Could you please provide detailed definitions of the terms “drawn and quartered” and “keelhauling”? The former conjures up images of having cartoons drawn on one’s body before being pelted with pocket change. The latter could refer to being bound to the underside of a ship, boat, barge, whatever. My daughter’s Disney movie (Peter Pan) refers to both–didn’t they think kids would eventually have access to the Internet? –Ted Jankowski, via the Internet

We’d all better brush up on this stuff–if they’re bringing back the chain gang, can keelhauling be far behind? Not that the latter is a realistic possibility if they nab you for jaywalking in Omaha. Keelhauling was meted out to sailors for minor infractions at sea. Typically the victim was tied to a rope looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard, and then dragged under the keel and up the other side. Since the keel was usually encrusted with barnacles and other crud, the guy’s hide would be scraped raw and he’d think twice about doing whatever it was he’d gotten keelhauled for again. Sometimes they heaped chains and such on him to add injury to insult.

Keelhauling crops up in your Hollywood pirate’s conversation about as often as “shiver me timbers,” but as far as I can tell it was officially enacted as a punishment only by the Dutch. The earliest official mention of keelhauling seems to be a Dutch ordinance of 1560, and the practice wasn’t formally abolished until 1853. If you ever play shuffleboard on a Dutch cruise ship, my advice is: don’t cheat.

Drawing and quartering is another punishment mentioned in kids’ movies only because nobody realizes what’s involved. The statutory punishment for treason in England from 1283 to 1867, drawing and quartering was a multimedia form of execution. First the prisoner was drawn to the place of execution on a hurdle, a type of sledge. (Originally he was merely dragged behind a horse.) Then he was hanged. Cut down while still alive, he was disemboweled and his entrails burned before his eyes. (Some references, such as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, say this step, not dragging behind a horse, is what’s meant by “drawn,” but actual sentences of execution don’t support this view.)

Finally the condemned was beheaded and his body cut into quarters, one arm or leg to a quarter. How exactly the quartering was to be accomplished wasn’t always specified, but on at least some occasions horses were hitched to each of the victim’s limbs and spurred in four directions. An assistant with a sword or cleaver was sometimes assigned to make a starter cut and ease the strain on the animals. The remains were often put on display as a warning to others. Nothing like the good old days, eh? Just don’t anybody mention this to Newt.


Cecil, Cecil, Cecil, you seem to have grabbed the Pythagorean bean issue by the ridiculous end rather than the sublime [July 7]. Of course it looks like Melville got it wrong too. Basically the Pythagoreans thought of beans as a taboo plant because beans were associated with reincarnation. Evidently the hollow tubes of the pods (or of the stems) were a conduit between the underworld and southern Italy, at least. The Greeks used tubes both ways–they used to pour liquid offerings via tubes into tombs to feed the dead. You can look at some of the major writers on classical religion like Jane Ellen Harrison, E.R. Dodds, and others for more information on the use of food and sacred plants in rituals and festivals. Sometimes there’s more to bodily functions than there seems to be. –Don Gecewicz, Chicago

I admit, I didn’t take this with 100 percent seriousness. I just don’t know what gets into me. It was as if an evil voice said, “Cecil, what do you think your readers will find more fascinating, a learned disquisition about reincarnation or a bunch of fart jokes?” You know my tragic choice. If I were teaching at Harvard I’d never get tenure. But I bet there’d never be an empty seat in my class.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

Cecil Adams

Cecil Adams is the world’s most intelligent human being. We know this because: (1) he knows everything, and (2) he is never wrong. For more, see The Straight Dope website and FAQ.