Public Beheading in Siam: Three True Stories of Crime and Punishment in the Siam of Old (Part 2 – Kan: The Hapless Desperado.)Posted: June 24, 2011
This is the second in a three-part series of gritty true-life stories of public execution in Siam. Today’s story follows the last moments of Kan, the hapless desperado who robbed and murdered a nobleman to feed his starving family; and lost his head under the executioner’s sword. . . .
April 2, 1903 Samrong Province
Kan still didn’t know why he’d let himself get into this, but his family were hard up, and he needed the money. He held the knife in his hand, afraid of the killing power that lay dormant in its steel shaft. There was no turning back now; if he tried to walk away, his companions would kill him. His heart raced, and thoughts of fleeing ran through his mind. Just at that moment, Khun Prawit – the rich landowner of Samrong’s most productive rice fields – came into view. He was heading back to his dwellings after collecting payment for a recent rice crop. He was escorted by two sturdy guards. As they passed the patch of trees where Kan and his companions lay in ambush, two of the other bandits leapt out of their hiding place, easily slitting the throats of the guards. Kan jumped out, right on cue, holding the knife to Khun Prawit’s chest, and demanded the money. Khun Prawit was bold, and flatly refused, deftly sidestepping as though he might make a dash for escape. Instantly, another robber jumped on his back and held him down; he screamed to Kan: “Kill him!” Kan ran forward, searching Khun Prawit’s body for the money; he found it, threw it to one side, then – before he knew what had happened – thrust the cold steel blade deep into Khun Prawit’s chest; his accessory finished him off by slitting his throat; the blood streaming out onto the grassy path.
May 9, 1905 Bangkok
The jangle of the jailer’s keys cut through the darkness, arousing Kan’s dulled senses. The heavy key was thrust into the lock and turned with a decisive twist, opening the door to the cell where Kan had spent the last two years of his life. He didn’t stir, just remained staring at the floor. Two sturdy guards entered the cell and picked him up by the arms; he had no power to resist; he allowed them to push him to the exit like a ragdoll. They walked purposefully down a long, dimly-lit corridor; Kan being dragged by the guards; his bare feet trailing on the floor.
They came to a large wooden door; one guard stepped forward with a key and opened it. As the door opened, the brilliant rays of the rising sun flooded into the corridor where Kan was standing, he screwed up his eyes and tried to cover his face; it was the first time he had seen full sunlight in two years. It would be the last.
Kan was flung on the ground in heavy shackles and handcuffs while the guards discussed things among themselves. They could have left him unchained; he would not have been able to get away. All his strength had been withered away by two years of meager rations and cruel beatings. Suddenly, he was being dragged to his feet again, but the whole scene felt like a dream to him. The guards took Kan a short distance away to a small port where a boat sat waiting, and numerous state officials stood around, looking irritated and flustered at having to be awake at so early an hour for the execution of such an insignificant prisoner.
Kan must have drifted to sleep, because the next thing he knew, he was sat on the boat, floating downriver at quite a pace; guards and officials sat around; saying nothing. A deathly silence pervaded the boat. He began to feel more aware of his surroundings, and his eyes focused on the houses on the banks of the Chao Phraya River. He could see river people going about their lives: just another day for them; how lucky they were to be alive; in the thick of things. Presently, a guard sat next to him began smoking. Kan asked the guard for a smoke, but he just stared at him through slanted eyes, and blew smoke in his face.
Wat Samrong 7 a.m.
They arrived at Wat Samrong, and the guards and officials went onshore to make preparations for the execution. Kan was left on board the boat, where numerous Buddhist monks came to visit him and prepare him for the afterlife. One of them was preaching to him about cause and effect: “. . . you were deluded into believing material wealth was the key to happiness, but now look where your hunger for gold has got you,” said the handsome young monk “They’re going to execute you, and you’re none-the-better for your actions.” Kan did not reply, only stared across the boat at the area that was being cordoned off with flimsy blue cloth; his final resting place.
“. . . so you must find peace within yourself before you go. Understand that what you did was the ripening of bad karma, it could not be avoided.” The monk carried on in his languid tone for the best part of an hour; Kan didn’t mind, he wasn’t interested, but it wasn’t so bad to be alive, listening to the drivel of a newly-ordained monk. Someone passed him a cigarette and he smoked it with his handcuffs on: raising two hands to take a pull; chains rattling with every movement. By and by, the executioners finished their preparations and two of the guards came to collect Kan. The dreaded moment was drawing near.
Kan was placed on the ground on a square of freshly-cut plantain leaves. His shackles were removed and he was firmly strapped to a T-shaped bamboo stake. They filled his ears with clay and marked a line across his neck. The executioners took long drafts of an alcoholic beverage to calm their nerves. They knelt down in front of him, asking his pardon. When everything was ready; all of the onlookers, guards and executioners stepped away from the small square of plantain leaves, and watched from a distance.
One of the executioners began dancing a set of intricate steps, staring intently at Kan, who became absorbed by the enchanting display. Just behind Kan, another executioner was posturing in a similar fashion. He briefly made a wai to the state officials then, with the stealthy silence of a cat, he took two graceful steps towards the prisoner, leapt in the air, arms outstretched, all the features of his face contorted in the most horrific manner, like some Chinese dragon. The curved blade flashed through the air like a beam of light, severing Kan’s head in a single blow; a jet of crimson shot two feet in the air; the severed head rolled limply across the ground, coming to a stop several feet away from the body; sightless eyes looking out across the Chao Phraya River, where an old woman spat blood-red betel juice into the fast flowing water.