Public Execution

"What a day, what a day
For an auto-da-fé!
It's a lovely day for drinking
And for watching people die!"
Candide, "Auto-Da-Fé"

Since the beginning of recorded history, societies have used execution as the ultimate punishment for unwanted behavior. Performing these executions in public can serve multiple purposes outside of removing the soon-to-be-deceased from society: it can act as a deterrent to warn on-lookers against repeating the behavior in question, it can slake the blood-lust of a wronged and angry populace, it can increase the punishment by adding an element of public humiliation, and at times it can be down-right entertaining!

Public executions can come about for any number of reasons. They may be performed by a government as punishment for a crime. They may be carried out by a monarch seeking to suppress the plans of political enemies in order to maintain a solid grasp on the throne. Regular public executions may be broadcast as a kind of spectator sport in a Crapsack World, or in our own world Twenty Minutes into the Future. They can even be done on the spur of the moment by an Angry Mob who manage to get their hands on the source of their ire. They are also a favorite of revolutionary forces; if they want to demonstrate what not standing with them will ultimately result in, a torturous and barbaric public execution is a great way to frighten people into standing with them and demoralize opposing forces.

The reaction of the In-Universe audience for the execution can serve as a reflection of the moral character of the society at that time. A crowd that does nothing but jeer, egg-on the executioner, or even attempt to participate in the killing may indicate that the people of the land are blood-thirsty and crude. On the other hand, shock and horror displayed by those in attendance may be a sign that the populace is undergoing a Morality Adjustment for the better, and may even be indicative of growing disfavor for the rulers who would carry out such a barbaric spectacle. Conquerors foolish enough to use a public execution to quell the dissent of a Martyrdom Culture could accidentally provide the last fuel needed to touch off a revolution.

A public execution can also to be used to show the true character of the condemned. A previously unrepentant criminal may become The Atoner in their final moments, and one who was a Bad Ass may break down into uncontrolled sobbing and plead for their life. Characters who truly don't fear death may treat it as a game, laughing and returning the insults of the crowd, or getting one last jab at the ruling government before they die.

If the executee is one of the good guys, their public execution may be the backdrop for a Big Damn Heroes moment as their comrades rush in to save the day.

Overlaps with Dead Guy on Display, as a public execution is one of the surest ways to make certain (and assure others) that someone is well and truly dead... if the execution isn't botched, or the prisoner rescued. Can also overlap with Deadly Game, in which the condemned are forced to fight for their lives in gladiatorial or gauntlet style contests.

Truth in Television for some parts of the world. Burn the Witch! is a notable type, both historically and in fiction.

Note that in order to qualify as an example of public execution, the act must be performed in front of a large audience. The modern practice of allowing a handful of witnesses to view an otherwise private execution would not count for the purpose of this trope. This trope is often feedstock to Squick and Nightmare Fuel.

Related Tropes:


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    Anime & Manga  
  • Pirates like Gold Roger in One Piece often receive public executions. According to Igaram, the government pays 30% less for dead pirates because they can't be executed in public.
  • Public executions are also commonplace in the Berserk universe.
  • In Stop Hibari Kun, public execution by crucifixion is what Hibari's sister Tsubame fears will happen to her family if it is discovered that Hibari, who is living life and attending school as a girl, is really a boy.
  • In the anime adaptation of Yoake Mae Yori Ruri Iro Na, Mai has a few Imagine Spots in which she, Sayaka, and Tatsuya are sentenced to public execution by firing squad, or by being boiled alive in a giant cup of tea.
  • Mobile Suit Victory Gundam has the Zanscare Empire employ public execution by guillotine as a standard punishment. They do this mostly to instill fear in the populace, as the guillotine is considered a barbaric and uncivilized punishment by pretty much everyone in the show.
  • In Naruto, Gato publicly executes Inari's stepfather for opposing him. This action breaks Inari, and causes him to no longer believe in heroes.
  • In The Rising Of The Shield Hero Naofumi attends two public executions as a "guest of honor". At the first event the rebel conspirators are executed en masse while the second is the execution of Tact, preceded by all of his allies, friends, and family.


