(81) Executions in the streets
Executions were a fairly common occurrence during the troubled period of the late Joseon era. They were generally performed outside of the city and the condemned were paraded through the streets ― tied to small sedan chairs, or tied to wooden crosses mounted on small carts ― with wooden placards describing their crimes placed around their necks or on the carts. Children hurled stones and filth at the condemned while the adults jeered and laughed at them.
The procession often stopped at drinking establishments and inns so that the executioner and the soldiers could quench their thirst with bowl after bowl of “makgeolli.” Sometimes, if the condemned elicited enough sympathy from the crowd, the prisoners were also provided with drink to numb the realization that they would soon be executed.
After a short time, the executioner, his soldier-escort, the condemned, and the excited mob of followers were quite drunk and instead of a solemn and somber affair, the event resembled a macabre circus of performers and spectators.
Upon reaching the execution grounds, the condemned were pulled from the carts and knocked to the ground, their hands tied behind their backs. Often a small ceremony took place in which the ears of the condemned were pinned with two arrows and powdered quicklime spread over their faces, which burned like acid. A low stool was placed under their chests and then ropes were tied to their topknots and used to stretch their heads and necks so that they would provide an easy target for the executioner.
This consideration was often wasted on the executioner who was often drunk and poorly trained. Armed with a blunt sword, he literally hacked the heads from the bodies. In most cases, the victim of this tragic type of execution did not die instantly, but died after suffering severe wounds ― their faces locked in expressions of abject terror and pain.
The Japanese delegation that witnessed the executions of the Koreans allegedly responsible for the attack on the Japanese Legation in 1882 noted that the executioner “cut off the heads of the criminals after thirteen blows with a blunt sword.”
A later Western visitor noted that if he were to be executed, he would prefer to be executed by the Chinese, who were skilled in the matter and dispatched their victims with but one stroke of a sharp blade, rather than the Koreans, who “bungle (the executions) most cruelly.”
Of course, not all of these executions were so badly performed. A group of Japanese observed an execution in December 1881 and described the incident:
“On arriving on that spot we found them all placed on a table like logs of wood, their hands and feet being nailed on the table. One man brought a heavy sword, and chopped off their heads first and their hands and feet afterwards. The bodies were left on the table, and the heads exposed on the highway. Close by stood a post with a board bearing the inscription that these men were executed for high treason, and their remains exposed as a warning to others.”
Generally, the heads and bodies were left at the side of the road ― a grim warning to the population to maintain order. Even in death the condemned were humiliated. One Canadian visitor in the 1890s noted small children playing with the decapitated heads ― mocking them, perhaps innocently, by placing rotting pieces of vegetables on their pain-etched faces.
No one was allowed to remove the corpses for three days and thus they provided a grisly feast for scavenging stray dogs and the occasional leopard.
Considering the manner in which these criminals were treated in both life and death, it is little wonder that the average person avoided execution grounds for fear of ghosts who might desire to avenge their deaths on the living.
Robert Neff is a contributing writer for The Korea Times.