Tag Archives: death penalty

Surviving an execution

The law relating to executions is in the news at the moment, as pharmaceutical companies battle to dissociate themselves and their drugs from killing as opposed to healing (see, e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/13/arkansas-executions-lethal-injection-drug-makers ). Over in my world of medieval study, as a side-note to a current project on unauthorised hanging, I have been turning my attention to botched or failed – or successful and yet not final – executions. The first fruit of this is my ‘work in progress’ list of those who survived executions. It’s into double figures and no doubt there are many more instances out there: I am sure I will be adding to the list over time.

The victims (or not) are mostly male, mostly thieves, and many of the stories involve hanging, removal and revival in a church. Few are very detailed, but there are some interesting themes emerging. First, although there has been a lot of attention on the best-reported case, that of William Cragh of c. 1290, and the idea of miraculous resurrection after definite death (in that case, through the intervention of proto-saint Thomas de Cantilupe: see Bartlett, The Hanged Man: a story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University, 2006), most cases are not quite on that model. In more ‘secular’ sources, a few of those who survived excited talk of miracles, but even these instances do not seem to have been regarded as full resurrections.

They may be seen as miraculous escapes, or, at times, the result of blunders by others. Ropes breaik or people revive after having been taken down from the gallows. It is generally impossible to know whether there were interventions meant to defeat the intention of killing the convict – interference with ropes, or deliberate early removal from the gallows – as opposed to blunders and mistakes (certainly, there are other, clear, examples of deliberate rescue), but some, at least, of the stories suggest genuine surprise at the survival of a condemned person, as well as a lack of reliable testing for the expiry of life.

These cases certainly underline the important observation made by Henry Summerson: “It may be a sign of the extent to which present-day society has distanced itself from the realities of capital punishment that the word ‘execution’ is commonly misused to describe a killing that has been carried out in a manner quick, clean and efficient. A medieval execution at least was commonly a messy business, unskilfully carried out.” (H. Summerson, ‘Attitudes to capital punishment in England 1200-1350’, in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), 123-34, 132). Aside from the fact that modern systems generally do not allow their blunders to affect the ultimate outcome, by tending to reprieve those who have somehow managed to survive, the criticism is applicable to modern death-dealing legal systems as well.


19th April, 2017.