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In 1887, New York State appointed three men to evaluate many possible ways to execute a man—which they did in disturbing detail.

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Government reports rarely make for stimulating reading. That’s because most government reports aren’t about throwing people off a cliff or clubbing them to death.

In 1887, the state of New York published what became popularly known as the Gerry Commission Report. This is one piece of bureaucratic prose that is neither dull nor boring. In fact, it may be among the most macabre and gruesome in the annals of American writing.

And it was important. The ramifications of this execution encyclopedia—officially titled “The Commission to Investigate and Report the Most Humane and Practical Method of Carrying into Effect the Sentence of Death in Capital Cases”—echo still in the courts and prisons of America.

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People implicated in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln await execution by hanging, 1865.

34 Ways to Die

Three men wrote the Gerry report. There was Elbridge Gerry of New York, grandson of another Elbridge Gerry who signed the Declaration of Independence and became the fifth vice president of the United States. There was Matthew Hale, grandson of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary War patriot who famously regretted he had but one life to give for his country. And there was Alfred Southwick, a Buffalo dentist who was the grandson of nobody particularly famous. In 1887, the New York State Legislature appointed this trio to a committee charged with examining all the ways New York State could put condemned felons to death and recommending the best way to do so.

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From colonial times, hanging had been the official form of lawful execution in New York State, but by the 1880s, there was a growing sentiment among New Yorkers that it was barbaric practice. Indeed, there were far too many newspaper stories of hangings gone bad: broken ropes requiring hurried do-overs, incorrectly measured drops resulting in decapitation, and men slowly strangling to death instead of instantly breaking their necks. Such goings-on might be acceptable on the western frontier, but New York prided itself on being the most cosmopolitan and sophisticated state in the Union. There must be a more forward-thinking way to execute a person, it presumed.

Marching orders in hand, the three men catalogued every conceivable method in which the state could dispatch a person from this mortal realm. Then they comprehensively examined the merits of each. The resulting Gerry Commission report is full of lively writing and lurid anecdotes.

In all, the commission evaluated 34 different methods of execution, listing them in alphabetical order. Some methods were described in a single paragraph, while others—which presumably the authors found more interesting—took several pages to illustrate. They are:

  1. Auto da fe (burning to death for heresy)
  2. Beating with clubs
  3. Beheading
  4. Blowing from a cannon
  5. Boiling (“Usually in hot water but sometimes in melted sulfur, lead or the like.”)
  6. Breaking on the wheel
  7. Burning
  8. Burying alive
  9. Crucifixion
  10. Decimation (a military punishment for mutineers)
  11. Dichotomy (cutting a person in half)
  12. Dismemberment (like dichotomy but even messier)
  13. Drowning
  14. Exposure to wild beasts
  15. Flaying
  16. Flogging
  17. Garrote (strangling with a cord)
  18. Guillotine
  19. Hanging
  20. Hari Kari
  21. Impalement
  22. Iron Maiden (A machine in the image of the Virgin Mary equipped with spring loaded knives)
  23. Peine forte et dure (placing heavy weights to stop breathing)
  24. Poisoning
  25. Pounding in a mortar (like it sounds)
  26. Precipitation (throwing from a cliff)
  27. Pressing to death
  28. Rack
  29. Running the gauntlet (being made to walk between two lines of men, each of whom has a club.)
  30. Shooting
  31. Stabbing
  32. Stoning
  33. Strangling
  34. Suffocation

The commission did not pull punches in their descriptions of capital punishment. In their analysis of beheading, they provide numerous examples from England, France, China, and Japan.

“(In Japan) the prisoner’s arms were pinioned behind his back. He raised a weak quavering voice to its highest pitch and screamed out, ‘My friends!’ Immediately an unearthly chorus of wails answered the poor wretch from his friends outside the walls. This was followed by ‘Syonara!’ All was ready; the word was given. Without raising his weapon more than a foot above the neck of the condemned, the executioner brought down his heavy blade with an audible thud.”

It gets more morbid. Under the heading of burning they relate:

“An extraordinary method of this punishment was known as ‘the illuminated body’ and invented by Sefi II, Shah of Persia. The victim was stretched on a slab and fastened to it. Innumerable little holes were bored all over his body. These were filled with oil, and all lighted together. The poor victim perished in the most unspeakable agony.”

Some methods are so bizarre that they seem almost risible, at least at a far remove of time and distance. The commission studied the method of execution they called “blowing from a cannon” based on its contemporary use in the East Indian army, whose soldiers were called “Sepoys.” Apparently, there were two ways for doing this. The report states that “the insurgent Sepoy, lashed to the cannon’s mouth, within two second of pulling the trigger, was blown in 10,000 atoms.” Alternatively, the “living body of the offender is thrust into the cannon, forming, as one might say, part of the charge.”

One of the oddest punishments explored was number 25, pounding in a mortar. In Proverbs 27:22, the Bible reads, “Though thou shouldest bray a fool in a mortar among wheat with a pestle, yet will not his foolishness depart from him.” This biblical passage evidently prompted a religious Gerry Commission member to consider “pounding in mortar” as a possible method of serving the death sentence. Presumably, this procedure would involve the condemned being placed in a large mortar or similar vessel and then pounded with an enormous pestle. This is much like what happens when one prepares a mint julep, except a condemned prisoner is substituted for the mint leaves.

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Henry Sapiecha

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