Looking Back

Executions in the past, and in Art

/ 12:30 AM February 22, 2017

On the first day of Art Fair Philippines, the usual suspects in art circles—collectors, critics, artists and art dealers—stayed away from Jose Tence Ruiz’s grim installation which looked like electric chairs set around a giant dark tongue that was actually an enlarged plastic pinipig crunch which some people mistook for President Duterte’s head. The commentary on extrajudicial killings and false news, and on the debate over the return of the death penalty were in plain sight. But as we all know from experience, you can have an elephant in the room yet no one sees it.

On Day 2, many young people sat on the high back chairs out of curiosity. I wondered if they knew about the Bilibid electric chair since the last person to suffer the death penalty, Leo Echagaray, was dispatched in 1999, with lethal injection.


Filipinos, depending on their age, remember different forms of execution. The electric chair was introduced in the Philippines in 1926 by the US colonial government and it was in use until 1932, when Commonwealth president Manuel Quezon stayed all executions under his watch. During the Japanese occupation, decapitation and shooting were the methods of choice. After the War, the electric chair was charged up again, dispatching criminals till 1976 when musketry became the preferred method. Filipinos who lived in the martial law years all remember the execution, in December 1972, of the Chinese drug lord Lim Seng who was dispatched to kingdom come by a military firing squad.

Thrice this month, on the way to the National Museum, I saw students and tourists having their photos taken with the Rizal monument as a backdrop. This made me wonder if they realized that this now manicured park was once the killing fields of Manila. Rizal was shot in the place, known then as Bagumbayan because it was literally a new town outside the walls of Intramuros or Spanish Manila. Many criminals and patriots were executed here either by firing squad or by the garrote, an instrument that has since become synonymous with the evils of the Spanish colonial period.


Before Rizal’s execution in December 1896 there was a period of relative peace in the islands—24 years without any serious uprising against the Spanish. This was marred by Andres Bonifacio who sparked the Philippine Revolution in August 1896. Rizal was one of many implicated in the rebellion and he was executed in Bagumbayan.

Before Rizal, the most memorable executions was that of the three secular Filipino priests: Mariano Gomez, Jose Burgos, and Jacinto Zamora whose necks were broken by the garrote.

Contrary to popular belief, the garrote does not kill slowly by strangulation. Rather, the condemned is made to sit on a bare wooden seat. A metal clamp is fitted snugly around the victim’s covered head in such a way that, with one or two quick turns of the screw by the executioner, the metal clamp breaks the neck of the condemned, producing quick and, theoretically, painless death. Proponents of this method of execution say that the garrote is more humane than its terrible reputation.

Firing squads replaced the garrote, but these could be painfully incompetent—especially when the executioners missed their target, sometimes because they felt guilty, leaving the poor victim alive; so the process is repeated, giving the victim more agony. There were times when the executioners aimed away from the head or heart and hit an arm, a leg or a foot. If they grazed the victim and he fell to the ground, he or she was made to stand up and shot again.

In November 1896, according to the French journalist Henru Turot, an 18-year-old man was shot thrice and did not die. After the third volley the band played a march that signaled the end to the day’s entertainment, and the executioners returned to barracks and the crowd made their way home. Then the military surgeon found out the truth, so he ordered a soldier to place the barrel of his gun in the mouth of the writhing victim and shoot to end his agony.

We have abolished the death penalty. Why bring it back? There are new and better ways of punishing a crime than by hanging, garrote, musketry or electric chair. But why take life so lightly?

Comments are welcome at [email protected]


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TAGS: art, death penalty, firing squad, History, opinion
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