A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What do "drawn and quartered" and "keelhauling" mean?

August 4, 1995

Dear Cecil:

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?

Cecil replies:

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, D&Q 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 disembowelled and his entrails burned before his eyes. (Some references, such as the Encyclopedia Britannica, say this step, and not dragging behind a horse, is what is 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.

A job well done

Dear Cecil:

In your column you suggest that the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry "drawing and quartering" is incorrect in interpreting the term "drawing" to refer to the prisoner's disembowelment.

Although David M. Walker's The Oxford Companion to Law agrees with the Britannica interpretation, we found your interpretation favored by several sources, including the Oxford English Dictionary as well as Sir Frederick Pollock and Frederick William Maitland's The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I. It is clear that in this context "drawing" is more correctly understood as referring to the act of dragging the prisoner to the place of execution, and the entry will be amended at the earliest opportunity.

Thank you for bringing the matter to our attention.

Cecil replies:

Glad to be of service. Anything else I can help you with, let me know.

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