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.

"Era! Era! Picassa!" ("Get out! get away!") the drunken soldiers call out at intervals, as they swallow their last mouthful of rice, and order the mapus to move on to the next eating-place. Crowds of men and children collect round the miserable show and prudent fathers, pointing at the victims, show their heirs what will be the fate of those who do what is wrong. During the whole day are the poor wretches thus carted to and fro, in the streets of the town, stoppages being made at all the public eating-places, where feasting invariably takes place, though it is also almost as invariably left unpaid for.

Only when sunset has come is it that the procession, having made its way towards one of the city gates, finally leaves the town and winds its way through the open country to a suitable spot for the chopping-off process. Executions are not held at any particular spot; and in former days, even a few years ago, it was not an uncommon occurrence to see the dead bodies of beheaded people lying about in the streets of Seoul. Now, however, they generally take the offenders outside the Wall, and inflict the capital punishment miles away from the town.

The execution represented in the illustration, took place on the sixth of February, 1891, and is a reproduction of a picture which I have done from sketches taken on the spot. The men executed on this occasion numbered seven, and the crime committed, was "high treason." They had conspired to upset the reigning dynasty of Cho-sen, and had devised the death of His Majesty the King. Unfortunately for them, the plot was discovered before its aims could be carried out, and the ringleaders arrested and imprisoned. For over a year they had remained in gaol, undergoing severe trials, and being constantly tortured and flogged to make them confess their crime, and betray the friends who were implicated with them. That, however, being of no avail, the seven men were at last all sentenced to death. Three of them were noblemen, and one a priest; while the others were commoner people, though well-to-do. Here are their names; Yi-Keun-eung, Youn-Tai-son, Im-Ha-sok, Kako (priest), Yi-sang-hik, Chyong-Hiong-sok, Pang-Pyong-Ku.

Having undergone the final drive through the town, by the sound of the big bell at sunset the cortege passed through the "Gate of the Dead;" then, leaving the crowded streets of the capital, it made its way towards the spot where the execution was to take place. The place selected was on a naturally raised ground, nearly 20 lis (61/2 miles) from Seoul, a lonely spot, overlooking a deserted plain. The high road was only a few hundred yards distant, and could be plainly seen as a white interminable line, like a white tape, at the foot of the distant hills.

The bull carts were stopped some little way below this spot on the flat ground, and then, one by one, the wretched creatures were taken down and removed from their crosses in a brutal manner, and handed over to the executioner. Senseless, they lay on the ground, with their arms tied behind their backs, and a long rope fastened to their top-knots in the hair; until they were carried one after another, and laid flat on their faces, with their chests on the little stools seen in the picture. When they had all been thus stationed, the executioner proceeded to administer blows with his blunt sword until the heads were severed from the bodies. On the occasion in question, several of the bodies were hacked about most mercilessly through the inexperience or drunkenness of this brute. The third man in the illustration, for example, had a good part of his left shoulder cut off as clean as a whistle, although the blow had been meant to strike the neck; but let this suffice for these horrible details. I have mentioned them, partly, that they may be compared with the dexterous doings of the neighbouring Chinese, whose skill in the chopping-off line is beyond description.

The Chinese possess very long, sharp, well-balanced swords, a single blow of one of which will sever the head from the body. Besides, they administer their blows as neatly as the most fastidious of customers might desire, and the victim does not really undergo much pain. The executioners, too, are picked out from among the strongest men, and are so well trained that they never miss a blow. The whole affair, consequently, is over in less than no time; a few seconds being quite sufficient to do away with one comfortably. Truly enough, were it to be one's lot to be executed, I would desire nothing more delightful than to have one's head "done" by a Celestial executioner. The Coreans, on the contrary, have not developed the same skill in these difficult matters; and, what with their blunt and short swords, what with their misjudgment of distances, they bungle matters most cruelly. Of course, they are, nevertheless, supposed to kill their victims with single blows, instead of raining them down by the dozen, hacking the unfortunate creatures in a most fearful manner, and lopping off their arms or gashing their bodies before the heads are finally cut off.

The little blocks, upon which the men were laid down, were so arranged that their chests rested on the upper portions, the head in consequence being raised several inches from the ground. The idea in this was to make things easier for the executioner; the same reason also explaining why the straw rope was tied to each man's top-knot; for in this way another man could hold him fast to the stool when the decapitation was to take place. A somewhat closer examination of the first body in the illustration will at once show how distorted it is. This is what must have happened: in the final struggle with death the owner had attempted to resist his fate, when several soldiers had immediately pounced upon him, with the inevitable result that, in his desperate struggling, the spine had been broken; a strange, yet very natural accident, under the circumstances. The arms being tied together at the elbows behind, the spine had been at great tension, like a set bow, so that a violent assault could not but result in its being fractured, especially considering the weak and frozen condition in which the derelict before us was. That I am probably correct in this explanation seems to be further proved by the fact that his head, when severed, had been taken up and swung to a distance by the angry executioner.