    Films — Animated 

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Undead or Alive: The fact that a public hanging was to be held the morning after the heroes' escape from jail gave them a head start, as the angry sheriff could not afford to draw the ire of the townsfolk who had assembled to witness the death of Ben Goodman, who had killed and eaten parts of his wife and daughter. (Since Ben was a victim of a zombifying curse, the hanging didn't quite take in the end.)
  • Flash Gordon. Flash's "death" by lethal gas by order of Emperor Ming.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean:
    • The third film starts out with a mass public hanging of citizens thought to be involved with pirates, notably including a young boy amongst the victims. The scene is a sad counterpoint to Jack Sparrow's rescue from a similar fate, at the end of the first film.
    • Bunches of people show up for the trial and (presumed) subsequent hanging of one Captain Jack Sparrow in the opening of On Stranger Tides.
  • The Running Man. Criminals are executed by being hunted to their deaths on TV, with a promise of freedom if they survive.
  • Early in the 2010 version of True Grit, three men are publicly hanged.
  • CSA: The Confederate States of America had the Confederate News cheerfully announce the live execution of a slave who had betrayed his master.
  • The Wicked Lady: Highwayman Jerry Jackson is sentenced to a public hanging.
  • Two of these are attempted in Zorro's Fighting Legion, one by firing squad, and the other by hanging. The Legion manages to save both potential victims.
  • James Macleane of Plunkett And Macleane almost meets his end this way, only for the other half of the team, Will Plunkett, to save him in Big Damn Heroes fashion.
  • William Wallace of Braveheart. Done also to deter those who may possibly want to rebel against England.
  • Witness To The Execution a made for TV movie about a fictional television network's attempt to make executions a pay-per-view event.
  • The Mummy (1999): Evy rescues Rick O'Connell in the middle of his public hanging in the prison courtyard.
  • The film version of The Crucible, there is a series of public hangings in which the crowd is at first excited and later miserable after so many have died because of the witch trials.
  • It takes one of these in Black Knight for Martin Lawrence's character to figure out he's not in a theme park.
    Rebel: (about to be beheaded) Long live our deposed Queen!
    Jamal: (raises his fist) Power to the people!
    (Everybody looks at him strangely, including the rebel.)
    • Jamal himself is about to be executed in public for deflowering the princess (although, apparently, she already wasn't a virgin) and ruining the King's chances of an alliance with the Duke of Normandy. He tries to impress the medieval peasants with his "magical powers", but they're not buying it. Luckily, he's rescued by Sir Nolte.
  • Elizabeth opens with the burning of heretics at the stake during the reign of "Bloody" Mary Tudor.
  • In Starship Troopers, the fascist regime immediately sentences murderers to death and broadcasts their executions on live television on every channel.
  • In Coneheads, condemned criminals have to "narfle the Garthok", which is a fancy way of saying trial by combat in a gladiator-style arena, where they face a huge monster. When Beldar is sentenced for treason along with several other criminals, the others are killed by the beast quickly; he manages to defeat it, however, using his talents in golf that he learned on Earth.

