Impalement is the penetration of an organism by an object such as a stake, pole, spear or hook, by complete (or partial) perforation of the body, often the central body mass. This article has a primary focus on impalement as a form of execution, how it was performed, and highlighting some places where it was used. The included literature suggests that impalement across a number of cultures was regarded as a very harsh form of capital punishment, as it was used particularly in response to "crimes against the state". Impalement is mentioned as a punishment within the context of war, such as with the suppression of rebels, punishment of traitors or collaborators, or for breaches of military discipline.
Contempt for the state's responsibility for safe roads and trade routes by committing highway robbery/grave theft, violating state policies/monopolies, or subverting standards for trade are also recorded among offenses where impalement was occasionally used as punishment. For example, visiting Egypt for the first time 1657–58 Jean de Thévenot observed a man impaled for using false weights. Offenders have also been impaled for a variety of cultural, sexual and religious crimes. The Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire, whose core areas roughly corresponded to modern-day Germany and Turkey, respectively, are examples of states in which impalement was used. References to impalement are found as early as the 18th century BC, in the old cultures of the Ancient Near East, such as Babylonia, and, later on, within the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The practice of impalement is well attested into the 19th century, for example within the Ottoman Empire, with allegations of the practice reaching into the 20th century. Impalement has been a subject of myth and art. Furthermore, this article restricts itself to a treatment mainly for Old Babylonia, the Assyrian Empire, the Holy Roman Empire as well as for the Ottoman Empire.
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Impalement typically involves the body of a person being pierced through by a long stake, but sharp hooks, either fully penetrating the body, or becoming embedded in it, have also been used.
Impaling an individual along the body length has been documented in several cases, and the merchant Jean de Thevenot provides an eyewitness account of this, from 17th century Egypt, in the case of a man condemned to death for the use of false weights:
They lay the Malefactor upon his Belly, with his Hands tied behind his Back, then they slit up his Fundament with a Razor, and throw into it a handful of Paste that they have in readiness, which immediately stops the Blood. After that they thrust up into his Body a very long Stake as big as a Mans Arm, sharp at the point and tapered, which they grease a little before; when they have driven it in with a Mallet, till it come out at his Breast, or at his Head or Shoulders, they lift him up, and plant this Stake very streight in the Ground, upon which they leave him so exposed for a day. One day I saw a Man upon the Pale, who was Sentenced to continue so for three Hours alive and that he might not die too soon, the Stake was not thrust up far enough to come out at any part of his Body, and they also put a stay or rest upon the Pale, to hinder the weight of his body from making him sink down upon it, or the point of it from piercing him through, which would have presently killed him: In this manner he was left for some Hours, (during which time he spoke) and turning from one side to another, prayed those that passed by to kill him, making a thousand wry Mouths and Faces, because of the pain be suffered when he stirred himself, but after Dinner the Basha sent one to dispatch him; which was easily done, by making the point of the Stake come out at his Breast, and then he was left till next Morning, when he was taken down, because he stunk horridly.
The survival time on the stake is quite variedly reported, from instantly or to a few minutes to a few hours or 1 to 3 days. The Dutch overlords at Batavia, present day Jakarta, seem to have been particularly proficient in prolonging the lifetime of the impaled, one witnessing a man surviving 6 days on the stake, another hearing from local surgeons that some could survive 8 or more days. A critical determinant for survival length seems to be precisely how the stake was inserted: If it went into the "interior" parts, vital organs could easily be damaged, leading to a swift death. However, by letting the stake follow the spine, the impalement procedure would not damage the vital organs, and the person could survive for several days.
Alternatively, the impalement could be transversally performed, for example in the frontal-to-dorsal direction, that is, from front (through abdomen, chest or directly through the heart) to back or vice versa
In the Holy Roman Empire (and elsewhere in Central/Eastern Europe), women who killed their newborn could be liable to be placed in an open grave, and have a stake hammered into their heart. A detailed description of an execution in this manner comes from 17th century Košice (then in Hungary, now in eastern Slovakia). A woman was to be executed for infanticide, the executioner had two assistants to help him. First, a grave, some one-and-a-half ell deep was dug. The woman was placed within it, her hands and feet secured by driving nails through them. Then, the executioner placed a small thorn bush upon her face. He then placed and held vertically a wooden stave at her heart, while his assistants piled earth on the woman. Her head, though, was kept free of earth, at the behest of the clerics, because that would have quickened her death process. Once the earth had been piled upon her, the executioner grabbed with a pair of tongs a rod made of iron, which had been made red hot. He positioned the glowing iron rod beside the wooden stave, and as one of his assistants hammered the rod in, the other assistant emptied a trough of earth upon the woman's head. It is said that a scream was heard, and that the earth actually moved upwards for a moment, before all was over.