Now, though this way of doing away with criminals may appear a very cruel one to European minds, it is, nevertheless, a decided improvement on the older method of executing prevalent in Corea, as practised for example, many years ago, on some French missionaries and their followers.

The execution of these martyrs was preceded by terrible floggings and tortures, and when they were led to the execution-ground they had two arrows thrust into their flesh, like modern St. Sebastians.

The executioner and soldiers, after having accomplished their bloody work, and converted the execution-ground for the time being into a shambles, retraced their steps to the nearest wine-shop, where the rest of the night was spent in drinking and gorging. The bodies were left as a repast for dogs and leopards; for no Corean with a sound mind could be induced to go near the spot where they lay, lest the spirits of their departed souls should play some evil trick upon them. So much, in fact, were they scared at the idea of passing at all near to the dead bodies that, though the execution took place a few hundred yards away from the high road, the superstitious Coreans preferred going miles out of their way on the other side of the hill range to being seen near (they called it "near") a spot where so many people had perished.

The morning following this execution I took many sketches of the ghastly scene and the mutilated bodies. I did not leave until darkness began to set in, when, as I was busy packing up my traps to return to Seoul, I was rather startled by the sudden appearance near me of an old man, sad, pale, and worn-out with anxiety. As he crept up to my side, in a most suspicious manner, he looked round, and then, with a violent effort, directed his gaze to the bodies lying a little way off. He was shivering like a leaf, his eyes were staring and his fingers outstretched, yet he could not remove his glance from the dreadful sight. As he was in this tragic position, two coolies, carrying a coffin, appeared cautiously on the scene; but, when still a long way from the bodies, they refused positively to approach any nearer, and all the expostulation of the old man who went down to meet them, all the extra strings of cash, the last ones he possessed, were not sufficient to induce them to stir another inch. This fright which had taken possession of them was thus great, partly because of the natural superstitions which all Coreans entertain regarding the souls of dead persons, and also because the fact of being seen or found near these political criminals might in all probability lead to the loss of their heads as well. At last, however, when their terror was somewhat overcome, they promised to go near the bodies if large sums should be paid them; whereupon the old man who had not another cash in the world, seemed to act as if he were in a state of thorough despair. I watched his face and thought that he was actually going to collapse. Not a word of complaint, however, did he utter to me. Intense grief was depicted on his face, and I had pity on him. He was old, too, and his features were refined. He opened his heart to me.

"That," lying dead there, with his head Heaven only knew where, was his son! He had been a nobleman; that one could see at a glance, but was poor now, "cashless," having spent his fortune in his efforts to bribe the officials to let his son be released. His money had come to an end, and there his son lay dead. The risk he was running, he well knew, was very great, in thus coming to remove the body of the one he loved. Were the officials only to know that he had visited the spot, he would straightway be imprisoned, accused of complicity, tortured, and then put to death; notwithstanding this, however, he felt sure that darkness would protect him, and so in his anxiety he had come to remove his son's body, that he might during the night bury it on one of the distant hills. He had given the coolies the little money he had to help him in his enterprise, and now that he was only a few yards from his beloved he could not get them to proceed. He was himself too weak to move the body.

I took him by the arm, and we approached the bodies. The near view of them made him shudder and turn pale, and as he rested on my arm he was shivering all over. Not a word did he utter, not a lamentation did he make, not a tear did he shed; for, to show one's feelings is considered bad form in the land of Cho-sen. I could well see, however, that his heart was aching. He bent over the bodies, one after the other; then, after a lengthy examination, he pointed to one, and murmured:

"This is my son, this is my son! I know him by his hands. See how they are swollen, and nearly cut by the rope?"

Next, after a good deal of uncertainty, for the face was smeared and streaked with blood, we found the head pertaining to the body. The old man, with paternal love, then proceeded, if he could, to stick the head on the body again, but - this was impossible.

"Please, sir," he begged of me, in a tone of lamentation, "help me to take my son as far as the coffin."

I consented, and, with the utmost trouble, we carried the body down the hill, afterwards coming back for the head. In two mats, which had been carried inside the hearse, we wrapped the corpse up as well as we could, and then bundled him into the coffin. All this time a careful look-out was maintained, to see that no one else was about to spy over the deed, but once the corpse was in its coffin, the coolies quickly took the hearse on their shoulders, and all sped away, not without repeated "kamapsos" (thanks) being given me by the old man.

That was the only body which was removed, all the others being left to rot or to be eaten up by wild animals.

