In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Buckbeak (or Witherwings)

is sentenced to death by the Ministry of Magic. Walden Macnair, the Executioner of the Ministry of Magic, is brought to Hogwarts to carry out the sentence.

In the end

the execution didn't actually take place.

There is one thing I can't understand: why kill him with an ax? Why would there be an executioner at all? Wouldn't it be simpler, cleaner, and less torturous for the convict to use a poison, or any other magical way to humanely and legally kill? Even if there isn't a thing like that (which I doubt) it still seems way too brutal to use an ax, especially when you're the Ministry of Magic.

  • 92
    The Ministry of Magic locks innocent people up to be tortured by soul-sucking demons. Surely inhumane execution of animals is well within their purview.
    – Adamant
    Oct 25 '16 at 12:39
  • 28
    Is it that inhumane to behead with a sharp axe? As long as it's sharp. I don't think any animal would see it coming/understand what was coming, and then it should be very quick. Right?
    – ThruGog
    Oct 25 '16 at 14:13
  • 30
    It might be worth noting, while I don't remember anything canon about hippogriffs, several magical creatures are resistant to magic. Also, while it may be assumed that avada kedavra would (probably) work, there is no reason to believe the need to humanely execute an animal would trump the global ban on unforgivable curses.
    – Sidney
    Oct 25 '16 at 14:31
  • 5
    but the unforgivable curse CAN be forgiven sometimes; "Moody" used all three of the unforgivable curses in the course he taught. Oct 25 '16 at 16:11
  • 13
    @KevinMilner Yeeeeeeah, I'm pretty sure that the quotation marks around "Moody" are relevant there. I don't remember anything in the books indicating that the Ministry would have looked favorably on "Moody" using those curses on students. Oct 25 '16 at 16:29

If Nearly Headless Nick has taught us anything, it's that beheading even in magical society was a relatively common occurrence. There's a whole host of headless ghosts at Hogwarts making up the Headless Hunt, they can't all have had accidents while shaving.

You also have to remember that the workings and governance of the Ministry of Magic still seem archaic to us, but have a lot of parallels with authorities of the long ago. And while they have apparently outlawed the death penalty, Azkaban hardly seems like a much better fate.

How would Muggles in the olden days have carried out a death sentence? Hanging used to be the preferred method, but that's hardly practical for a creature of Buckbeak's size. The Chair is a more modern invention and out of the question as it works on "eckeltrickery". That leaves beheading.

As to why they don't use Magical means of execution, I'd put it down to tradition more than anything else. We are talking about the execution of dangerous animals here, not human beings. It's actually quite poignant of the Minister to offer a formal execution; a Muggle vet needs far less authority to put an animal down.

  • 15
    As for hanging I doubt Buckbeaks size is the main concern, I would be more worried about Buckbeaks ability to fly. About using magic it would be rather bad for the ministry to use unforgivable curses if there are alternatives. (+1).
    – Bent
    Oct 25 '16 at 14:59
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    @EvSunWoodard: NHN was killed 1492-10-31. (BTW this is about the only exact date directly stated in the HP series, and has been used to reconstruct the entire timeline!) Oct 25 '16 at 17:54
  • 2
    @Thomas: [citation needed]. Slughorn says: “By an act of evil – the supreme act of evil. By committing murder.” He doesn’t distinguish between magical and non-magical means; on the other hand, not every killing is considered murder, and Dumbledore suggests Snape won’t damage his soul by killing him (with his own approval).
    – chirlu
    Oct 25 '16 at 22:33
  • 2
    I don't think it counts as murder if you kill an animal. Say I shoot the neighbour's dog with a .22. Did I murder the dog? No, I killed it.
    – user72928
    Oct 26 '16 at 4:50
  • 1
    @FighterJet The neighbour may disagree, and may similarly consider killing you "not murder" in response.
    – Medinoc
    Oct 27 '16 at 5:21

There are several components to justice, and capital justice in particular that feed into why decapitation would be the preferred method.

