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The Garrote Vil and the Minister of Executions

By Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, History Add comments

Execution by Garrote Vil. Cuba 1880 (Photo: Library of Congress)

The Garrote Vil or “strangling machine” was the preferred method of execution used in Spain and its colonies since 1832. In Cuba,  the iron collar that strangled the convict was aided by a sharp spike which pierced the person’s spinal cord at the neck’s base. The system fell out of favor in 1911, when president Gómez pledged to modernize the prison system up to U.S. standards, build new prisons, and introduce a humane treatment of Cuba’s unfortunates that included replacing the garrote by the American electric chair, and tattoo “a number of identification upon the body of those serving long prison terms.” In 1924, however, the ruthless president Machado reintroduced the garrote.

On July 9, 1926, for the first time in twenty years, Salvatore Aguilera, from Sagua de Tanamo (in today’s Holguin province) was the first to be garroted. He was sentenced in a Santiago court for allegedly assassinating his own aunt.  His executioner would be Francisco de Paula Romero, another convict serving a murder sentence in Havana, on the other side of the island. Romero volunteered for the job in exchange for 16 pieces of gold and several months off his sentence. He was named “Minister of Executions”  and moved to an individual cell adjacent to the death chamber. A few days before Aguilera’s execution was to be carried out, Romero, the garrote and a guard were put on a train and traversed the island.

This first execution did not go altogether smoothly. The convict, Mr. Aguilera, became hysterical and needed to be sedated and dragged from his cell to the death chamber.  There, to accompany him, were only his spiritual adviser, the official witnesses, two physicians, the executioner Francisco de Paula Romero, and his assistant, Frank Davis, a 59 year-old Negro veteran of the Spanish-American war,  also a convict, serving a two-year sentence for robbery. Before Aguilera took his sit in the garrote, his feet were tied up and he was allowed to smoke a cigar, given to him by another prisoner. As he was giving his last puffs, he looked with disgust at the assistant executioner and expressed his disappointment at him. Davis had been a fellow inmate of his for a whole year, and now he showed no emotion at assisting in his execution.  Then, while Romero placed the garrote collar around his neck,  he proclaimed his innocence.  Romero then leaned over him and asked for his forgiveness. With a faint smile, Aguilera nodded.  Then the executioner pressed the lever, and minutes later Aguilera was pronounced dead. At that point, the executioner Romero went into hysterics, and had to be transported to a cell, where he was attended by a physician. Davis, however, was reportedly unaffected.

The garrote was ordered left in Santiago’s jail, where several other condemned were waiting to be executed. Davis aided on a second execution and was pardoned as a reward.  Romero returned afterwords to Havana and he was also pardoned after two years of service and nine executions. He then applied to become a prison chaplain in the new Isle of Pines penitentiary (modeled after the one in Joliet, IL)  but was rejected for lack of qualifications. He then returned home to Eastern Cuba and became a farmer. His assistant in Havana, Enrique Pineda, another murderer serving a life sentence, took over in September of 1929, when he executed his own accomplice in the murder for which he had been charged.

The garrote vil was replaced by death by firing squad in 1935.

(sources: the Pittsburgh Gazette, The New York Times, and The Washington Post – American newspapers dutifully reported about Cuban executions in detail)


5 Responses to “The Garrote Vil and the Minister of Executions”

  1. Lourdes Says:

    Civilización o Barbarie!! Vaya! Bien heredado del Santo Oficio!

  2. Etnológicas | Penúltimos Días Says:

    […] —EthnoCuba: The Garrote Vil and the Minister of Executions. […]

  3. William Craig Says:

    Wow! Amazing, awful images. I would really like to know more about them Is the top one taken inside the carcel at Santiago? (As you probably know, the carcel is now the city archive and office of the city historian.) How can I find out where it was taken? And what about the second picture: Is it from Santiago, in the Morro there, or from Havana or elsewhere? Many thanks for any help, plus guidance to any places more of these images can be found online.

  4. Jesus Tattoo Says:

    Some crazy machines… Is there any other place I can find mire about 1st image (place and other details) thanks… just makes you think what is going trough head of person on chair… and other one, really shame for humanity…

  5. javea Says:

    The Garrote Vil and the Minister of Executions is just crazy. That’s not a fast execution. It is a torture weapon. Very informative post, and I NEVER actually knew they had things like this 🙁

    again, thanks for the post.

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