Allowed to Die

These past harrowing weeks, we’ve heard a lot about the “Culture of Life.” Perhaps it would be edifying to take a closer look at the Machinery of Death. Sometime in the coming weeks, we may hear more about reinstating the death penalty here in Minnesota, a favorite subject with some of our legislators. Regardless of how we proceed, the one thousandth person condemned to death since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the U.S. will die soon too, most likely down in Texas.

He will walk from a holding cell to a starkly lit, barren execution chamber. There, a team of guards and technicians will operate his state’s machinery of human destruction. It will be carefully designed to bring about the quick and efficient death of the convict.

Like most of the previous 999 executions, this one won’t have much in the way of uncertainty or technical novelty. It will be private, clinical, and, as far as we know, pain-free. For that small favor, Condemned Man Number One Thousand can thank an obscure New York bureaucrat named Elbridge Gerry.

In the late nineteenth century, after a number of botched executions by hanging that resulted in slow strangulation or decapitation, the State of New York began searching for a more humane method of capital punishment. The 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.

Under Chairman Gerry’s watch, thirty-one deadly ideas were developed and described in the Commission’s March 1888 report to the governor.

In all likelihood, the Gerry Report is the most bizarre and grotesque document ever produced by a committee of government bureaucrats. For weeks, plucky public servants brainstormed, researched, and categorized all the ways of killing people they could think of. Many ideas were apparently dredged up from the most ghoulish recesses of a bureaucrat’s sadistic soul. Then they comprehensively, deliberately, and dispassionately examined the merits of each in alphabetical order.

Some of the more unusual suggestions included:

Beating to death with clubs;


Blowing from a cannon. (The commission became interested in this method of execution based on reports of its use in the East Indian army in the nineteenth century. Its report notes two ways for carrying out this sentence. First, “the insurgent is lashed to the cannon’s mouth. Within two seconds of pulling the trigger, he is blown to ten thousand 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 the like”);

Burying alive;


Dichotomy (cutting a person in half);

Dismemberment (like dichotomy but 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 that 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 (stoning);

Peine forte et dure (placing 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 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, rather the way mint is prepared for a mint julep.);

Precipitation (throwing from a cliff);


Running the gantlet;



With a little imagination, one 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 elephant-stomping 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 stated 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 ideas 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 State.” The felons on New York’s death row may (or may not) have sighed in relief, knowing that the whole mortar and pestle thing was off the table.

One hundred and sixteen years later, Condemned Man Number 1000 will lie on the gurney as orderlies attach long tubes to the needle inserted in his arm. When the lethal drip starts, he may take a bit of comfort in knowing it could have been worse.—William Gurstelle