Spain’s Preferred Method of Capital Punishment

The garrote (copy with variant of Goya's engraving), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille (Nord)
The garrote (copy with variant of Goya’s engraving), Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille (Nord)


Today, the discussion revolves around the ethical aspects of capital punishment, but not too long ago, this topic was unquestioned. Instead, the controversy centred around the manner in which executions should be conducted: whether to prioritize a swift and humane approach, preserving the condemned individual’s dignity, or employing a more brutal method to serve as a deterrent. In such circumstances, the Spanish populace evidently favoured the former viewpoint. Consequently, for many years, the “vile garrote” served as the preferred execution method in Spain.

The Vile Garrote was a procedure for executing a convicted person by compressing his throat with a rope twisted with a stick, with a metal ring or by pressing the neck with a screw.

The Vile Garrote in itself, sometimes known as the club, or clubbing, was not an instrument of torture: it was an attempt to make execution by hanging more ‘humane’. In the hands of a competent executioner, a prisoner could retain some form of dignity during his death. It was a merciful way to allow the prisoner to die by strangulation, yes, but sitting down, in contrast to the degrading kicking of the hanged man.

In theory, the executioner could quickly strip the prisoner naked, giving him a clean death. However, there were many problems with this type of capital punishment when the executioner was not competent or when the prisoner had an unusual neck, for example, very large and muscular, or in the case of females, very small and thin.

Inquisition exhibition in the Palace of the Forgotten in Granada.
Garrote – Inquisition exhibition in the Palace of the Forgotten in Granada.

Why Was it Called Vile Garrote?

In Spanish, the capital punishment instrument “Vile Garrote” is called the “Garrote Vil”. It is easier to assume that the adjective “vil” (vile) comes from the same word as “villain” (villano) meaning nasty, foul or unpleasant.

However, the word “villano” has a double meaning in Spanish. Villano also means villager. During The Middle Ages, society was divided into three main classes or estates:  Nobility, Clergy and Third Estate, that is, the common people. While beheading with a sword was considered a penalty reserved for nobles, the “villains” -inhabitants of the villas, that is, commoners- were killed in a more vulgar way, by means of a tourniquet that broke their necks. Therefore, the vile garrote was called so because it was a typical form of capital punishment reserved for villains or people without legal privileges.

With time, both in Spain and Portugal (and in the Asian and American colonies), the clubbing was replaced by the compression and breakage of the vertebrae, but the name was preserved.

Paying the death penalty for criminal - garroting a criminal at Bilibid Prison, Manila, 1901
Paying the death penalty for criminal – garroting a criminal at Bilibid Prison, Manila, 1901


To find the first references to this ingenious method of execution, we have to go back to the time of the Roman Empire. At that time, the club was considerably less sophisticated than its modern versions. Basically, it consisted of a rope that passed through a post; leaving on one side the neck of the condemned man to be strangled, and on the other, the tourniquet that the executioner used to tighten the rope.

The Black Hand
Historical illustration showing the anarchists of La Mano Negra (‘The Black Hand’) being executed by garroting (strangling). La Mano Negra was an alleged secret and violent anarchist organisation that was founded in Andalucia, Spain, at the end of the 19th century. Seven of their members were executed in the Plaza del Mercado, Jerez de la Frontera, Spain, on 14th June 1884. Image from Le Petit Journal newspaper, France, April 1892.

One of the most famous convicts of the Roman Empire to die by means of the garrote -which at that time was known as “laqueus“- was Publius Cornelius Lentulus; convicted in 63 BC for conspiring against the Republic.

References to the utilization of the Vile Garrote can be traced back to certain texts from The Middle Ages. Even during that era, the moniker “vile” started to become associated with it, underscoring its usage for executing commoners. Interestingly enough, the nobility, in contrast, met their demise through the “honourable” method of beheading, with a few exceptions, of course. One notable case worth mentioning is that of Fadrique, whose own brother, King Alfonso X “El Sabio” (the Wise), decreed his execution by means of garrote in the year 1227. However, this is highly disputed among historians, with some claiming that he might have died by asphyxiation instead or by drowning.

Another famous person executed via means of Garrote was Atahualpa. Legend has it that the Inca emperor had been sentenced to burn at the stake. But seeing himself in this difficult situation, he begged for his method of execution to be changed. According to his faith, the soul died in the fire, and could not reach the afterlife if consumed by the flames.

Excecutions of the last sovereign emperor of the Inca Empire
Execution of the last sovereign emperor of the Inca Empire – Woodcut by A.B. Greene, published in 1891. The woodcut is historically wrong, Atahualpa was strangled with a garrote instead of being burned.

Apparently, the priest who was next to Atahualpa on the gallows offered him to be baptized as a Christian and die by the more merciful garrote if he became a Christian. Atahualpa agreed. Thus, on the night of July 26, 1533, the conquerors dispatched the emperor using the garrote; although now the Inca emperor was called Francisco, which was the name he had adopted at baptism.

