Recently I spoke on BBC Radio 3 about the case of Japhet Crook, who was probably the last person to be subjected to an official punishment of facial mutilation in London in 1731. These sorts of punishments would continue elsewhere for a long time, but this was later than I expected to see this sort of violence used by the state in London.
Punishments that disfigure rather than kill are designed to cause ongoing humiliation, above all testifying to the power of the inflictor. Recently, surgeon Dr Munjed Al Muderis spoke in an interview on Australian television of being forced to flee Iraq after refusing an orders to punish of deserters by branding them and cropping their ears, “humanely, under anaesthetics. So ironically, it has to be done in a hospital.” The framing of the punishment as being carried out in controlled medical conditions carries an eerie echo of Henry VIII’s rule in cases of “malicious striking” within certain royal areas that the right hand would be cut off with the king’s surgeon standing by to sear and bind the wound. Such stipulations serve to maintain the image of proportionality and justice, and the preservation of life.
Crook had assumed the alias ‘Sir Peter Stranger’ and forged property deeds so that he could mortgage the estate himself. You can listen to the recording of the show online (which also includes fascinating sections from sculptor Michael Rakowitz on how his Iraqi heritage drove him to make art about the disappearance of artefacts and people, Nicholas Jubber on ancient epic tales, Isilay Gursu in Turkey about new ways of involving local villages in cultural heritage, and Tomos Proffitt on how primatologists and archaeologists are refining the story of how stone tool use developed).
As an added bonus, here is the full text for one of the newspaper reports of the day that I quote in the recording. It give us a sense of the scene as Crook first stood in the pillory, and then had his ears and nose cut by the public hangman:
“This Day about Noon, Japhet Crook, alias sir Peter Stranger, was brought to the Pillory at Charing Cross, and stood an Hour thereon; when a Chair was set on the Pillory, and he being put therein, Jack Ketch with a sort of Pruning-Knife cut off both his Ears, and when that was done a Surgeon clapt a Styptick thereon: Then the Executioner, with a Pair of Scissars cut his left Nostril twice before it was quite thro’, and then at once cut thro’ his right Nostril: All which Crook bore with great Patience; but at the searing his right Nostril with a hot Iron, he was in such Pain and Agony, that his left Nostril was not sear’d; and he was carried off the Pillory bleeding to the Ship Tavern at Charing-Cross, where he staid about two Hours, and then was convey’d back to the King’s Bench Prison, where he is to remain for Life.”
Monthly Chronicle, June 1731