de Tournefort, travelling on botanical research in the Levant 1700–02, observed both ordinary longitudinal impalement, but also a method called "gaunching", in which the condemned is hoisted up by means of a rope over a bed of sharp metal hooks. He is then released, and depending on how the hooks enter his body, he may survive in impaled condition for a few days. 40 years earlier than de Tournefort, de Thévenot described much the same process, adding it was seldom used, because it was regarded as too cruel. Some 80 years prior to de Thevenot, in 1579, Hans Jacob Breuning von Buchenbach witnessed a variant of the gaunching ritual. Here, on the horizontal cross-bar of the gallows, a large iron hook, as thick as an arm at its thickest, was fixtured. The individual was forced upon this hook, piercing him from the abdomen through his back, so that he hung from it, hands, feet and head downwards. On top of the cross bar, the executioner situated himself and performed various tortures on the impaled man below him.
While gaunching as de Tournefort describes involves the erection of a scaffold, it seems that in the city of Algiers, hooks were embedded in the city walls, and on occasion, people were thrown upon them from the battlements. Thomas Shaw, who was chaplain for the Levant Company stationed at Algiers during the 1720s, describes the various forms of executions practiced as follows:
"..but the Moors and Arabs are either impaled for the same crime, or else they are hung up by the neck, over the battlements of the city walls, or else they are thrown upon the chingan or hooks that are fixed all over the walls below, where sometimes they break from one hook to another, and hang in the most exquisite torments, thirty or forty hours
According to one source, these hooks in the wall as an execution method were introduced with the construction of the new city gate in 1573. Before that time, gaunching as described by de Tournefort was in use. As for the actual frequency of throwing persons on hooks in Algiers, Capt. Henry Boyde notes that in his own 20 years of captivity there, he knew of only one case where a Christian slave who had murdered his master had met that fate, and "not above" two or three Moors besides. Taken captive in 1596, the barber-surgeon William Davies relates something of the heights involved when thrown upon hooks (although it is somewhat unclear if this relates specifically to the city of Algiers, or elsewhere in the Barbary States): "Their ganshing is after this manner: he sitteth upon a wall, being five fathoms high, within two fathoms of the top of the wall; right under the place where he sits, is a strong iron hook fastened, being very sharp; then he is thrust off the wall upon this hook, with some part of his body, and there he hangeth, sometimes two or three days, before he dieth." Davies adds that "these deaths are very seldom", but that he had personally witnessed it 
A slightly variant way of executing people by means of impalement, was to force an iron meat hook beneath a person's ribs, and hang him up to die slowly. This technique was, in 18th century Ottoman-controlled Bosnia called the cengela, but the practice is also attested, for example, from 1770s Dutch Suriname, as a punishment meted out to rebellious slaves.
A recurring horror story on many websites and popular media outlets is that Japanese soldiers during World War II inflicted bamboo torture upon prisoners of war. The victim was supposedly tied securely in place above a young bamboo shoot. Over several days, the sharp, fast growing shoot would first puncture, then completely penetrate the victim's body, eventually emerging through the other side. The cast of the TV program MythBusters investigated bamboo torture in a 2008 episode and found that a bamboo shoot can penetrate through several inches of ballistic gelatin in three days. For research purposes, ballistic gelatin is considered comparable to human flesh, and the experiment thus supported the viability of this form of torture, if not its historicity.