For years hanging was the most common method of execution in Spain. But during the Napoleonic invasion, both the French king and the Cortes of Cádiz agreed that the garrote was a faster and less degrading procedure than hanging.

By the end of the 18th century, the French had humanized their executions by guillotine; and the English had adopted the ‘long drop’ hanging which basically consisted of dropping the condemned man from a considerable distance, making him more likely to die of a broken neck rather than suffocation. With the same humanitarian purpose, Spain substituted the gallows for the vile garrote so that “the torture of criminals does not offer too repugnant a spectacle to humanity and the generous character of the Spanish Nation.”

The two sides of the War of Independence agreed on this, both the French (Royal Decree of José I of October 19, 1809) and the Cortes of Cádiz (January 1812). Apart from the humanitarian intention, it was possible that the legislator valued the Spanish garrote as a way to prevent fraud. There were too many failed hangings due to breaking the rope or breaking the stick, in which case it was customary to pardon the prisoner. Justice began to suspect that the prisoner or his relatives bribed the executioner.

On the other hand, this contraption allowed the prisoner to remain upright, in a much more solemn position than he would have with the guillotine that was so fashionable in France at that time. Besides, the club did not give rise to that disgraceful little “dance of feet”. That is, the garrote was considered to be the most humane method of execution possible, given the circumstances.

However, the return of Fernando VII changed everything. The king did not appreciate what was done in his absence, so he decided to go back and reinstate the gallows as the preferred method of killing the condemned. But finally, he gave in to social pressure and established the definitive adoption of the vile garrote in 1832.

Design Problems

In theory, the primitive garrote aimed to cause death through a broken neck, leading to an immediate cerebral coma and thus instant demise. However, in practice, the situation often diverged, and due to various technical factors, there were instances where the condemned individual endured the prolonged agony of strangulation in their final moments in this world. As a result, there arose a need to refine the device to mitigate such outcomes.

The primitive garrote was a basic rope tourniquet employed to strangle the victim. The executioner would typically utilize a post to secure the condemned person, allowing the rope to pass through it and restrict their movement. The first mention of a modern metallic device, designed to compress the condemned individual’s neck to the post a mere few centimetres in thickness, causing the prisoner to die quickly and without blood, dates back to 1651. Described as “An ingenious instrument composed of two metallic halves, which the executor joins by turning the screw and in the twinkling of an eye you are in the other life”.

The Vile Garrote Artichoke model
The Vile Garrote “Artichoke” model – From the torture museum of Freiburg im Breisgau

This contraption remained unchanged for three centuries… except for a notable improvement that is worth mentioning: a ratchet system was incorporated that prevented the path travelled by the crank from going backwards, so the executioner would need less force to do what he did.

Later it coexisted with the modern “Slide Garrote”, which appeared around 1880 in which the collar was pressed against an iron frame. The slide garrote was a much more robust and effective contraption than the “artichoke” one. Among many other things, this variant of the club included the possibility of adjusting the height, allowing the executioner to place it on the base of the skull, which is a much more vulnerable area and where the spinal cord is much more easily severed.

Gregorio Mayoral Sendino
Gregorio Mayoral Sendino – University of Burgos

Another mechanism that would have also meant a notable improvement and that never became official was a variant that historians have attributed to Gregorio Mayoral (1861-1928), head executioner of the Audiencia de Burgos between the years 1890 and 1928. Apparently, Mayoral found it extremely traumatic to execute a woman. He himself described the experience as a disaster, because the diameter of the condemned woman’s neck was much smaller than what he was used to, and that lengthened the execution. Over time, he began to add some modifications that made the club much more efficient at its work.

A woman es executed via Garrote Vil
A woman is executed via Garrote

Mayoral’s model was made up of two pieces, each one located on one side of the post, and unlike the rest of the clubs, this one acted in the opposite direction. In other words, instead of pushing the prisoner’s neck towards the post, what he was doing was pushing the neck forward. This allowed the pressure to be concentrated on the neck that had to be sectioned… and not on the trachea.

New execution design used by Gregorio Mayoral Sendino
New execution design used by Gregorio Mayoral Sendino – University of Burgos

Another type of garrote began to be used in the Court of Havana around 1880: it was a more evolved club than the conventional ones. In it, a powerful screw of up to six steps actuated the bowtie against a fixed, crescent-shaped steel neck that compressed the base of the skull, at the height of the first vertebra, which ensured the breaking of the neck.

The End of Garrote

The last executions carried out in Spain with the vile garrote were those in 1973 of Salvador Puig Antich and Heinz Chez in 1974, at the end of the Franco regime. Although its use was legally in force until the abolition of capital punishment with the Constitution of 1978; in which it was reserved solely for military jurisdiction… a nuance that in 1995 was also definitively eliminated.

Handsome young Salvador Puig Antich radicalized as a youth in the 1960s under the oppressive semi-fascist Franco dictatorship.
Handsome young Salvador Puig Antich radicalized as a youth in the 1960s under the oppressive semi-fascist Franco dictatorship. Source: ExecutedToday

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