Firstly, as noted by @Cooper, there is clearly a tradition in the wizarding world of decapitation. There is also a paucity of other options: poison is fickle at best, and may not necessarily kill the convicted. This is especially true if the convicted is not human: how poisons work and interact might be difficult to determine - and experimentation is considered far from humane. Hanging is quite difficult to carry out properly in humans, even more so with non-humans - to do humanely requires breaking the neck in the first fall. Obviously this is made difficult in non-humans, and especially flying non-humans.

Magical means of execution are perhaps even trickier: there is only one mentioned death spell (Avada Kedavra) and it is considered quite heinous to use.

Typically the role of a headsman is one that is meant to convey the deliberate intent of the execution. That is, the conviction has been duly deliberated upon and is just, and that while the sentence is not one lightly handed down (in Britain, there is the tradition of covering the head of the sentencing judge so that the sin of killing does not fall upon them) it is fair to assign it in that particular case. A headsman is meant only within the well-specified boundaries of the law, and by extension the notion of justice.

Therefore, it makes sense that the Ministry of Magic has an executioner: formality is a must if there is to be a sense that justice is being carried out. For that sense of formality, it helps to have someone whose title and role is to carry out such sentences.

Given the wide array of potentially convicted beings, the axe makes sense: the removal of the head will in all known cases kill the victim. Axes are well designed for that sort of chopping, given their distribution of weight and ease of use. But there is a deeper tradition that makes this form compelling.

Specifically, within the Celtic histories the head is considered to be the home of one's soul, the center of one's emotions and indeed self and the connection to the divine. The Celtic god Bran, mortally wounded, instructs his followers to strike off his head and carry it back to Britian. One myth has it buried in London, thereby blessing Britian to be safe from invasion (at least until King Arthur foolishly digs it up). The heads of great enemies are similarly either preserved or displayed as either trophies or warnings, and sometimes are said to have magical properties. This is all because beheading is considered the most honorable form of execution.

Connecting this tradition and it's ties to the metaphysical to the wizarding world is easy. The Ministry helps to protect and build it's status as a respectable institution by conferring execution sentences that imply honor to the convicted. Proper execution requires that they be sure they can humanely kill the convicted, and harken to respected traditions of separating the locus of life from this world. Indeed, there are scant other examples of means of execution used at all, for all these reasons.

  • 4
    Another point for decapitation: if the person going to be executed has enough influences, bribing the executioner and a few others and faking a poisoning or a hanging seems pretty easy. Faking a decapitation requires considerable more skills...
    – SJuan76
    Oct 26 '16 at 22:59
  • 1
    @SJuan76 Black Adder tried it. Given the setting, hilarity ensues :)
    – Luaan
    Oct 27 '16 at 7:04
  • Humane? Humane has no relevancy whatever. You think the Dementors were 'humane'? You think that allowing Voldemort to go on and gather strength so as to hold on to power 'humane'? Anyway humans aren't humane contrary to the definition and its etymology. Thus humaneness has no relevance here at all.
    – Pryftan
    Apr 5 '20 at 22:15
  • @Pryftan Everything is relative; if you've accepted that execution is acceptable, then there are more humane and less humane ways to do it. And it absolutely is relevant: many would cease to accept execution as an acceptable sentence if it implied unholy pain inflicted on the convict. So those who are choosing the method are incentivized to make it quick and sure. Apr 7 '20 at 0:24

While "tradition" may certainly pay a role, there's other point I'd like to adress:


Specifically, I suppose the whole thing followed protocol that was laid out long ago with unknown and now irrelevant tradeoffs in mind. Deviating from the protocol puts you on the line. Changing the protocol requires incentive and means. Protocol kinda works so there's not much of an incentive, list of people with means is fairly limited too.

Thus, maybe all parties know that simply AKing would be cleaner and more humane but still follow their book of "Fantastic Beasts and How To Deal With Them".

As for "why" the protocol says so - well, we could only guess. Beheading looks like a catch-all method that would work most of the time, with all exceptions known beforehand.

