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?)

The story of Pra Preecha is a complicated one, and – like many other things in the orient – shrouded in a mysterious web of lies and treachery, that the westerner can scarcely comprehend. In a country where the truth often amounts to the same thing as a lie, it hardly seems surprising that there is no singular, concrete account of what happened to this middle-ranking Siamese official. Some say he was innocent of all charges, and cruelly framed by the rival Bunnag family, who were afraid that Pra Preecha’s own Amatayakun family would steal their thunder, and knock them off the top spot as Siam’s number one influential family of rank. Others say that Pra Preecha was a despotic madman, who murdered numerous prisoners working at the Kabin gold mine, while embezzling large sums of money to enrich himself and his family.

Pra Preecha

Pra Preecha

On March 11, 1879, Pra Preecha married Fanny Knox, the daughter of the British Consul Thomas George Knox and his Siamese wife, Prang Yen. Some believe that he married Fanny as a way to avoid punishment from the Siamese government. Pra Preecha, sensing the brewing storm, put all of his assets in his wife’s name. Not long after the wedding, he was arrested and put on trial for his alleged crimes.

fanny knox

Fanny knox

Meanwhile, Fanny was pregnant with her new husband’s child, which inspired her father to intervene and try to save Pra Preecha. He took his case to King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) asking him to help his friend, who he believed was being wrongly framed by the Bunnag family. King Chulalongkorn was a personal friend of Pra Preecha, and made it clear that he had no wish to see him punished if he was not guilty of the alleged crimes. During this time, more scandalous rumours of Pra Preecha’s malfeasances were surfaced and a number of his family members were also put under arrest.

thomas knox

Thomas George Knox

Knox’s intervention in the affair cost him his post as Consul and he was recalled to London, where he was later given the title Sir Thomas George Knox.

Pra Preecha’s trial got underway in mid-1879.  An article in The New York Times of April 12, 1880, said that “[the] trial is admitted by all intelligent persons to have been a complete farce, since he was not allowed to cross-question witnesses who accused him of murder, nor was he permitted to refer to his books when called upon to account for sums drawn by him as expenses for the gold mine.” Although Pra Preecha eventually admitted to stealing gold from the King’s mines, some believe he made the confession in the hope that he would be spared the cruel torture that so many criminals of the time suffered until they confessed. He was found guilty, and his execution date was set for November 24, 1879. Not long before the execution took place, Fanny departed to England along with her newly-born baby and two of Pra Preecha’s children from another marriage.

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

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

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

Siam public executionThis 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.

Prisoner being tied to a bamboo post

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.

2 - Siam public exection

Executioner getting ready for the final blow

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.

Siam death by beheading - 3

Moving in for the kill

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

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?)

 


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?)