Until the 20th century the penal systems are characterised by their severeness. This severeness does not refer only to the penalisation of acts that nowadays are not considered as criminal, but also to the extreme sentences imposed to the convicts.
In other articles we saw how one could be sentenced to prison, even for a small debt. We also saw that imprisonment, under the conditions of those times (before the 20th c.) was placing the lives of the convict under direct threat.
But the lives of many individuals brought in the courts of law, were not just in danger. The death penalty was once pretty common, for a large variety of offences. Needless to say that the evidence provided in the courts were usually insufficient from the modern point of view, and the judicial resolutions were mostly based on testimonies and avowals coming out from torture, putting their value under question.
It was this situation that drove the Italian Cesare Becaria to publish in Milan an essay “On crimes and Penalties”, in the Enlightenment era. In this text he formulated a series of principles that should dominate Justice, pointing out the principle of correction, instead of the extermination of the offender.
Unfortunately for our ancestors, this principle and the calls for improvement of the conditions under which Justice was operating, were adopted many years later. Humanitarianism was not considered as a commitment for the authorities in the past. Their aim was primely their own security and the maintenance of order, and hence Justice’s mission was mainly emulation.
Emulation, as a cause, was fulfilled both by the death penalty and the procedure of its execution. The convict was pilloried on his way to the scaffold and the executions were carried out with brutal and painful procedures: the decapitation with a broadaxe and the gallows were the most common. Note that during the French Revolution the guillotine was invented as a more “humanitarian” and painless means of execution of the death penalty, and it was used until the beginning of the 20th century. In Corfu, the last execution with the guillotine was carried out in 1887 in the grounds of the New Fortress (Bonates’s Case)
Regardless of the crime committed by or inputted to the convict, it is a fact that the death penalty is unacceptable for humanitarian reasons and matters of justice. The death penalty is not reversible, it does not aim to the correction but revenge, and it causes negative feelings and traumas to the relatives of the executed. That’ s why the European civilisation has unanimously rejected the death penalty.
The following document from the Historical Archives of Corfu pictures the last tragic hours of a convict before his execution on some Spring’s day of the 16th century.
LAST WILL OF A MAN SENTENCED TO BE DECAPITATED (translated)
ƒ 30th of May, in the courtyard of the upper prison in the Castle, where is Zacharias Manetas, who tomorrow is going, under the decision of the Glorious Government, to be decapitated for his crime. He called for me, as a notary, to write his last will, in order to set his affairs. He set his own goods and he asks for forgiveness by the Resurrected God and every man. He wishes, as he said, that his wife, becoming now a widow, to be the mistress of all his own goods until the end of her life. And the boy, Georgios, to be the heir of his own assets. He satisfied Miser Perotas Polites for which he owed him. As he says, he received a young ox from Miser Tzortzes Sordinas and he trained it.....
H.A.C., Notaries, Vol. M 180, p. 181v
In this will, the notary does not reveal the reason that Zacharias Manetas was sentenced to death. The information we extract from the text – except from the obvious ones – is the rush or the disturbance of the notary and the collectedness of the goner.
Indeed, the handwriting gradually becomes hasty and indecipherable, either because of emotion (especially at the point that Zacharias refers to his wife and child), or because of lack of time. Nevertheless, the goner is collected enough to “set” his affairs, i.e. to settle his pendant accounts and his assets. Maybe he managed to stand as collected before the executioner’s broad axe.
 See Σ. Κατσαρός, Ιστορία της Κέρκυρας, 20032, pp. 417-21.
Thiw article was written by Andreas Grammenos and was published in the newspaper "Η Κερκυρα Σημερα"