A garrote or garrote vil (a Spanish word; alternative spellings include garotte and garrotte) is a handheld weapon, most often referring to a ligature of chain, rope, scarf, wire or fishing line used to strangle someone. The term especially refers to an execution device but is sometimes used in assassination, because it can be completely silent. In addition, the garrote is used by some military units. The garrote was employed in Thuggee, whose practitioners used a yellow scarf called a Rumaal.
A garrote can be made out of many different materials, including ropes, tie wraps, fishing lines, nylon, and even guitar strings, telephone cord and piano wire.
Some incidents have involved a stick used to tighten the garrote; the Spanish name actually refers to that very rod, so it is a pars pro toto where the eponymous component may actually be absent. In Spanish, the name can also be applied to a rope and stick used to compress a member as a torture device or to reanimate the victim.
The garrote particularly refers to the execution device used in Spain until as recently as 1973. In Spain, it was abolished, as well as the death penalty, in 1978 with the new constitution. Originally, it was an execution where the convict was killed by hitting him with a club (garrote in Spanish). Later, it was modified and consisted of a seat to restrain the condemned person, while the executioner tightened a metal band around his/her neck with a crank or a wheel until suffocation of the condemned person was accomplished.
A 1901 execution at the old Bilibid Prison, Manila, Philippines
Some versions of this device incorporated a fixed metal blade or spike directed at the spinal cord to hasten the breaking of the neck. Such a device can be seen in the James Bond films The World Is Not Enough, The Living Daylights, and From Russia with Love. The spiked version, called the Catalan garrote, was used as late as 1940 (as well as being used by other Spanish colonies until shortly after the 1898 Spanish-American War). American authorities chose to keep the garrote in the Philippines after that Spanish colony was captured in 1898, and its use was not abolished until 1902 (Act No. 451, passed September 2, 1902). The most notable victims of the garrote in the Philippines were the trio of native priests, the Gomburza, for their alleged participation in the Cavite Mutiny.
In the Ottoman Empire, execution by strangulation was reserved for very high officials and members of the ruling family. Unlike the Spanish version, a bowstring was used instead of a tightening collar.
The garotte (Latin: laqueus) is known to have been used in the first century BC in Rome. It is referred to in accounts of the Catiline conspiracy, where conspirators including Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura were strangled with a laqueus in the Tullianum, and the implement is shown in some early reliefs, e.g., Répertoire de Reliefs grecs et romains, tome I, p. 341 (1919).
In this 15th-century depiction of the burning of Albigensians after an auto de fe, the condemned had been garroted previously. It is one of the first depictions of a garrote. Pedro Berruguete, Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe.
It was also used in the Middle Ages in Spain and Portugal. It was employed during the conquista of Latin America, as attested by the execution of the Inca emperor Atahualpa. In the 1810s, the earliest known metallic versions of garrotes appeared and started to be used in Spain. On 28 April 1828, they would be declared the sole civilian execution method in Spain.
In May 1897, the last public garroting was carried out in Spain, in Barcelona. After that, all executions would be held in private inside prisons (even if the press took photos of some of them).
In 1935 in Spain the legislature adopted a law prohibiting any member of the armed forces from being a Freemason. When the Spanish Civil War began in 1936, the Grand Orient moved its headquarters to Brussels (later moving to Mexico). Part of the result of this edict ended with 80 Masons being garroted to death in Málaga.
The last civilian executions in Spain were those of Pilar Prades in May 1959 and José María Járabo in July 1959. Recent legislation had made many crimes belong to military legislation (like robbery-murder); thus, for some years, prosecutors would rarely request civilian executions. Several executions would still be carried out in Spain, eight of them in the 1970s: the January 1972 firing-squad execution of robber-murderer Pedro Martínez Expósito, a soldier; the March 1974 garrotings of Heinz Ches (real name Georg Michael Welzel) and Salvador Puig Antich, both accused of killing police officers (theirs were the last state-sanctioned garrotings in Spain and in the world); and the firing-squad executions of five militants from ETA and FRAP in September 1975.
With the 1973 Penal Code, prosecutors once again started requesting execution in civilian cases. If the death penalty had not been abolished in 1978 after dictator Francisco Franco’s death, civilian executions would most likely have resumed. The last man to be sentenced to death by garroting was José Luis Cerveto el asesino de Pedralbes in October 1977, for a double robbery-murder in May 1974 (he was also a paedophile). He requested that the democratic government execute him, but his sentence was commuted. Another prisoner whose civilian death sentence was commuted by the new government was businessman Juan Ballot, for the murder by hire of his wife in Navarre in November 1973.
The writer Camilo José Cela requested from the Consejo General del Poder Judicial a garrote to display in his foundation. It was kept in storage in Barcelona and probably had been used for Puig Antich.
It was displayed for a time in the room that the Cela Foundation devoted to his novel La familia de Pascual Duarte until Puig Antich’s family asked for its removal.
Andorra, in 1990, was the last country to abolish the death penalty by garroting, though this method had been unused there since the late 19th century, and the only execution in Andorra in the 20th century, that of Antoni Arenis for fratricide in 1943, was carried out by firing squad because of the unavailability of a garrote executioner at that moment.