The earliest known use of impalement as a form of execution occurred in civilizations of the Ancient Near East. For example, the Code of Hammurabi, promulgated about 1772 BC by the Babylonian king Hammurabi specifies impaling for a woman who killed her husband for the sake of another man. In the late Isin/Larsa period, from about the same time, it seems that, in some city states, mere adultery on the wife's part (without murder of her husband mentioned) could be punished by impalement. From the royal archives of the city of Mari (at the Syrian-Iraqi border by the western bank of Euphrates), most of it also roughly contemporary to Hammurabi, it is known that soldiers taken captive in war were on occasion impaled. Roughly contemporary with Babylonia under Hammurabi, king Siwe-Palar-huhpak of Elam, a country lying directly east of Babylonia in present day Iran, made official edicts in which he threatened the allies of his enemies with impalement, among other terrible fates. For acts of perceived great sacrilege, some individuals, in diverse cultures, have been impaled for their effrontery. For example, roughly 1200 BC, merchants of Ugarit express deep concern to each other that a fellow citizen is to be impaled in the Phoenician town Sidon, due to some "great sin" committed against the patron deity of Sidon.
Evidence by carvings and statues is found as well, for example from Neo-Assyrian empire (rough dating, 934-609 BCE). The image of the impaled Judeans is a detail from the public commemoration of the Assyrian victory in 701 BC after the Siege of Lachish, under King Sennacherib (r.705-681 BC), who proceeded similarly against the inhabitants of Ekron during the same campaign. From Sennacherib's father Sargon II's time (r.722-705 BC), a relief from his palace at Khorsabad shows the impalement of 14 enemies during an attack on the city of Pazashi. A peculiarity about the "Neo-Assyrian" way of impaling was that the stake was "driven into the body immediately under the ribs", rather than along the full body length. For the Neo-Assyrians, mass executions seem to have been not only designed to instill terror and to enforce obedience, but also, it can seem, as proofs of their might that they took pride in. For example, Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (r.883-859 BC) was evidently proud enough of his bloody work that he committed it to monument and eternal memory as follows:
"I cut off their hands, I burned them with fire, a pile of the living men and of heads over against the city gate I set up, men I impaled on stakes, the city I destroyed and devastated, I turned it into mounds and ruin heaps, the young men and the maidens in the fire I burned"
Although impalement of rebels and enemies is particularly well-attested from Neo-Assyrian times, the 14th century BC Mitanni king Shattiwaza charges his predecessor, the usurper Shuttarna III for having delivered unto the (Middle) Assyrians several nobles, who had them promptly impaled. Some scholars have said, though, that it is only with king Ashur-bel-kala (r.1074-1056) that we have solid evidence that punishments like flaying and impaling came into use. From the Middle Assyrian period, we have evidence about impalement as a form of punishment relative to other types of perceived crimes as well. The law code discovered and deciphered by Dr. Otto Schroeder contains in its paragraph 51 the following injunction against abortion:
If a woman with her consent brings on a miscarriage, they seize her, and determine her guilt. On a stake they impale her, and do not bury her; and if through the miscarriage she dies, they likewise impale her and do not bury her
Some controversy exist between different Bible translations concerning the actual fate of the 5th century BC Persian minister Haman and his ten sons, whether they were impaled or hanged For example the English Standard Version, Esther 5:14 opts for hanging, whereas The New International Reader's version opts for impalement. The Assyriologist Paul Haupt opts for impalement in his 1908 essay "Critical notes on Esther", while Benjamin Shaw has an extended discussion of the topic on the website ligonier.org from 2012.
Although conclusive evidence might be wanting either way for whether Hebrew Law allowed for impalement, or just hanging, the Neo-Assyrian method of impalement as seen in the carvings could, perhaps, equally easily be seen as a form of hanging upon a pole, rather than focusing upon the stake's actual penetration of the body.
From John Granger Cook, 2014, - "Stipes is Seneca's term of the object used for impalement. This narrative and his Ep. 14.5 are the only two textually expliciit refences of impalement in Latin texts..."
Within the Holy Roman Empire, in article 131 of the 1532 Constitutio Criminalis Carolina, the following punishment was stated for women found guilty of infanticide. Generally, they should be drowned, but the law code allowed for, in particularly severe cases, that the old punishment could be implemented: that is, the woman would be buried alive, and then a stake would be driven through her heart. Similarly, burial alive, combined with transversal impalement is attested as an early execution method for people found guilty of adultery. For example, from the 1348 statutes of Zwickau, it seems that an adulterous couple could be punished in the following way: They were to be placed on top of each other in a grave, with a layer of thorns between them. Then, a single stake was to be hammered through them. A similar punishment by impalement for a proven male adulterer is mentioned in a 13th-century ordinance for Bohemian mining town Iglau, whereas in a 1340 Vienna statute, the husband of a woman caught in flagrante in adultery could, if he wished to, demand that his wife and her lover be impaled, alternatively demand a monetary restitution. Occasionally, women found guilty of witchcraft have been condemned to be impaled. In 1587 Kiel, 101-year old Sunde Bohlen was, on being condemned as a witch, buried alive, and afterwards had a stake driven through her heart.