When I examined the expressions on the faces of the beheaded wretches, it did not seem as if any of them had at all enjoyed what had taken place; on the contrary, rather than otherwise, there was plainly depicted on their now immovable features an expression of most decided dissatisfaction. Without doubt, they had undergone a terrible agony. In some cases the eyes were closed, in others they were wide open, staring straight in front. The pupils had become extremely small. The lips of all were contracted, and the teeth showed between, tightly closed. Streaks of blood covered the faces, and it was very apparent that the noses, ears, and sometimes the outside corners of the eyes, had been bleeding, this being probably due to the violent blows received from the sword. In a word, the expression which had become stereotyped upon their faces was that of great pain and fright, although none of them, with the exception of the one who had resisted at the last moment, showed it in any other way. The muscles of the arms also were much contracted, and the swollen fingers were of a bluish colour with congested blood, and half-closed and stiff - as if made of wood.

By the time that the old man, his coolies and their sad burden had got well out of sight, on their way up one of the distant hills, I had finished packing up my sketches and painting materials. Then, as I retraced my steps towards Seoul it became quite dark. On the way, however, I purchased, for the large sum of three cash (the tenth part of a penny), a small paper lantern, with a little candle inside - the latter leading me to the extravagance of an extra cash ; and, armed with this lighting apparatus, all complete, I proceeded towards the East Gate.

This little lantern, which was exactly similar to those used by the natives, came in very handy on this occasion. These lanterns are the most ingenious things that can be imagined for the money. Each has a wooden bottom, and a bent cane acts as a handle. A nail is provided in the centre of the wooden bottom, wherein to stick the candle, and the flame is protected by white tissue paper pasted all round the lantern.

In due course I reached the East Gate, but only to find it closed, for it was now long after sunset. I then tried the "Gate of the Dead," having no objection to enter the town for once as a "deceased"; but, although the "departed" have the privilege of leaving the town after dark, they are not allowed to come in again; for which reason it really seemed as if I had before me the fine prospect of having to put up at one of the dirty native inns just outside the Gate until it should please Phoebus to show his welcome fire-face again above the mountain line.

I had learned that there was, at no great distance away, a spot where, at the risk only of breaking one's neck, it was possible to scale the city wall; wherefore, having consulted a child as to the exact locality, besides tempting him with a string of cash, I proceeded to find it, and soon, under his guidance, reached it. The wall at this spot was, I may mention, about twenty feet high. Having, then, fastened my paint-box and sketches to my back by means of a strap, and slinging the paper lantern to my arm, I proceeded, hampered though I was, to make trial of my cat-like qualities in the matter of wall climbing. Placing the tips of my fingers and toes in the crevices between the stones and in other gaps in the wall, I managed with some little difficulty, to crawl up a certain height. The wall was nearly perpendicular, mind you, and, owing to the cold frozen nature of the stones, my fingers got so stiff that I had hardly any power left in them. Then, too, the weight of the heavy paint-box on my shoulders was more conducive to bringing me down again than to helping me up. In my mind's eye, accordingly, I saw myself at every moment coming down with a bang from my high position to the frozen ground below, and began to think that I should be fortunate if I succeeded in coming out of my wall-climbing experience with only half the ribs in my body reduced to atoms, and one or two broken limbs in addition. Making a special effort, however, I got a few feet higher, when I heard a mysterious voice below murmur: "You have nearly reached the top." I received the news with such delight that, in consequence of the fresh vigour which it imparted to me and which made me try to hurry up, one of my feet slipped, and I found myself clinging to a stone, with the very ends of my fingers. Oh what a sensation! and what moments of anxiety, until, quickly searching with my toes, I got a footing again.

That slip was fatal, for, owing to the jerk it gave me, the unsteady candle inside the paper lantern fell out of its perpendicular position and produced a conflagration. Then, indeed, was I placed in the most perplexing position, for, here was I, holding on to the wall, I do not know how, with the lantern and my sleeve on fire and my arm getting unpleasantly warm, and yet utterly unable to do anything to lessen the catastrophe. Only one thing could be done; and I can assure you, the few remaining feet which had to be climbed were got over with almost the agility of a monkey. Thus, at last, I was on the top.

This adventure made a very good finish for what had been a most exciting day; and, now that the faithless lantern was burning itself out, and dwindling away down below, and that the fire in my sleeve was put out, I had to remain in darkness. I stumbled along the rampart of the wall until I could get down into one of the streets, where, having roused the people, I was able to purchase another light, and reach home again in safety. After the hearty meal which I then partook of, I need scarcely add that a greater part of the night was spent in dreaming of numberless bodyless heads rolling about around me, and of people being burned alive, until I finally woke up next morning with a fearful shock, and the thought that I was being precipitated from the top of the Tower of Babel.