Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)

Long before the lethal injection, long before the firing squad, and many thousands of miles away from the cold efficiency of the guillotine, the Siamese[1] had their very own way of executing their murderers, thieves, adulterers, and unfortunate individuals who got on the wrong side of the king, princes, and nobles. Before the year 1919, those sentenced to death were publicly beheaded by sword in an intricate ritual that involved two swordsmen, Buddhist monks, and state officials. This practice was discontinued after August 19, 1919, when Boonpeng Heep Lek was the last person to be executed by decapitation in Siam.

Executioners arrayed in red

A Siamese execution

Over the coming week, I will be posting three accounts of public executions in Siam. Today’s story tells the tale of Ai Yone, a jealous husband who lost his wife to another man, and consecrated their love affair with a blood bath. Some of the places and names used in this account have been fictionalized; the main story, however, is based on a true account of crime and punishment in Siam.

Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband

April, 1893 Phra Pathom

When Ai Yone’s wife ran away with another man, he became possessed by an irrational desire to murder the cheating couple. He had always been an honest and upright man, working hard to earn his living. But now, nothing else mattered to him except the death of his adulterous wife (Nok) and her Casanova lover. Driven by an irrepressible urge to exact revenge, he stalked the carousing pair with the cool headedness of a detective, and the burning hatred of Mephistopheles. On April 13, he located them at a house in Phra Pathom, about 50 kilometres west of Bangkok. He watched their movements and waited patiently; he was in no particular rush. Later that day, the perfect opportunity revealed itself. His wife and her new lover were alone in the house, and he watched through burning eyes as the hated man bestowed kisses upon his wife. He sprang upon them unexpectedly, but the lover – quick and agile – deftly leapt from an open window and ran for his life, leaving the unfortunate Nok to face the wroth of Ai Yone alone. He wounded her in several places with a knife, and she died not long after. Ai Yone was promptly arrested, tried, and condemned to death.

May 19, 1893 Phra Pathom

Ai Yone was released from prison amidst taunts and jeers from a crowd that had gathered to witness the prisoner’s removal. He seemed oblivious to their presence, and chewed betel nut noncommittally. He was escorted by a heavily armed guard; bound in iron shackles. They took him to the river where he and a procession of state officials, police, and military, boarded a boat.  They left the port at six a.m., and headed for Wat Matkasan, where Ai Yone was to be executed.

At 7:15 a.m., the procession arrived at Wat Matkasan, where preparations for the execution got underway. Ai Yone remained bound and shackled on board the boat, smoking and engaging in animated conversation with those around him. Meanwhile, the executioners – seven in number – began the lengthy ritual, first making offerings of boar’s head, fowls, rice and betels at the temporary altar, erected for the occasion. The swords to be used for the execution were placed on the altar and duly consecrated and anointed. Looking on from the boat, Ai Yone seemed disinterested and detached as he received the last ministrations of the Buddhist monks. He held his head high, and showed no signs of fear.

Promptly, he was brought onto land and placed on the grass. The executioners were arrayed in red, and had wrapped red sashes around their foreheads. They knelt in front of Ai Yone and asked his pardon for what they were about to do. Some of the executioners took Ai Yone a little distance away, where they removed his neck-chain and handcuffs, then tied his elbows to a bamboo post, securely planted in the ground. He sat cross-legged on freshly-cut plantain leaves, neck exposed to receive the fatal blow, murmuring prayers and holding lighted tapers between his pressed palms. Next, his ears were closed with wet clay, so that he would not hear the deadly approach of the executioner. A line was drawn across his neck, to guide the descending sword; a white cloth wrapped around his body. All was ready.

Siamese execution

Making preparations for the execution

To the left of Ai Yone, a first executioner began an intricate set of dance-like moves, not unlike the movements seen in ram muay, the graceful dance performed at the beginning of muay thai (kickboxing) bouts. Ai Yone was transfixed on the hypnotic dance of the executioner. Meanwhile, to the right of Ai Yone – just outside his field of vision – a second executioner was skipping along in similar manner to the first. When this second executioner perceived that Ai Yone was entranced by the movements of the first, he swiftly moved in for the death blow: lifting the sword high above his head, stretching onto his tiptoes, he swung the razor-sharp blade with all his force, almost severing the head in one blow. The first executioner then quickly moved in to finish the job.

Siamese public beheading

The head being severed

The severed head rolled across the floor; vacant eyes stared at the morning sky; a light covering of rain clouds began to form. The body was quickly buried in a nearby grave and the head displayed on a pole; a warning to would be criminals. The once-handsome face of Ai Yone looked out across the execution ground, now nothing more than flesh and blood. The whole episode came to a close at 9 a.m., just four hours after he first saw the light of day. The crowd of Chinese and Siamese onlookers quickly lost interest, and dispersed within minutes. The rain came out of nowhere, cleansing the bloodstained ground.

[1] Before June 24, 1939, Thailand was known as Siam. As this document is primarily concerned with happenings prior to 1919, I will refer to Thais as Siamese, and Thailand as Siam.

To see more images, visit Siamese Visions.

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)

Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 3 – Pra Preecha: Despotic Madman or Innocent Victim?)

4 Comments on “Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 1 – Ai Yone: The Jealous Husband.)”

  1. Pip and Hazel Wilcox says:

    As you say, ” very gory!” but interesting and smoothly written

  2. Martyn says:

    An excellent account of a very gory matter. Even in this day and age Thailand can sometimes be a tough place to live (as in rural life), but back in the days of Ai Yone it must have been a brutal place to survive at times.

    A very sobering story indeed.

    • Ray Malcolm says:

      I have often wondered how harsh life must have been in those times. I wrote this story after finding one or two true accounts on the web. I’m not usually the morbid type, but I did enjoy building up these stories. In fact, this story became the seed of a short stroy I wrote which was selected for the New Asian Writers Short Story Anthology 2011. The story is Lifelines, and reflects in the impermanence of life. I usually blog on my other blog these days, Made in Thailand. Would be nice to see you there!

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