From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
THE GERRY COMMISSION
Hanging, Beheading, Dichotomy, and Worse: The Most Macabre
Brainstorming Session Ever
The grainy Internet video of Saddam Hussein’s execution shows the grim
brutality of state sanctioned death sentences. Saddam looked dazed as
he walked up the stairs to the scaffold. It’s hard to imagine what was
going through his mind. Anger? Possibly. Remorse? Unlikely. Fear?
Certainly. Perhaps he was simply anticipating the physical sensation
of the ground giving way under his boots, the short drop, his neck
snapping, and his feet dancing on air before blackness permanently
descended over his unhooded eyes.
Is hanging a bad way to go? In the late 19th Century, after a number
of botched executions by hanging that resulted in slow strangulation
and/or decapitation, the State of New York decided to study this
question, seeking to understand the biology and physiology of death by
hanging and to determine whether a more humane method of capital
punishment could be found.
New York’s governor appointed a committee of experts to evaluate
alternatives to hanging for convicted and condemned capital murderers.
This committee became known as the “Gerry Commission,” after its
chairman, Elbridge Gerry. Elbridge Gerry of New York was the grandson
of Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts, signer of the Declaration of
Independence and fifth vice president of the United States. The senior
Gerry is most famous for once comparing the Continental Army to his
Under Chairman Gerry’s watch, nearly three dozen deadly ideas were
brainstormed and evaluated in the Commission’s report to the
In all likelihood, the 1888 Gerry Report is the most bizarre and
grotesque report ever produced by a committee of government
bureaucrats in the US, Iraq, or anywhere else. For weeks, these plucky
public servants brainstormed, researched and categorized all the ways
of killing people they could think of. Then, they comprehensively,
deliberately, and dispassionately examined the merits of each in
In discharging their obligation, they duly considered and evaluated an
astonishing number of methods for carrying out the sentence of death.
In the end, they came up with a list. I’ve got the report and read it.
Here are some of the methods of dispatch they evaluated:
Beating to death with clubs
Blowing from a cannon (The commission became interested in this method
of execution based on reports from Indian Sepoy army in the 19th
Century. The commission notes two ways for carrying out this sentence.
First, “the condemned is lashed to the cannon’s mouth. Within two
seconds of pulling the trigger, he is blown to 10,000 atoms.”
Alternatively, “the living body of the offender is thrust into the
cannon, forming, as one might say, part of the charge.”)
Boiling (“usually in hot water but sometimes in melted sulfur, lead or
Dichotomy (cutting a person in half)
Dismemberment (like dichotomy but even messier)
Exposure to wild beasts (In due diligence, the commission briefly
considered the method of execution served on female criminals in
Tonquin, (present day Vietnam). The commission noted the condemned
were “tied to a stake and in that situation delivered to an elephant
who seizes them with his trunk, throws them into the air, catches them
on his tusks, and finishes them off by trampling.”)
Lapidation (to cause death by throwing stones)
Peine forte et dure (pressing with heavy weights to stop breathing)
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
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 the preparation of a mint julep, except a
condemned prisoner is substituted for mint leaves.)
Precipitation (throwing from a cliff)
Running the gauntlet
Use a little imagination, and you can envision the tenor of the
debates swirling around the conference table of the Gerry Commission.
On one side of the table might have been the dismemberment and
stomping elephant advocates, sniping derisively at the beheading and
garrote crowd about their relative daintiness, while the ‘blowing from
a cannon’ promoters crowed about the sure-fire nature of their choice,
as well as the state’s ability to raise funds by charging admission.
While some of these methods (e.g. boiling, crucifixion, and throwing
from a cliff) may have possessed an impressive deterrent effect, few
of them fit the commission’s objectives of speediness, humaneness, and
efficiency in execution.
Brainstorming session over, the work of winnowing out the cruel, the
unworkable, and the just plain weird began. In the end, no ideas
remained — all were considered either too cruel or weird.
“Your Commission have examined with care the accounts which exist of
the various curious modes of capital punishment. . . that have been
used. The result (is that none of these) can be considered as
embodying suggestions of improvement over that now in use in this
The felons on New York’s death row may have sighed in relief, knowing
that the whole mortar and pestle thing was off the table.
Saddam never realized what a lucky guy he was.