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What a day, what a day
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.
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 Badass 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.
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.
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.
- Burn the Witch
- Impaled with Extreme Prejudice
- The Man They Couldn't Hang
- Off with His Head
- Shoot the Rope
- Vigilante Execution
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.
- Once, Luffy is captured and almost beheaded like this by the Marines. He's saved by a mysterious person who is all but openly stated to be his father, the rebel leader Monkey D. Dragon.
- Later, Luffy's brother Ace (also Gol D. Roger's biological son) is captured and set to be executed by the Marines. Luffy's goal in the Marineford arc is to set him free. He succeeds... only for Ace to die saving him from Admiral Akainu.
- In the Wano Country arc, the Straw Hats' ally Yasu/Tonoyasu is crucified and shot dead (in a variation of the traditional use of crucifixion in Medieval Japan). He still manages to use this as part of his Thanatos Gambit to discredit Shogun Orochi
- 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 is really a trans girl.
- In the anime adaptation of Yoake Mae Yori Ruriiro 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 The Brave Fighter of Sun Fighbird, the invasion of the USA has a scene where several people (Satsuda, Momoko, the President of the USA and others) are near executed via firing squad. Cue Guard Wing's arrival and him disabling the Mooks, which allows Fighbird and Co. to release the hostages and start fighting back.
- Some episodes of Grimms's Fairy Tale Classics mention or imply executions. The more direct example is the one dedicated to The Six Swans, where the heroine Elise is almost burned at the stake onscreen.
- The second part of Blue Comet SPT Layzner has several characters, including Eiji's girlfriend (Anna) and best friend (David), hung in Unwilling Suspension AND about to be shot dead by a firing squad. Eiji, who had been missing for quite a while already, shows up and saves everyone.
- In Anatolia Story, there's the public hanging of Yuri's Lady in Waiting Ursula, who willingly let herself be executed to clear Yuri's reputation after she's falsely accused of having killed King Arnuwanda. (Urhi was the real culprit, and he's not found out [and then, also executed] until almost the end).
- In Usagi Yojimbo, Kitsune and Usagi's friend Noodles is tortured, crucified, and speared in front of a large crowd. This includes a crying Kitsune and a very unhappy Usagi.
- In one of the many Disproportionate Retribution dark fics following Kickassia, The Nostalgia Critic gets publically beheaded by Phelous under the orders of The Cinema Snob.
- 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.
- The third Pirates of the Caribbean 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.
- 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: 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.
- The climax of Disney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame involves Quasimodo attempting to rescue his best friend Esmeralda from being burned at the stake in public by Frollo.
- 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.
- Attempted in Aladdin: The Return of Jafar, after Aladdin has been framed and condemned to die for "the murder of the Sultan". Fortunately, Iago does a Heel Face Turn and breaks the Genie free from the glass bottle, and in turn, the Genie becomes a Big Damn Hero in flying at the speed of light and rescuing Aladdin a mere split-second before he is to be decapitated.
- 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.
- In the first movie of The Mummy Trilogy, 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 Jamal to figure out he's not in a theme park.
Rebel: (about to be behearded) Long live our deposed Queen!
- Jamal himself is about to be executed in public for deflowing 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.
- In Edgar Rice Burrough's A Princess Of Mars, John Carter is condemned to a public tournament to the death.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- In Nineteen Eighty-Four, prisoners of war are often publicly executed, which Parson's children regard as a great form of entertainment. Thought criminals, however, are executed 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 an angry mob.
- 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.
- 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 in the Safehold series.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Strawbs song "The Hangman And The Papist" is all about this.
- As is the Johnny Cash song "25 Minutes to Go".
- Richard Strauss's "Till Eugenspiegel's Merry Pranks" ends with the title trickster getting the noose.
- Happens once in a while in Fire Emblem:
- In Fire Emblem Gaiden and its remake, Echoes, one of the three goals of an early chapter in Alm's route is to stop Rigelian forces from pulling one on Clive's girlfriend Mathilda. The others are to take the fortress in which she's stashed in, and defeat Desaix aka the culprit of everything. If Mathilda survives the stage, she'll join the cast.
- In Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn, Queen Elincia's bodyguard and childhood friend Lucia is captured by Crimean rebels and nearly hung in front of her with the intention of forcing Elincia to surrender the throne, even when Lucia urges her not to and openly reaffirms her loyalty to her Queen. Cue the Big Damn Heroes by the Greil Mercenaries.
- In Fire Emblem Awakening, King Gangrel forces Queen Emmeryn to stand up atop of a massive cliff and intends to have her thrown off it in front of the Ylissean and Plegian troops if her heir and younger brother, Prince Chrom, doesn't hand him the Fire Emblem itself. Emmeryn thwarts Gangrel's plans via willingly throwing herself off before he can personally execute her.
- At the start of Fire Emblem Fates, King Garon tries to force the Avatar to personally execute Kaze and Rinkah in front of the Nohrian court. The Avatar refuses. Garon attacks him/her and the Avatar keeps refusing, even deflecting Garon's attacks. With a bit of help from Prince Leo, the prisoners are sent away safely in secret; this event sets plants the seeds of Kaze's Undying Loyalty to the Avatar and, in either Birthright or Revelations, Rinkah joining the cast as thanks.
- In the Castlevania series, this is the reason behind Dracula's second descent into villainy (and the beginning of his war against humanity). Sometime prior to the third game, the Dark Lord's wife Lisa--a medicine woman and healer implied to be the reincarnation of his first wife Elisabetha--was tried as a witch and burned at the stake (although SotN has his son Alucard's dream depict this event as Lisa instead being crucified). Drac already had a low opinion of God; this didn't help mankind in the long run either.
- Near the beginning of Modern Warfare, Al-Asad executes the president of an unnamed country ("controlled" by the player) and broadcasts it on national television as a less-than-subtle way to announce that he has taken over.
- In Final Fantasy VII, Tifa and Barrett are captured by the Shinra, whose leader plans to execute them for propaganda purposes. Tifa is even shackled and put inside a gas chamber! She's saved not just by her being flexible enough to undo her shackles with a forgotten key and her feet, but by both a double Deus Ex Machina (one small, one big) and a Heel Face Turn (Reeve/Caith Sith's, though to be fair he wasn't THAT evil compared to the rest of the Shinras).
- Discussed in the courthouse bulletin in Tales of Monkey Island Chapter 4: The Trial and Execution of Guybrush Threepwood, and almost attempted when Judge Grindstump is imposing a death sentence on Guybrush... until LeChuck arrives at the courthouse to clear our hero's name.
- In the Bad Ending of Conquests of the Longbow, Robin is hanged.
- The Sims Medieval: The primary method of execution available is for a Sim to be tossed into "The Pit of Judgement" and forced to do battle with The Pit Beast, a carnivorous tentacled monstrosity. Gathered witnesses will either gasp in horror or cheer on the combatants.
- In the first chapter of The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, you come across a public execution in a town square with a couple people you recognize from the first game. You can save them from their fate, though.
- Tales of Symphonia, Chocolat is about to be hung by the bad guys as the party shows up just in time to save the day.
- In Homestuck, this is the final fate of Karkat's ancestor, the Sufferer. Also doubles as Make an Example of Them.
- 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 goes, "Knowing the Fire Nation, it's probably an execution."
- Actually, in the episode "Avatar Day", Aang himself was set up to be executed for killing a community's leader in a past life (to be fair, it was an accident). 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.