often as a warning. People would gather in hundreds and cheer. Hanging takes place as legal punishment and the other as self inflicted suicide. Hanging is defined as death by means where a condemned person is suspended by a noose or ligature. There are three kinds of drops used to ensure death.

1.    Short Drop – where person is placed on a cart or horse and that is driven away

2.    Standard Drop – where a person is suspended from a height of 4 to 6 feet, this discovery being made by Irish doctor Samuel Haughton in 1866

3.    Long Drop – where it was found that each inmate’s height and body weight would finally determine the slack required upon the rope. This method was introduced by William Marwood of Britain.

Violent acts of inhuman murder and ghastly deaths call for justice. It is the cry of the victim’s family and loved ones. After all, each life is precious. Society is sent into a state of shock when we witness the death of innocent people, especially children. There remains an ever increasing need to update existing Laws of the Penal Code and also rapidly implement them, with due protection to witnesses. Additionally our prisons must also be brought abreast to foreign standards where death row inmates are held as per their individual crimes.

Law enforcement agencies must also have Special response units to trace missing persons, with the use of K-9 (Police dogs) in every province. Religious and Civil society must create awareness on how to overcome impending criminal elements, mainly by evoking the human conscience, by teaching self respect and also respect for others. This is a time for spiritual awakening. Unsupervised internet use by minors only fuels sexual lust and fornication. The dark and biased criminal mind, with its relentless quest to fulfill evil desires and selfish motives, is an ever present danger to all of us. The time to act is now.