Monday, September 26, 2011

Breaking on the Wheel, Preparations for Halloween

With Bonfire Night looming (beckoning?) in the not-too-distant future, the thoughts naturally turn lovingly to executions past, both botched and well-done. Although Guy Fawkes wasn't broken on the wheel, he is nonetheless an annual reminder of the more exciting public sport of yesteryear.

I promise not to abuse this occasion to once again showcase my BritishSpeak-gained odd vocabulary which every year (and only once each year, it seems) allows me to say words like recusant and undercroft. Woops.

Guy (Gui if you prefer) was only intended to be strangle-hanged, drawn and quartered, and head-piked, but, as you all know, cheated the spectators by swan-diving off the scaffold head first onto the cobblestones. History doesn't tell us if they had a backup act waiting in the wings or not. I certainly hope so. They DID go ahead and pike his now-misshapen (one assumes) head, but it just wasn't the same. When scheduled entertainment doesn't go off as planned, it casts a pall over the audience from which it is really hard for the promoters of the event to recover.

I will certainly do another post on Guy Gui come November 5 (I think that's the date) but I promise not to use those words again. It does warm me bonfire-roasted cockles to feel the warmth of your admiration, though.

No, breaking on the wheel was more exciting than simply lifting a bloke up on his toes by his neck and watching the odd facial contortions. My mind goes back in time and I imagine myself getting a peasant day off and working my way up to the front row, admonishing my neighbors to shut their damn gobs so I can hear the gurgling and wheezings emitting from the toe-lifted unfortunate on the stage. As it were.

But - Oh! - to attend a Wheel Breaking!

The offender (could be a heretic, I suppose) was placed on his or her back and bound to a sturdy wagon wheel in a Da Vinci Vitruvian Man-like pose (one imagines) and, while the probably unwashed madding crowd presses in and the popcorn and little wheel souvenir venders hawk their wares, the wheel of fortune is spun and the lucky contestant in the black hood begins to break the slowly passing bones with a large hammer or iron bar.

Later refinements had the unfortunate man or woman bound, perhaps nailed - who knows? - to one of those X-shaped (St. Andrews) crosses which was then laid upon the sturdy horizontal wheel. This had the effect (in case you haven't guessed the purpose) of raising the body up a few inches so as to get a cleaner break of the limbs. Hideous screams were encouraged.

At about this point in my reverie, my mind is always interrupted by someone on the BBC being interviewed and disparaging the barbarity of Texas' inhumane overdose executions. Then my mind fades back from the BBC to the screams of the revolving wheel method used not terribly long ago in England. Or maybe France. Being a simple American, no thoughts of hypocrisy enter my mind. Only the twisted features of the wheel-man flicker from Da Vinci's man to, say, Roman Polanski's.

They say after a while, the legs and arms would get mushy enough (I always have a mental image of the sign down the street from my house advertising "boneless chicken" for some reason) to "weave" or "braid" them through the wheel spokes, thus giving enough support so that the whole thing, wheel-cross-pulverized living thing, can be hoisted up onto a pole where it will be left for passers by to admire and birds to peck away at. The moaning continues for days.


Unless one gets a "favor" or "grace" from the church, for a small donation one assumes, in which case the hammer-wielder would strike the strikee in the chest or even head in a final blow which mercifully kills him/her. This was considered a charity and was not for just anyone who is wheeled. Incidentally, always on the lookout to make this blog as educational as possible when opportunities arise, I would share with you that this final blow was called the coup de grace (grace, get it?) and is where that phrase came from. This is true. This would have been in France, of course. In England, there were no anti-pecking endings that I could discover in my scholarly pursuit of truth.

Let me see. What else?

No, that's about all. Unless my friend Sobriquet (Soubriquet when in the UK) can add some variations from his vast store of .... ummmmm.... variations.


  1. Hmmm been using 'Grand theft auto' again have we....?

  2. According to Wikipedia, it was more likely to be used for high treason or highly aggravated crimes like murder while committing another crime or killing a family member.

    As opposed to heretics. Heretics were more likely to be tortured behind closed doors to get them to recant, then burned at the stake or hanged when that failed (assuming they survived).

    Halloween is my anniversary.

