Does the executioner get that second chance?

Not long ago, after a botched electric chair execution in Florida (flames shot from the executee’s hood, neeto!) some friends and I got to talking about capitol punishment lore. Like the story that one randomly selected member of a firing squad would get a blank cartrige so that nobody would know if they had actually fired the killing shot (turns out thats true in Utah, go figure) and the number of turns in a hangmans noose.One thing we couldn’t agree on was wheather or not a condemned man went free if the execution diddn’t work because of an “Act of God”.

For example my friend said she’d read a story about a man sentenced to be hanged, but when his time came the gallows trapdoor repeatedly failed to open under him, although every time the executioner tryed it without him on it, it had worked perfectly. So it was deemed “God’s will” and thus he was pardoned. My other friend had the same general story, only he’d heard the rope had repeatedly broken.

It really had that Urban Legend vibe about it, but the AFU site…

…diddn’t have anything to say about it. Anybody know the facts?


Someone else is going to have to find the link, but as I recall, there was a fellow in Australia (I think) who slipped through the hangman’s noose twice before public officials began to think that someone was trying to tell them something. I do not recall if the guy was set free.

There are consistently revived stories that in France, if the executioner died on the gallows, the executee was set free. This is complete crap, but it makes for a great twenty minute treatment on the Twilight Zone Ripoff Show of the Decade. However, some executioners were gunned down in an effort to deter lever-pullers from showing up to work. Incidentally, France had a noble line that specialized in executions. Forget the family’s name, but John Keegan mentions it in The Mask of Command.

That should clear it up for you. I didn’t even know there was another urban legends site.

My suspicion is that this started out as a joke. What did the priest say to the condemned man when the latter asked to be cheered up? “The good thing about your sentence is that they can only do it to you once.”

Then somebody misinterpreted it as truth, and thus was born the urban legend. That’s just a guess, though.

Also, the court-ordered sentence is that which is executed, not the convicted person. So, in order for the sentence to be executed (“made to happen”) it must be carried through until the convict is dead no matter how many times the instrument of execution fritzes.

A lawyer, a priest, and an engineer are all scheduled to be guillotined. The lawyer goes first. The executioner pulls the lever the blade falls and sticks halfway down. The king, who is watching this, says that it is God’s will that the lawyer go free.

The next person is the doctor. They put his head on the block, pull the lever the blade sticks halfway down. The King announces that it is God’s will that the doctor go free, and releases him.

The engineer is then placed on the block. The executioner reaches to pull the lever, and the engineer says, “WAIT! I think I see what the problem is…”

BTW, are you sure the blank-in-the-rifle idea isn’t an UL? Guns with blanks in them don’t recoil (or at least not to anywhere near the same degree), so if the shooter’s gun kicks hard he’s going to know it wasn’t a blank.

You don’t have to put a blank in one of the guns, just have to tell the shooters that one of the guns has a blank in it. As long as they don’t count the holes in the body that is.

You don’t understand - if I fire the gun and it kicks hard, I KNOW I just fired a bullet. There’s no possible doubt that maybe I had a blank.

The whole blank thing sounds like an UL to me anyway. I mean, how much comfort would you REALLY get from knowing there was a 1/5 chance that maybe you didn’t shoot the guy? He’s dead anyway, you pulled the trigger knowing you were probably shooting a bullet into a human, etc. Not knowing might actually be worse, because you don’t have emotional closure. It sounds like one of those goofy things Hollywood thinks adds drama and makes sense. I don’t see it.

Well, in the case of hanging, at least, the court is covered.

The sentence is: “Hanged by the neck until you are dead.”

So it appears that they can hang you as many times as they deem necessary.

I doubt if the “one blank” business is a legend…I seem to remember Mailer mentioning it in describing the execution of Gary Gilmore in Utah in “The Executioner’s Song”.

I imagine it’s just another example of rules and procedures concerning firearms made by people who nothing about them. It’s only in the movies that you can’t tell the difference between a blank and a real round. (You can have a good time watching war movies and seeing the actors constantly working the bolts on their tommyguns and Browning MGs because the blanks don’t have the power to work the actions).

A real 30-06 Military ball round (which is what they did Gilmore with) will give you a serious whack…a blank round will hardly move the piece. So the “one blank” business is more likely a public relations gimmick to make the execution more palatable to the public. The shooters wouldn’t have any problem knowing the diference.

Lex Non Favet Delictorum Votis

The legend that one member of a firing squad has a blank in his gun is true- or, at least, it was true in the case of Gary Gilmore in Utah.

The people who object that an experience marksman can tell the difference between a blank and a real bullet are correct, however. Shortly after Gilmore’s execution (I was in high school at the time), I saw a brief interview with one of the men on the firing squad. The man was somber, quiet a bit morose- far from gloating and triumphant. He didn’t say much, except that executions were regrettable, though necessary, and he was only doing his job. The interviewer then asked the shooter if he hoped he’d fired the blank, and the marksman answered softly that he was sure he hadn’t fired the blank.

So, apparently, SOMEONE in the firing squad WAS given a blank, supposedly to assuage his conscience. But while the theory may sound nice, the reality is that experienced shooters can tell when they’ve fired a real bullet, so it doesn’t really help.

You don’t have to be an experienced shooter, you just have to be someone who has shot a gun of similar calibre once before. The difference between a blank and a live round is remarkable and startling.

In thinking more about this, I can see one reason why the blank might be useful - in getting the firing squad members to pull the trigger. Perhaps someone figured that if you knew there was a chance you wouldn’t be killing anything you’d be more likely to volunteer for a firing squad and pull the trigger. But you’d sure know immediately after.