  • In Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess Of Mars, John Carter is condemned to a public tournament to the death.
  • Daniel Handler's A Series of Unfortunate Events: Fortunately averted in The Vile Village, but more or less straight in The Carnivorous Carnival.
  • Assassins of Gor: Tarl is put into a gladiatorial combat situation where everyone is supposed to be blindfolded, but in reality everyone else in the "tournament" can see through their blindfolds. Note that at that time in the series it was still heavily influenced by the Barsoom series.
  • Often occurs in Robin Hood stories, with the Sheriff of Nottingham planning to kill captured Merry Men or innocents (usually by hanging) and Robin and the others trying to save them.
  • In the Deryni works, this is practised by those who have political power (kings of Torenth and Gwynedd, and presumably the sovereign rulers in the rest of the Eleven Kingdoms) and those who aspire to it (as when Loris and Sicard prepare to burn Duncan at the stake before the entire Mearan army late in The King's Justice).
  • In Discworld novels:
    • In Witches Abroad we see a public execution. Some countries cut off a thief's hand so he won't steal again. Lady Lilith cuts off his head so he won't think about stealing again. This is also a good example of the reaction of the public showing the nature of the society; after years of Lilith's rule, the public don't react at all, they just have a dead-eyed stare.
    • Going Postal opens with a faked public execution. Moist (the accused, who doesn't know it's faked) is asked to sign the rope before hand, since it will then be worth more to collectors. He's also expected to come up with some Famous Last Words, that being traditional.
    • Rincewind escapes a public execution in The Last Continent. There's a lot made of the execution as entertainment, and as above, pieces of the rope are highly prized souvenirs, although Fair Go Dibbler is somehow able to sell them before the hanging. ("It's still rope, right? Genuine rope.") We're also told of the humanitarian tradition that if the gibbet sticks three times... the prisoner will be given breakfast while someone fixes it.
  • Severian, the protagonist of Book of the New Sun is a public executioner and describes some of his jobs. Like the Discworld examples above, people did want souvenirs and Severian talks about playing to the crowd.
  • The protagonist of Samurai Executioner is a public executioner and the story in part consists of his victim's backstories and then shows him executing them.
  • In the Judge Dee series, public execution of offenders is sometimes described. One that stands out is a rather sickening one in the first novel, wherein a guy is quartered by having his limbs tied to four water buffalo.
  • The Count of Monte Cristo: A public execution during a Roman festival allows the Count to test Franz's character.
  • In the Green Rider series, King Zachary has a public execution for the traitorous Lord Mirhwell. In later books, it's revealed that while all executions are public, attending them is socially discouraged for the most part.
  • In the first Mistborn book, the Lord Ruler stages public executions to express his displeasure, rounding up a large number of victims (who may have nothing to do with whatever incurred his displeasure) and commanding everyone in the city to witness them being executed. Since those at the back would have a hard time seeing the executions take place, the victims are beheaded four at a time over a fountain until the water is bright red.
    • In another city in the third book, the preferred method of execution is to seal the victims into an abandoned house and burn it to the ground. The charred remains of houses throughout the city stand as a reminder.
  • Featured a couple of times in Tamora Pierce's Tortall books.
    • In Squire, the third book of the Protector of the Small quartet, heroine Kel has to attend the public executions of a group of bandits she helped to capture. She finds the festival-like atmosphere upsetting, though she hides it well.
    • Beka attends the public execution of criminals she helps capture a few times in the Provost's Dog trilogy. The ones in her time can be particularly unpleasant—colemongers, for instance, are boiled in oil.
  • In 1984, prisoners of war are often publicly executed, which Parson's children regard as a great form of entertainment. Thought criminals, however, are executed (eventually) in the Ministry of Love.
  • Stonefur in Warrior Cats gets executed in front of the clan, as a part of Tigerstar's campaign against half-clan cats.
  • In Stephen King's book Wizard and Glass, part of The Dark Tower series, Roland's lover Susan is publicly burnt by and angry mob.
    • Then there's The Stand, where Flagg executes-read 'crucifies'- a guy who was caught doing drugs.
  • The possibility of the protagonist's public beheading is a large part of the plot of Albert Camus's The Stranger. His main worry isn't that he will be executed but that it will be public.
  • In the Safehold series a major component of the Punishment of Schueler is a public execution by torture, as much to deter other would be heretics as to punish the victim.
  • Many examples in Jack Vance's Lyonesse series, related in a variety of styles: rhapsodising second-hand accounts, world-weary first-hand witnessing, and didactical narrative.
  • In Candide, after Lisbon is devastated by an earthquake, the country puts on an auto-da-fé, "it having been decided by the University of Coimbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible preventive of earthquakes." At this ceremony infidels are burned, Candide flogged, and Pangloss hanged. Later that day there is another earthquake.
  • In the Left Behind book Armageddon, Chloe Williams is given a public execution after being captured by the Global Community and failing to give them any information on the whereabouts of the Tribulation Force.
  • In Christian Nation, Sanjay is given a televised stoning as an enemy of the new American theocratic state.
  • High Priest Rheaesi in The Will Be Done is executed for being a heretic.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Many public executions were shown throughout The Tudors, as Henry VIII went through his laundry list of enemies, former advisers and ex-wives. The particularly brutal death of Thomas Cromwell at the hands of a drunken executioner serves as a My God, What Have I Done? moment for those who arranged it.
  • Several times on Merlin at the orders of King Uther.
  • There are four instances of the use of capital punishment in Blackadder.
    • The Black Adder (the first series) episode Witchsmeller Pursuivant deals with witch-hunts. Blackadder is fingered as a witch and narrowly avoids being burnt at the stake thanks to some real witchcraft on the part of Leia and his mother. As an aside, the first witch to be burnt has her pussy-cat burnt alongside her, which particularly distresses Percy.
    • The Blackadder II episode "Head" is all about the public executions at the court of Elizabeth I. As in Discworld there's a gag about the callous crowd desiring souvenirs; Blackadder thinks the execution of Sir Walter Raleigh will attract "sailing enthusiasts", so he should try and sell them souvenir anchors.
    • In the third series episode "Amy and Amiability", it is suggested that Amy has been hanged as a highwayman, though the execution happens offscreen.
    • In Blackadder Goes Forth the episode "Corporal Punishment" is actually about Blackadder being court-martialed for killing Melchett's carrier pigeon, found guilty, and then reprieved seconds from disaster.
  • The Twilight Zone TOS episode "The Obsolete Man". In a future totalitarian state a man is condemned to death for being a librarian. He asks that his execution be televised: the state agrees because they want to make an example of him, but he has a plan for turning the tables on them.
  • In an episode of Charmed entitled "Morality Bites" the sisters go into the future where one of them has killed a man with her magic and is executed on live TV via being burnt at the stake.
  • Highlander had one where the victim was immortal and survived,though he went rather insane afterward. Being burned alive will do that to you.
  • Horrible Histories has several (of course), notably that of famous robber Jack Sheppard.
  • "Reckonings" in Wayward Pines involve the execution of people who break the town's rules repeatedly and publicly.

