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by Stephen Drew,
Improbable Research staff
There’s pleasure to be had in reading “The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods,” if only the pleasure of feeling the author’s possible satisfaction at having done a thorough job.
There exist few reliable, firsthand reports of the pain experienced during an execution. Harold Hillman was Director of the Unity Laboratory of Applied Neurobiology, and a Reader in Physiology at the University of Surrey, in Guildford. He spent years gathering whatever information he could find about what it feels like to undergo each of the most popular forms of capital punishment.
Dr. Hillman drew from a wide variety of sources: “Observations on the condemned persons, postmortem examinations, physiological studies on animals undergoing similar procedures, and the literature on emergency medicine.”
This he caringly distilled into a fact-filled, eight-page report that provoked reactions of many different kinds— admiring, disgusted, disdainful, horrified, and in some circles, mordantly amused.
Dr. Hillman gave a detailed description of each method of execution: how the act is performed, the typical physiological course of events in the executee, and a quick pathological examination of the remains.
He began with shooting (“This may be carried out [by an executioner] who fires from behind the condemned person’s occiput towards the frontal region...”).
Next came hanging.
After hanging came stoning. Dr. Hillman pointed out that “This form of execution is likely to result in the slowest form of death of any of the methods used.”
This was followed by beheading. (“The skin, muscles, and vertebrae of the neck are tough, so that beheading does not always result from a single blow....”)
Then came electrocution.
After that, gassing. (“The condemned person is strapped to a chair in front of a pail of sulfuric acid, in an airtight chamber...”)
And in the end, came intravenous injection. (“The condemned person is bound supine to a trolley and a trained nurse or technician cannulates the vein in the angle of the elbow....”)
Dr. Hillman and the Meaning of It All
Having described in quite gory detail the nuts and bolts of each form of execution, Dr. Hillman then got to the heart of the matter: the pain. Dr. Hillman makes no wild claim to omniscience. As he put it: “[One does not] know for how long and how severely a decapitated head feels. There are substantial areas of ignorance, so that one cannot know for certain the extent of pain in respect of a particular method.”
What one can do, Dr. Hillman pointed out, is watch for signs of pain. He got specific: “In everyday life, a person in severe pain shouts or screams, perspires, has dilated pupils, withdraws from the noxious stimulus, moves the limbs violently, contracts the facial muscles, micturates, and defaecates.”
Detail from Professor Hillman’s study: some of the observed signs that are believed to indicate pain.
Dr. Hillman constructed a helpful little chart to show, at a glance, which of these signs of possible pain typically can or cannot be detected during each method of execution.
Altogether, the Hillman report is a helpful treasury of grisly detail augmented with medical speculation. Its ultimate conclusion: “All of the methods for executing people, with the possible exception of intravenous injection, are likely to cause pain.”
Honor, and Public Recognition
The report, together with the massive research involved in producing it, earned Harold Hillman the 1997 Ig Nobel Peace Prize.
Citing a combination of ambivalence and financial constraints, the winner chose not to attend the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. Six years later, however, he took part in the Ig Nobel Tour of the UK and Ireland, where he delighted and mystified audiences in several cities.
Dr. Hillman at an event in Exeter during the 2004 tour. The man in the foreground, helping Dr. Hillman project images of his work, is Pek van Andel, himself an Ig Nobel Prize winner. Dr. van Andel led the team that made the first MRI images of a couple’s sexual organs while those organs were in use. Photo: Kees Moeliker.
“The Possible Pain Experienced During Execution by Different Methods,” Harold Hillman, Perception, vol. 22, 1993, pp. 745-53.
This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift! Visit their website for more research that makes people LAUGH and then THINK.