Rapists of virgins/children are also attested to have been buried alive, with a stake driven through them. In one such judicial tradition, the rapist was to be placed in an open grave, and the rape victim was ordered to make the three first strokes on the stake herself; the executioners then finishing the impalement procedure. Serving as an example of the fate of a child molester, the 1. August 1465 in Zurich, Switzerland, Ulrich Moser was condemned to be impaled, for having sexually violated 6 girls between the ages four and nine. His clothes were taken off, and he was placed on his back. His arms and legs were stretched out, each secured to a pole. Then a stake was driven through his navel down into the ground. Thereafter, people left him to die.
The above cases are examples of transversal impalement; cases of longitudinal impalement can be found as well, typically in the context of war, or as a punishment of robbers, the latter being attested as practice in Central/Eastern Europe.
Individuals perceived of collaborating with the enemy have, on occasion, been impaled. For example, during the 30 years' war in 1632, the German officer Fuchs was impaled on suspicion of defecting to the Swedish, a Swedish corporal was likewise impaled for trying to defect to the Germans, whereas in 1654, under the Ottoman siege of the Venetian garrison at Crete, several peasants were impaled for supplying proviant to the besieged. Likewise in 1685, some Christians were impaled by the Hungarians for having provianteered the Turks.
In 1677, a particularly brutal German General Kops leading the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I designed to keep Hungary dominated by the Germans, rather than to become dominated by the Turks, began impaling and quartering his Hungarian subjects/opponents. An opposing general for the Hungarians, Wesselényi, responded in kind, by flaying alive Imperial troops, and fixing sharp iron hooks in fortress walls, upon which he threw captured Germans to be impaled. Finally, Emperor Leopold I had had enough of the mutual bloodshed, and banished Kops in order to establish a needed cessation of hostilities. After the Treaty of The Hague (1720), Sicily fell under Habsburg rule, but the locals deeply resented the German overlords. One parish priest (who exhorted his parishioners to kill the Germans) is said to have broken into joy when a German soldier arrived at his village, exclaiming it was gone a whole eight days since last he killed a German, and shot the soldier off his horse. The priest was later impaled. In the short-lived 1784 Horea Revolt against the Austrians and Hungarians, the rebels gained hold of two officers they promptly impaled. On their side, the imperial troops got hold of Horea's 13 year old son, and impaled him. That seems to have merely inflamed the rebel leader's determination, although the revolt was quashed shortly afterwards.
From 1748 and onwards, German regiments organized manhunts on "robbers" in Hungary/Croatia, impaling those caught.
Occasionally, individual murderers were perceived to have been so heinous that standard punishments like beheading or to be broken on the wheel were not regarded as sufficiently commensurate to their crimes, and extended rituals of execution that might include impalement were devised. The case of Paul Wasansky may serve as an example here.
Paul Wasansky, who in 1570 was executed in Ivančice in nowadays Czech Republic on account of 124 confessed murders (he was a roaming highwayman), underwent a particularly gruelling execution procedure: First, his limbs were cut off and his nipples were ripped off with glowing pincers. He was then flayed, afterwards impaled and finally roasted alive. The pamphlet, which purports to give Wasansky's verbatim confession, does not record how Wasansky was apprehended, nor what means of torture was used to extract his confessions.
