Abbott: What A Way To Go

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Geoffrey Abbott, What a Way to Go : The Guillotine, The Pendulum, the Thousand Cuts, the Spanish Donkey, and 66 Other Ways of Putting Someone to Death. New York : St. Martin's Griffin, 2007. 338 pages, with "Jargon of the Underworld" (glossary), appendix (selected historic letters), "Select Bibliography", and index.

What an odd little book this is. Odd but informative and, not surprisingly, as difficult to turn away from as a gory automobile accident. It could easily have been silly and pointless, but it isn't, because the author took his subject seriously. The result is a fascinating compendium rich with history and anecdote.

The back cover tells us that Mr. Abbott was for many years a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London and the author of 19 books, leading us to believe that such a position may have helped develop his interests in methods of execution and other unsavory goings-on as might have happened at the Tower. The page of "also by" inside the book lists several other titles by the author along the lines of "Tortures of the Tower of London", "The Who's Who of British Beheadings", and "The Executioner Always Chops Twice." It seems that for readers who enjoy this book there's plenty of follow-on reading available.

It's organized as a small encyclopedia with entries in alphabetical order: "Axe, Bastinado, Beaten to Death, Boiled Alive, Brazen Bull, etc." Some of the entries are but a paragraph long, mostly reflecting the historic fact that they were rarely used methods of execution, whereas some (such as "hanging" or "electric chair") are several pages and cover hundreds of years of history. As a rule, Mr. Abbott sticks to methods he can document as having been used for "judicial execution", rather than allowing any old means of killing someone.

I'm happy to include the book here because Mr. Abbott is inclined to an analytical approach whereby he occasionally has to deduce means and methods from very scanty historical records, and also because he avoids the hysterical or sensational, although he does occasionally allow himself a little pun. He also shows a keen interest in the mechanics and mechanisms of torture and execution.

I found it very hard to read the whole book and avoid feeling utterly cynical about humankind's humanity. It seems clear that for most of the past several thousand years some would go to extraordinary lengths to invent the most painful tortures and methods of execution possible, pretending to feel it was necessary punishment to fit the crime or elicit confessions, but generally exhibiting the most unabashedly sadistic motivations. Here is how Mr. Abbott sums up:

In conclusion, all that can be said is that, just as there is no end to man's inventiveness, whether in the fields of medicine or mechanics, science or space travel, so, regrettably, his ability to conjure up methods of torture and death is equally infinite; literally, there is no end to man's fiendish imagination.

It's difficult to select a sample, so here is one of the shorter entries complete:

Torn Apart Between Two Trees

Needing little explanation, this method of execution consisted simply of bending two adjacent trees and binding them together, each ankle of the victim then being tied to each of the trees.

The rope holding the trees together, when slashed, 'returned [the trees] with a bound to their natural position and, tearing the man's body in two which was fastened to them, rent his limbs asunder and bore them back with them'.

This procedure was also used against the French during the guerrilla warfare in Spain, Earlier, it had been employed by Sinnis, a Corinthian warlord with whom it became so popular a method of dispatch as to earn him the nickname of 'the pine bender'.

-- Notes by JNS

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