  3. The wheel was used for lesser punishments than breaking, well into the twentieth century.

    It was common in the military that a soldier would be tied to the wheel and left there all day. sometimes the wheel would be hauled around the camp to display the punishment to all the regiment.
    here's a reminiscence from a soldier of the Union army at the battle of Appomattox "At another time he said his father was sick in the hospital and he asked for leave to go to see him and was refused. He said he went and saw his father and he said they gave him the most damnable punishment. They fastened his legs and arms to an artillery wheel with the small of his back against the hub and set the wheel rolling. Well when they let up on that he told the officer that he would kill him for that but he said he would not do that. "

    Other times, the miscreant was tied to the wheel and then lashed. Sixty or more lashes usually led to death.

  4. In a spirit of what wiki calls disambiguation, I should say that the union and confederate armies both outlawed flogging.
    However, they had an inventive menu of field punishments to replace it.

  5. The British army still tied men to a wheel during the Great War! It caused much resentment and ended after this. Field Punishment No 1. it was called.

    Until late in the 19th century floggings of over 4-600 lashes were common.

    In Scotland such punishments were rare. Chopping of heads yes, burning at stake was useful as it kept folks warm.

  6. Of course such punishments were rare in Scotland, you had other options, like, haggis, for instance..... "The prisoner is sentenced to eat haggis every day for a week".

  7. This post has brought out the best in all of you!

    @Adullamite - I don't know about video games. You shouldn't either! :) 600 lashes?? Methinks you are off in fantasy-land again. Maybe with a feather. We are talking about a cat here. Hmmmmmmmmmm. There is not evidence of this punishment in Scotland, true. That's because you ate the evidence afterwards. Even the awful.

    @Stephanie Barr - I have heard about high treason. That has led me to contemplate what "low" treason might have been, and if the punishment were different. Actually, I think heretics were burned at the stake if they cooperated and admitted being a witch. It was a reward. I think if you were burned at the stake, then you were allowed to go to heaven. I'm not sure exactly on that etiquette though. I must consult Soubriquet.

    My wish to you this year for a happy Halloween will take on a new meaning. :)

    I'm curious... would you confess under torture? I mean, if you could be burned at the stake later on? Mind you, this question has nothing to do with with your blog comments.

    @Soubriquet - You seem to know more about punishment if the American Civil War than your average Limey. At first I was a bit disturbed, but now I am getting more into it. So they would lash them to a wheel and roll them around? And lash them as they rolled? And hub their kidneys? Well, one can't be running off to visit one's sick father when there are Rebels to be kilt. I know you agree.

    Of course, as you say, it was the British Army who pioneered the wheel of fortune as entertainment for the troops. We just copied. At least we didn't dismember them and roast their legs over a campfire like the Scots.

    Damn. Now you have me thinking of Haggis. I don't get the part about the excrement being tied to the wheel, though. Oh. Miscreant. That's very different. Never mind.

    @Adullamite - Oh, you are still here. Sorry about the Haggis remark. I know what you must be thinkign: "One can only WISH haggis were made from humanoid meats." Right? Tie that haggis to the wheel. I get it.

    @Soubriquet - In the spirit of what Clarity 2010 calls "stoppit" I would like to clarify that you have talked enough today about the fine art of Confederate flogging. Just an observation. You seem to be getting oddly excited.

  8. I don't know for a fact, but all the heretics I've read about that were burnt at the stake were famous for not recanting. I thought you had a simple hanging if you recanted, but my memory of this is Europe-wide so it might have varied from country to country. So I checked Wikipedia. According to this, BATS was the preferred method for heresy (i.e. not recanting) and witchcraft because there was no body for the hereafter. Although a big favorite with Catholics through history (staring with Constantinople), the Brits used it, too (Joan of Arc). Women in Britain convicted of treason (who couldn't get the sword because they weren't noble) got the BATS, apparently, because nudity wasn't required.

    Apparently, burning at the stake in the New World was largely limited to punishing rebellious slaves (particularly those prone to arson).

    (There is, by the way, a distinction made in this section between "high treason" - crime against the king, and petty treason - for the murder of one's lawful superior including that of a husband by his wife. Of course, Queens could commit both at once, like adultery. Charming. Gotta love the good ol' days.

    As for your question, I can't answer that. I'm an honest person, in general, but could I be tortured into lying? Almost undoubtedly unless I was protecting something more important to me than myself. And even then, well, I've never been tested so I can't say for sure. I'd LIKE to think I'd never betray someone I loved under torture. I certainly hope I never find out if it's true.



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