CHAPTER XVI. Executions - Crucified and carried through the streets - The execution ground - Barbarous mode of beheading - Noble criminals - Paternal love - Shut out - Scaling the wall - A catastrophe - A nightmare.
In Cho-sen, as in other countries, we find not only pleasanter sights, but also those that are disagreeable or even revolting. That which I am about to describe is one which, I have little doubt, will make your blood curdle, but which is none the less as interesting as some of the others I have feebly attempted in this work to describe; I mean an execution as carried out in the Land of the Morning Calm. The penal form of death adopted is beheading, which is not, I believe, so pleasant a sensation as, for instance, that of being hanged - that is, when other persons are the sufferers. Of late years, executions have not been by any means an everyday occurrence in Corea, but here, as in other countries, there is always to be found a good share of people who are anxious to be "off" their heads. There is no reason why people should commit crimes, yet they do commit them and get punished in consequence. They are punished in this world for having broken the limits of society's laws, and yet again, if what one hears is correct, they are punished wherever they happen to go after their final departure from our very earthly regions. In Corea, as is the case all over the far East, the natives are not much concerned about this future existence and attach little importance to death and physical pain. I have no doubt, in fact I am positive, that the Eastern people feel pain much less than we do, partly because they are accustomed from childhood to be insensitive to bodily agony, but chiefly because they are differently constituted to us. In our case, the brain, by means of which it is that we judge of the amount of pain inflicted on us, has been trained to receive impressions so quickly, transmitted as they are in an instant from any part of the body to the centre of our system, that, indeed, many times we actually feel the pain before it has been physically communicated to us at all. With the Corean, as with the Manchu or the Chinese, a reverse action takes place. With them, the brain works so very slowly that, supposing a bad ache is taking place in any part of the body, whence is being conveyed to the drowsy brain the unpleasant news of the agony that that part is undergoing; well, what in that case happens in the Corean skull? By the time the brain has grasped the idea that the aforesaid part of the body is really in a state of suffering, the pain is almost gone. This, roughly stated, is I believe, a truthful explanation of their going to death with so much bravery.
It is a common occurrence in China for criminals, kneeling in a row to be executed, to crack jokes among themselves, and even at the executioner's expense. In Corea, they cannot go quite so far as that, for things are done somewhat differently. In the latter country, the prisoners are detained in the gaols sometimes for months and even years, undergoing judgments and sentences, floggings and milder tortures innumerable, so that it is almost with a feeling of relief and gladness that, finally, being proved guilty, they receive the news of their fast approaching end. When their time is come, they are removed from prison, and dragged out into a courtyard, within which, with the first rays of light, have been brought some little carts with heavy and roughly-made wooden wheels, each drawn by a sturdy bull. On the ground some wooden crosses have been set up, and to each of these a criminal is tied with ropes, his chest and arms being bare, and cut into by the tightened cords, and only his padded trousers being left. Each cross with its human freight is then planted and made firm on a bull cart; and then, when all is ready, the ghastly procession, headed by the executioner, a few kissos (soldiers), armed with old fashioned flint locks or with spears, makes its way slowly through the streets of the town, one of the followers proclaiming aloud the crimes committed and the sentences passed on the crucified. Sleepy women and children, with uncombed hair, peep out of the paper windows, while the men hurry down to the street and join the procession in large numbers, making fun at the expense of the poor wretches, and even insulting them; while the latter, hang helpless and defenceless from their crosses, their bodies livid with cold, pain and starvation. Occasions such as these, are regular orgies for the soldiers, and those who follow the mournfulcortege. Not a wine-shop on the road-side is left unvisited, and continual halts are made that wine may be freely drunk, and food swallowed, as only Corean soldiers know how to do it. Occasionally, a pious passer-by, moved to compassion, may, amid the howls of the crowd, raise his wine-cup to the lips of one of the sentenced, and help him thus to make death more merry. Once this sort of thing is started, the example is usually at once emulated by others, and, as the hours go by, a considerable amount of intoxicating stuff is consumed, not only by the executioner, soldiers and followers, but also by those to be executed. Before very long, however, the bodies of the victims thus carried become senseless and nearly frozen to death. Their heads then hang down pitifully, all blue and congested, and quivering with the jerking of the cart.