Well, they could've used beheading spell for that, couldn't they? First of all, they would need beheading spell for that. I'm not sure why Severing Charm does not quite cut it - maybe Ministry worker in the position is not expected to have enough magical power? As for specific spell for beheading - it could have been not invented yet by the time the protocol was laid out.

Which brings us to next point that probably AK was not invented by that time either.

However, there are other options as well. Maybe protocol requires controlling some random muggle (polyjuiced as executor because it's a questionable practice and execution may well be public) and killing the creature via his hands. I mean, there are creatures that curse you via eye contact, creatures that curse you if you drink their blood - surely there may be creatures that curse you if you kill them. Considering that some curses may be subtle (like infertility), slaying magical creatures would be dangerous job. Using disposable proxies would be a reasonable safety measure. Since they'd have to be muggles, non-magical beheading looks like a reasonable choice.

A slightly different angle would be deliberately leaving loophole that allows using muggle contractors to do the deed. Nonmagical method of execution could be even listed as default one so that justifying use of muggle contractor is easier. Maybe there would be some workarounds added to conform with Statue of Secrecy (like paying in muggle money equivalent and wiping memory), maybe not - use of muggles banned but nonmagical method of execution remained because who cares about laws working as intended?

  • Dear lord... imagine every lottery winner ever only won because they unknowingly carried out an execution for the MoM. Oct 27 '16 at 14:24
  • 1
    @djsmiley2k and then their lifes get destroyed waaay more often compared to regular populattion, as if winning a lottery often came with some curse. Oct 27 '16 at 15:18

Just adding my five knuts...

Yes, it would seem more "humane" to just put Buckbeak to "sleep" with poison - or just shooting him... it's after all what we would do to an animal - both pet or wild - if it was old, sick, or had proven too dangerous.

But Buckbeak isn't just a stupid animal - he's a magical creature and possible somewhat sentient. I also think the species is protected. Further more; it's not his owner, a veterinarian, or animal control who've decided - more or less on a whim - to put him down... No, it's been some sort of court-case, where governing body - with involvement of the Minister of Magic himself - more or less sentenced him to death, using applicable laws... Using an executioner thus make sense!

Also remember that the Wizarding World is somewhat backwards... perhaps not as backwards as what I'm going to describe next, but still: There is a long tradition of executing animals - and I mean by law, after sentencing, using an executioner and the common execution-practice for humans at the time. Sometimes they would even dress the animal in human cloths. In medieval times - but also later - animals were executed; both as representatives of their species and for crimes they had committed. There were cases where dogs and pigs where executed for murder, often for killing - and eating - small children. Other times, they may pass laws banning for example rats from a town, and later executing those rats who had broken the law.

You can read about some examples here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animal_trial

Finally, it's of course also a question of justice - or revenge - for the victims... let them see that someone is punished and the law works. And this applies to the arrest, the trial, and the execution.

  • Poison isn't humane. That's not how they put animals 'to sleep'. They don't use poison and they also make them go to sleep (as in general anaesthesia) first to prevent any awareness the what will follow - and it's NOT poison. But of course they were hardly humane anyway.
    – Pryftan
    Apr 5 '20 at 22:16
  • @Pryftan arguably an overdose of anaesthetic is 'a substance that is capable of causing the illness or death of a living organism when introduced or absorbed'. The poison is in the dose, after all. Apr 6 '20 at 6:12

Here are the options for quick death

  • axe
  • gun
  • poison/potion, which (1) probably requires significant preparation (2) is hard to make instant and (3) can be challenging to forceably administer
  • killing curse, which is unforgiveable (perhaps there could be an exception, though the stigma might be sufficient)

I kill small game like rabbits with an axe/hatchet. I kill larger game like wild pigs or deer with a gun.

Given that Ministry doesn't have guns, even when it would be totally convenient, an axe isn't an unreasonable choice.

And remember, the wizarding world has a whole medieval theme going on; an axe fits right in. Just ask Nearly Headless Nick.

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