Monday, November 28, 2005

Dismissal of Singapore's Hangman

From The Times:
SINGAPORE has dismissed its only hangman, less than a week before the scheduled execution of a young Australian drug smuggler, whose case has provoked intense sympathy and indignation in his home country.
But Mr Singh has been relieved of his duties after his identity and a picture of him were published last month in The Australian newspaper. “They called me a few days ago and said I don’t have to hang Nguyen and that I don’t have to work any more,” he said. “They must be mad after seeing my picture in the newspapers.”
He said he would miss the A$300 (£129) fee that he received for each hanging. According to The Australian, however, he had been attempting to retire for years but had been prevented by the lack of anyone willing to take over his duties. “In a way I’m happy,” he said.
The paper quoted an unnamed friend of Mr Singh, saying that he had attempted to train two successors but that both had recoiled when the moment came to operate the lever that opens the trapdoor.
I am reminded of a very embarassing incident for the British Government when Albert Pierrepoint (the last Official Chief Hangman) resigned due to a dispute over fees:
Albert Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. In January 1956 he had gone to Strangeways Prison, Manchester, to officiate at the execution of Thomas Bancroft only to find that Bancroft had been reprieved. He claimed his full fee of £15 but the under-sheriff of Lancashire offered only £1. Pierrepoint appealed to his employers, the Prison Commission, who refused to get involved. The under-sheriff sent him a cheque for £4 in full and final settlement. Pierrepoint's pride in his position as Britain's Chief Executioner was insulted, and he resigned. It is no coincidence that the year Pierrepoint resigned, 1956, was the only year before abolition where not a single execution took place — he was the only executioner in British history whose notice of resignation prompted the government to write to him begging him to reconsider: such was the reputation he had established as the most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history.
One of the more unfortunate figures in the history of the Church is the Papal States' last offical executioner, Giovanni Bugatti, nicknamed Mastro Titta.
He could not leave the Trastevere neighborhood unless on official business. Officially this was for his own protection, in case relatives of those he had executed decided to take revenge on him. Unofficially it was probably due to superstition regarding his part-time job. On crossing the bridge, the residents of Rome were alerted that an execution was about to take place and people would gather to witness the popular events.
John Allen writes:
Over the course of his 68 years on the pontifical payroll, Bugatti was called upon to perform “justices” 516 times -- a seemingly prodigious number, though it comes out to just over seven working days each year.
His first assignment came on March 22, 1796, and his last on Aug. 17, 1861. Such details are known because he left behind a precise list of each of his “justices,” with the date, the name of the condemned, the nature of the crime and the site of the execution.
Mastro Titta was not, it should be noted, executing the Giordano Brunos or Savonarolas of his day. His “patients,” as they were euphemistically known, were not victims of the Inquisition or theological critics of the pope. They were mostly brigands and murderers who had been convicted by the civil courts of the Papal States.
When an execution was to be held, papal dragoons would provide security. The most common sites were the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge, the Piazza del Popolo, and Via dei Cerchi near the Piazza della Bocca della Verità.
Roman fathers would bring their sons to watch Mastro Titta lower the boom. By tradition, they would slap their son’s head when the blade came down, as a way of warning: “This could be you.”
For his troubles, Mastro Titta received lodgings in the Borgo district of Rome near the Vatican and a steady income from various tax concessions granted by the pope. He also had a generous pension, awarded, according to official documents, in gratitude for his “very long-standing service.”
For each killing, however, papal law specified that the Boia (Italian for “executioner”) was to receive only three cents of the Roman lira, in order to “mark the vileness of his work.”
Yet Bugatti did not comport himself like a man who felt vile. Before carrying out an execution, he would offer the condemned a bit of snuff, a touch of good manners that someone with a guilty conscience would likely have been too sheepish to perform.
Bugatti frequented churches near the Vatican, especially Santa Maria in Traspontina. He was said to be pious and a conscientious Mass-goer. (One imagines him in Santa Maria, in its chapel dedicated to the Madonna della Pietà e delle Grazie, gazing at Mary as she cradles her dead son after a brutal act of capital punishment. What thoughts must have come?)
Yet the executioner was neither isolated nor bereft of other interests. In addition to his work for the pope, Bugatti supported his wife (no children) by painting umbrellas, producing images of papal faces and Roman scenes for the raingear peddled in curio shops around St. Peter’s.
Part of the reason Mastro Titta would have been flabbergasted [at the Pope John Paul II's position on Capital Punishment] is that a papal execution, as he experienced it, was a sacred act, rich with ritual and theological meaning hallowed by centuries of tradition. It was, in fact, a liturgy.
The ritual began with the announcement of an execution, accomplished by posting notices on Roman churches requesting prayers for the soul of the condemned. That was the only official notice that an execution was imminent -- aside, of course, from the erection of a gallows.
The morning of each execution, the pope said a special prayer for the condemned in his private chapel. A priest would visit Mastro Titta to hear his confession and to administer Communion, symbolizing in the sacramental argot of the time that the executioner was fully christened by the church.
The execution was solemnized by a special order of monks, the Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, or Brotherhood of Mercy. The order was born in Florence in the 13th century, where it aided the needy and injured, and at one point numbered Michelangelo among its members. (Florence Nightingale, an Englishwoman born in Florence, was later inspired by the brotherhood to go into health care).
In the Papal States, the monks had a narrower mandate. They delivered pastoral care to condemned prisoners and celebrated the rituals surrounding their deaths.
Pope Innocent VIII in 1488 assigned them the aptly named Roman church of San Giovanni Battista Decollato -- St. John Baptist Beheaded. The church is located around the corner from the Via dei Cerchi, where Mastro Titta carried out many of his executions.
The proximity was helpful, since one of the confraternity’s duties was to cart the corpses of the condemned back to their cloister for burial. Visitors can still see the manholes into which the decapitated bodies were placed.
The brotherhood stayed with the condemned in their last 12 hours of life. They would pray with them, offer the sacraments, and encourage them to ask God’s forgiveness. Under papal law no execution could take place before sundown, the time of the Ave Maria, if the monks had not succeeded in eliciting a confession.
Members of the brotherhood wrote prayer books and catechisms for death row inmates, paying special attention to the requirements for a mors bon Christiana -- “a good Christian death.”
Before the condemned set out for the execution site, their hands were tied and their shirts cut down to shoulder-level so as not to interfere with the smooth functioning of the apparatus. The monks led them through the streets in a sacred procession. Altar boys went first, ringing bells, while the monks chanted special litanies. Incense was burned as they walked.
For these processions the monks donned hooded whitish brown robes and carried a crucifix, usually wrapped with a black shawl. (Some of these robes and crucifixes are also on display in the Criminology Museum).
The monks continued their prayers, composed largely of the Old Testament psalms, up to the moment of execution. They would hold the crucifix toward the condemned, so that it might be the last thing he saw.
After the head was severed, Mastro Titta would walk to the four corners of the scaffold and lift it high for the crowd to see. This was in part meant as a threat, but it was also part of the ritual, a way of signifying that God’s justice had been done.

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