During the 15th century, Vlad III ("Dracula"), Prince of Wallachia, is credited as the first notable figure to prefer this method of execution during the late medieval period, and became so notorious for its liberal employment that among his several nicknames he was known as Vlad the Impaler. After being orphaned, betrayed, forced into exile and pursued by his enemies, he retook control of Wallachia in 1456. He dealt harshly with his enemies, especially those who had betrayed his family in the past, or had profited from the misfortunes of Wallachia. Though a variety of methods was employed, he has been most associated with his use of impalement. The liberal use of capital punishment was eventually extended to Saxon settlers, members of a rival clan, and criminals in his domain, whether they were members of the boyar nobility or peasants, and eventually to any among his subjects that displeased him. Following the multiple campaigns against the invading Ottoman Turks, Vlad would never show mercy to his prisoners of war. The road to Vlad's capital of Wallachia eventually became inundated in a "forest" of 20,000 impaled and decaying corpses, and it is reported that Mehmet II's invading army of Turks turned back to Constantinople in 1462 after encountering thousands of impaled corpses along the Danube River. Woodblock prints from the era portray his victims impaled from either the frontal or the dorsal aspect, but not vertically.
As an example of how Vlad Țepeș soon became iconic for all horrors unimaginable, the following pamphlet from 1521 pours out putative incidents like this one:
He let children be roasted; those, their mothers were forced to eat. And (he) cut off the breasts of women; those, their husbands were forced to eat. After that, he had them all impaled
Longitudinal impalement is an execution method often attested within the Ottoman Empire, for a variety of offenses, and a review of some typical cases follows below.
The Ottoman Empire used impalement during, and before, the last siege of Constantinople in 1453. For example, during the buildup phase to the great siege the year before, in 1452, the sultan declared that all ships sailing up or down through the Bosphorus had to anchor at his fortress there, for inspection. One Venetian captain, Antonio Rizzo, sought to defy the ban, but his ship was hit by a cannonball. He and his crew were picked up from the waters, the crew members to be beheaded (or sawn asunder according to Niccolò Barbaro), whereas Rizzo was impaled. In the early days of the siege in May 1453, contingents of the Ottoman army made mop-up operations at minor fortifications like Therapia and Studium. The surrendered soldiers, some 40 individuals from each place, were impaled.
Within the Ottoman Empire, some civil crimes (rather than rebel activity/treasonous behavior), such as highway robbery, might be punished by impalement. For some periods at least, executions for civil crimes were claimed to have been rather rare in the Ottoman Empire. For example, Aubry de La Motraye, lived in the realm for 14 years from 1699 to 1713 and claimed that he hadn't heard of twenty thieves in Constantinople during that time. As for highway robbers, who sure enough had been impaled, Aubry heard of only 6 such cases during his residence there. Staying at Aleppo from 1740–54, Alexander Russell notes that in the 20 years gone by, there were no more than "half a dozen" public executions there. Jean de Thévenot, traveling in the Ottoman Empire and its territories like Egypt in the late 1650s emphasizes the regional variations in impalement frequency. Of Constantinople and Turkey, de Thévenot writes that impalement was "not much practiced" and "very rarely put in practice." An exception he highlighted was the situation of Christians in Constantinople. If a Christian spoke or acted out against the "Law of Mahomet", or consorted with a Turkish woman, or broke into a mosque, then he might face impalement unless he converted to Islam. In contrast, de Thévenot says that in Egypt impalement was a "very ordinary punishment" against the Arabs there, whereas Turks in Egypt were strangled in prison instead of being publicly executed like the natives. Thus, the actual frequency of impalement within the Ottoman Empire varied greatly, not only from time to time, but also from place to place, and between different population groups in the empire.
Highway robbers were still impaled into the 1830s, but one source says the practice was rare by then. Travelling to Smyrna and Constantinople in 1843, Stephen Massett was told by a man who witnessed the event, that "just a few years ago", a dozen or so robbers were impaled at Adrianople. All of them, however, had been strangled prior to impalement. Writing around 1850, the archaeologist Austen Henry Layard mentions that the latest case he was acquainted with happened "about ten years ago" in Baghdad, on four rebel Arab sheikhs.
Impalement of pirates, rather than highway robbers, is also occasionally recorded. In October 1767, for example, Hassan Bey, who had preyed on Turkish ships in the Euxine Sea for a number of years, was captured and impaled, even though he had offered 500.000 ducats for his pardon
During the Ottoman rule of Greece, impalement became an important tool of psychological warfare, intended to put terror into the peasant population. By the 18th century, Greek bandits turned guerrilla insurgents (known as klephts) became an increasing annoyance to the Ottoman government. Captured klephts were often impaled, as were peasants that harbored or aided them. Victims were publicly impaled and placed at highly visible points, and had the intended effect on many villages who not only refused to help the klephts, but would even turn them in to the authorities. The Ottomans engaged in active campaigns to capture these insurgents in 1805 and 1806, and were able to enlist Greek villagers, eager to avoid the stake, in the hunt for their outlaw countrymen.
