Over the centuries various means were used to put condemned persons to death. Some methods were quite horrific, and they were specifically designed so that the victim would suffer long and agonizing pain before death. Crucifixion, impalement, burning at the stake, being thrown to the wild animals, and being drawn and quartered were among those methods employed at one time or another in various parts of the world. Usually these executions were performed in a public place as a salutary lesson to other would-be malefactors.
These barbaric punishments were gradually eliminated in civilized nations, and reliance was placed on relatively quick methods to put someone to death. For someone in military service it was usually the firing squad. For civilians, it was most often hanging or decapitation. As a carry-down from Greek and Roman tradition, death by beheading was considered a more honorable way to die, so it was usually reserved for the nobility. Commoners got the rope.
Beheading was performed by an executioner wielding an axe. Appropriately, he was called a headsman. Any nobleman awaiting execution was very anxious that the headsman be sober, possessed a sharp blade, and had excellent aim. Even so, it sometimes took more than one blow to do the job.
In 1792, as the French Revolution was moving into high gear, the French National Assembly was looking for a more expeditious and humane way to put people to death. This resulted in the birth of the guillotine. Ironically, it has been reported that King Louis XVI himself may have contributed to its design. Even a relatively unskilled executioner could use a guillotine without major mishap. Henceforth, in France, it was employed to execute all persons, noblemen and commoners, who were condemned to death, and the guillotine continued to be used until 1977, the only exceptions being those French military persons executed by firing squad. (It is also interesting to note that when a French soldier is executed by firing squad, after the bullets are fired, the squad commander steps forward and shoots the condemned man in the head. That is known as the “coup de grace”, the blow of mercy.)
In Great Britain, the last beheading took place in 1747. After that, hanging was the normal method of execution. The same was true in the United States. By the 1880s, however, there were increasing calls for a more humane method. Out of these calls came the development of the electric chair. The electric chair was first used in the 1890s, and it still remains as an alternative method of execution in several states. Over the years, however, there were troubling stories about electric chair malfunctions, stories that remind one of those tales about the headsman’s dull axe. Because of this, some states turned to the gas chamber, which was first used for an execution in 1924. Like the electric chair, however, the gas chamber presented its own set of problems. Finally, beginning in 1982, lethal injection became the almost universal mode of execution in those American states still having a death penalty. Even though lethal injection is usually considered much less brutal and painful than the electric chair or gas chamber, critics often label it as cruel and inhumane punishment. Indeed, many will be satisfied only with the total elimination of the death penalty.
For my views on the subject of elimination, please read my previous post titled “Capital Punishment.”