    Tabletop Games 
  • The Dungeons & Dragons Splat book, The Book of Vile Darkness actually gives official rules for executing a condemned prisoner, as for how to make a Profession - Execution check to avoid botching an execution. (A botched execution means the victim still dies, but he suffers more, something an executioner with any amount of professional pride tries to avoid; ironically, it also means the victim lives a little longer, opening a larger possibility for rescue if magical healing is available.) It also gives specific results for what happens to a victim in the case of successful and botched results for hangings, beheadings, drawing and quartering, and crucifixion. (This is recommended for NPC villains only, naturally, much like a lot of the stuff in the book.)
  • In the Planescape campaign its as common as it is in any RPG setting, but the Mercykillers of Sigil have something special for criminals convicted of treason against the city itself. Such criminals are executed publicly by feeding them to the Wyrm, a wyvern that they keep as a mascot. These events are rare, and it's somewhat of a holiday for Sigil when it happens. Everyone comes out to watch. (As long as you aren't too squeamish to watch a man get devoured by a wyvern, but if you live in Sigil for any length of time, that's unlikely to be a problem.)

  • The Strawbs song "The Hangman And The Papist" is all about this.
  • As is the Johnny Cash song "25 Minutes to Go".
  • Led Zeppelin's "Gallows Pole" is about a man to be executed whose family members offer various things to his captives to keep them from executing him. They kill him anyway.
  • Richard Strauss's "Till Eugenspiegel's Merry Pranks" ends with the title trickster getting the noose.
  • "March to the Scaffold," the fourth movement of Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique," ends with the symphony's main theme being cut short by a guillotine-like crash, followed by a drumroll and "ta-da" chords.
  • "Broadside" songsheets were commonly sold at the hanging of outlaws, purporting to be their final confessions. One of the most famous is My Name is William Kidd. MacPherson's Rant was supposedly written by its subject, Jamie MacPherson, and played by him on a fiddle before his execution. The lyrics, which are an excellent example of Defiant to the End, were developed by Robert Burns and Walter Scott.
  • Alice Cooper traditionally ends the main set of his concerts with his own execution. Over the years, he has been "killed" by guillotine, hanging, electric chair and most recently, lethal injection.

  • Turandot begins with a crowd thronging to watch the execution of one of the title character's failed suitors, who loses his head offstage.
  • In Let 'Em Eat Cake, Throttlebottom is blamed for throwing the baseball game to the League of Nations, and sentenced to the guillotine. Wintergreen and his flunkeys are also scheduled for execution as the army executes its coup. Throttlebottom notices that the guillotine is broken and fixes it.
  • The Mikado describes the functions of the Lord High Executioner in loving detail. However, Ko-Ko never in fact performs an execution, a fact which gets him and his town in trouble with the Mikado.
  • In Knickerbocker Holiday, Brom Broeck is twice led to the gallows. The first time, he tricks the Council into trying to hang him by the belly rather than by the neck, and the Governor is amused enough that he lets him free. The second time, the Governor is ordering Brom's execution, and Brom finally manages to save his own neck again by Shaming the Mob.

    Video Games 

  • In Homestuck, this is the final fate of Karkat's ancestor, the Sufferer. Also doubles as Make an Example of Them.
  • A small town in Girl Genius has "the wheels of justice turning slow, but fine" upon three captured monstrous Super Soldiers. The constable's choice of execution method is...less than efficient. Entertaining, though, it certainly is. At least, Maxim, Oggie, and Dimo think so, from the ends of their respective ropes.

    Western Animation 
  • In Avatar: The Last Airbender, we never see one, but it's referenced. When the kids are at a Fire Nation festival in "The Deserter", Aang spots a big crowd and wonders what it's for. Sokka says, "Knowing the Fire Nation, it's probably an execution."
    • In the episode "Avatar Day", Aang himself was set up to be executed for killing a community's leader in a past life (which turned out to be itself an execution mandated and performed by the Avatar of that time, because the leader was tyrant trying to expand his territory). Fortunately, the Fire Nation chose this exact moment to attack the village, and his punishment was changed to "community service" in the form of driving them off.
  • American Dad! Stan and his family are convicted of several crimes when their in Saudi Arabia, are to be publicly executed by stoning. They are saved by Rodger who agrees to sleep with a Shiek in exchange for saving them.

    Real Life 
  • Before the Age of Enlightenment, public executions were the norm, thought to be both entertaining and effective in proving that crime doesn't pay. They were found to have the opposite of the intended effect: criminals and general populace alike became more brutal, and executions signalled it was just fine to kill a person as long as you were in charge when you did it. During the Enlightenment, public executions were superseded by intramural executions (i.e. inside the walls of the prison) and the methods became more humane, such as beheading, hanging with long drop and firing squad, all of which kill the convict immediately and cleanly instead of slowly and painfully. (The electric chair also appeared in this era; it was believed at first to be more humane, but this is now considered to be false.) But even today, public executions are commonplace in some parts of the world. More detail is not necessary.