Impalement was, on occasion, aggravated with being set over a fire, the impaling stake acting as a spit, so that the impaled victim might be roasted alive. Among other severities, Ali Pasha, an Albanian-born Ottoman noble who ruled Ioannina, had rebels, criminals, and even the descendants of those who had wronged him or his family in the past, impaled and roasted alive. For example, Thomas Smart Hughes, visiting Greece and Albania in 1812–13, says the following about his stay in Ioannina:
"Here criminals have been roasted alive over a slow fire, impaled, and skinned alive; others have had their extremities chopped off, and some have been left to perish with the skin of the face stripped over their necks. At first I doubted the truth of these assertions, but they were abundantly confirmed to me by persons of undoubted veracity. Some of the most respectable inhabitants of loannina assured me that they had sometimes conversed with these wretched victims on the very stake, being prevented from yielding to their torturing requests for water by fear of a similar fate themselves. Our own resident, as he was once going into the serai of Litaritza, saw a Greek priest, the leader of a gang of robbers, nailed alive to the outer wall of the palace, in sight of the whole city."
During the Greek War of Independence (1821–1832), Athanasios Diakos, a klepht and later a rebel military commander, was captured after the Battle of Alamana (1821), near Thermopylae, and after refusing to convert to Islam and join the Ottoman army, he was impaled, and died after three days. Diakos became a martyr for a Greek independence and was later honored as a national hero.
One of the worst atrocities committed by the Greeks was the massacre following the Siege of Tripolitsa in October 1821, where several thousands were massacred, many impaled and roasted. To believe, however, that the massacre at Tripolitsa was the only, or the first atrocity committed by the Greeks would be wrong. Just two months earlier, in August 1821, for example, about the same time that some 40 Ionians were impaled by the Turks, Greek insurgents chose to roast at least as many Turks alive at Hydra William St Clair, in his "That Greece Might Still Be Free" warns against the skewed perception the Greek War of Independence received in Europe, and writes:
The Turkish atrocities against the Greek population were (...) witnessed with horror by many Europeans and soon were reported all over Europe. The initial atrocities in Greece, on the other hand, were seen by very few Europeans. If any were reported they were put down to justifiable hatred arising from extreme provocation, and explained away in the same terms as the occasional atrocities committed by European armies
Impaling perceived rebels was an attested practice in other parts of the empire as well, such as the 1809 quelling of a Bosnian revolt, and during the Serbian Revolution (1804–1835) against the Ottoman Empire, about 200 Serbs were impaled in Belgrade in 1814, for example. Furthermore, historian James J. Reid, in his Crisis of the Ottoman Empire: Prelude to Collapse 1839–1878 notes several instances of later use, in particular in times of crises, and ordered by military commanders(if not, that is, directly ordered by the supreme authority possessed by the Sultan). As examples, he notes late instances of impalement during rebellions (rather than cases of robbery) like the Bosnian revolt of 1852, within the 1860s Macedonian times of trouble, during the Cretan insurrection of 1866–69, and during the insurrections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1876–77.
Aurora Mardiganian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide of 1915–1923, recalled sixteen young Armenian girls being "crucified" by their Ottoman tormentors. The film "Auction of Souls" (1919), which was based on her book "Ravished Armenia", showed the victims nailed to crosses. However, almost 70 years later Mardiganian revealed that the scene was inaccurate and went on to describe what was actually an impalement:
"The Turks didn't make their crosses like that. The Turks made little pointed crosses. They took the clothes off the girls. They made them bend down, and after raping them, they made them sit on the pointed wood, through the vagina. That's the way they killed - the Turks. Americans have made it a more civilized way. They can't show such terrible things."
A Russian clergyman visiting ravaged Christian villages in northwestern Persia during the Assyrian genocide found the remains of several impaled people. He notes: "The bodies were so firmly fixed, in some instances, that the stakes could not be withdrawn; it was necessary to saw them off and bury the victims as they were."
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