NEW YORK — The Associated Press moved a bizarre story this weekend about an amateur Brazilian soccer match that came to a gruesome end. The trouble began when referee Otavio da Silva ejected a player named Josenir Abreu. An argument ensued, which ended when da Silva pulled a knife and stabbed Abreu to death. Abreu’s friends and relatives were upset, as you might expect, and so they stormed the field and threw stones at da Silva until he died, which you probably didn’t expect. Then, they chopped da Silva’s body into quarters and impaled his head on a stake, which I really, truly hope you didn’t expect.
Quartering dates back to 13th-century England, when Henry III and subsequent rulers used it against men convicted of high treason. Unlucky convicts would be dragged to the gallows and hanged until they were almost but not quite dead. Then they would be disemboweled while still alive, and their entrails would be burnt before their eyes. Finally, the prisoner was beheaded and dismembered, and his remains were displayed as a warning to all those who would conspire against the Crown.
The punishment didn’t really make it over to the Thirteen Colonies. There are very few records of people being hanged, drawn and quartered in America. In 1676, a Rhode Island man named Joshua Tefft was hanged, drawn and quartered after he allegedly took the Narragansett tribe’s side during a skirmish with colonists. Tefft claimed he had been forced to fight, but the colonists didn’t buy his excuse; as Nathaniel Philbrick’s “Mayflower” puts it, “Without English clothes and with a weather-beaten face, he looked like an Indian to the English. Tefft was a troubling example of what happened to a man when the Puritan’s god and culture were stripped away and Native savagery was allowed to take over.” (Indian wars were the heyday of quartering in America. In 1675, a Narragansett chieftain named Metacom was beheaded and quartered after he was killed in a battle with colonists. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, his head was “displayed on a pole for 25 years at Plymouth.”)
While some sources say Tefft is the only man to ever be verifiably hanged, drawn and quartered in America, the punishment itself remained on the books as a deterrent to treason. In 1771, Captain Benjamin Merrill and five other men were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered after leading a group of militiamen against British forces in a tax protest that presaged the Revolutionary War. Evidence indicates that they were only hanged, however, and that the drawing and quartering portion of the sentence was waived. Phew!
Once the British were expelled from the colonies, hanging, drawing and quartering went away as a punishment, likely because it was barbaric and inhumane, and also very messy. The last 200 years or so have pretty much been drawing-and-quartering free, which is part of the reason why this news from Brazil was so surprising. Indeed, the most surprising part of this act of vigilantism is that the soccer fans were able to successfully quarter the referee in question. Did they bring their own machetes to the game?
Peters writes Slate’s crime blog. @slatecrime.
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