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A Handbook On Hanging

Charles Duff (1928; 1961; rpt. 2001)


lndeed it may be claimed without false modesty that here is the only book in the language which presents a comprehensive and well-focused account of hanging. Other books on the subject have their merits but, in my opinion, even when they are better than this one, they do not treat either hanging or hangmen with the affection these both deserve. (xxv)

The history of killing is the history of the world, and it is therefore hardly surprising to find that in nothing has man shown greater ingenuity than in inventing and perfecting methods and machines for killing his fellow man. (3-4)

What science is devoted to these arts of governmental homicide and genocide! How much of the most innocent and humane taxpayer's hard-earned (or even hard-fiddled) money is painfully extracted from him or her and, quite against his or her will, officially dedicated to research into the best forms of slaughter, carnage, poisoning (quick or slow, as may be required), asphyxiation, suffocation, paralyzation, atomization, and so forth in accordance with the imaginatively envisaged requirements of that great question-mark familiarly known as "The Next War." (4)

There is one thing which, I frankly confess, still greatly puzzles me and has so far defeated all my researches. I cannot explain why it is that so many of the hangmen of England have been and are of the Unitarian persuasion, though I have noted that most of these Unitarians show their common humanity towards the about-to-be-hanged by a last-minute assurance that "It won't hurt," sometimes varied thus: "It won't hurt a bit." Could anything be more Christian or, for that matter, more humane? The scaffold does unite lost souls. (10)

Another idea which occurred to me was that a uniform should be devised for the public hangman in England, as for certain other branches of the State services: the Army, Navy, and Air Force, for example, which are employed for the killing or maiming of foreign enemies in time of war. In time the public would grow to love and respect the uniform of the hangman, just as they now love and respect the uniform of other persons in Her Majesty's employment. Are not the London police regarded as marvelous and is not their uniform highly esteemed? Who does not adore the bright trappings of the Guards regiments or indeed of the gentlemen who stand outside picture palaces or great hotels? Women would soon learn to "fall for" the public executioner, who would become as much sought after as a crooner or film star. It has indeed been a very complete mystery to me and to my friends why no uniform has been given to so exalted a personage as the hangman—especially when one considers all that is meant by the word "uniform." (20)

Bidding the prisoner au revoir, he sometimes (as the late Mr. Berry used to do) handed him a religious tract, or a few lines of verse specially composed by himself to meet the circumstances of the case. This is no longer permissible. Who knows what the nation loses by the unjust suppression of the poetic impulse in our hangmen? Just think of the modern verse we are losing! I intend some day to take up this question with the Poet Laureate. (24)

Apropos there was a long period of the God-fearing days of the Middle Ages during which animals were publicly tried and, if found guilty of the heinous charges in their indictments, duly executed—by hanging among the variety of ways recorded. A classic was written on the subject.But as, in spite of anything that can be laid to the contrary, in this book we are dealing with human beings, we cannot spare space for the poor animals. The story of their sufferings could hardly be borne by an animal-loving people such as the English. One must apologize for the omission. (31)

Civil Servants can be cold-blooded in secret if humane in public. (40)

There are around London many admirable open spaces suitable for the execution of criminals. Shambles could be appointed in convenient parts of the metropolis, say in Hyde Park, Regent's Park, Trafalgar Square, and on the Horse Guards Parade for the special convenience of Members of the Cabinet and their families, who from rooms in No. 10 Downing Street, the Foreign Office, the Treasury, etc., could be provided with a good view and be able to contemplate the hangman at work in reality and not in imagination. Binoculars could bring it all closer. Spectators would realize that the hangman's work is not all beer and skittles, and they would see their representative as a very worthy being, a great patriot, and a man of true virtue, acting in their name and fulfilling an unpleasant task in an estimable manner. They do not at present fully realize the virtue and quality of his act. (45)

As a final wind-up, the Archbishop of Canterbury or his deputy should say the Lord's Prayer, emphasizing the words, "Thy Will be done on earth as is in Heaven." By way of further variety, an eminent theologian of modernist brand should make a speech showing that Christ was mistaken in His whole idea of redemption; that the Sermon on the Mount does not stand the test of higher criticism; or anything equally relevant that comes into his head. (46)

Not very long ago hanging was extremely popular. A hundred and sixty years ago there were 200 offenses for which a man, woman or child could be hanged. One could be hanged for cutting down a tree or for associating with gypsies: but, very strangely, not for associating with politicians. (46)

A London fop once threw a coin to a lad for holding his horse outside the London Players' Theatre. Stung by the patronizing manner of the gift, the lad decided to do better things. He wrote Hamlet.
So away with all sentimental tosh, and let us get on with the hanging. (51)

It will be obvious even to the most innocent reader that not to hang pregnant women may be one way of encouraging sexual misconduct as a means to escape the gallows. Is it not ridiculous and immoral that a woman who has committed murder should escape the death penalty by amusing herself with the first man she meets? There is on record the case of a pregnant woman who procured an abortion, and after that event was arrested on a murder charge. She was found guilty and duly hanged; had she not procured the abortion, she would be alive today. (61)

Let us turn now to a depressing aspect of hanging, and consider a few of its immediate effects. (69)

The mental sadism from which the public suffers could be more adequately catered for than at present, and the freedom which our Press enjoys, and the good taste for which it is noted, could be exploited to the full. As one who has the interests both of English journalism and of hanging at heart, I propose to offer certain suggestions to the editors of our great newspapers, in order that they may better provide for the requirements of a news-loving public. The paper shortage in Britain due to World War II does not continue as we prepare for WorId War III. (88)

We do not have enough in the way of hangmen's correspondence to make up what would be a very revealing anthology. English executioners have a reputation for discretion of which they have every reason to be proud. (96)

Like Ireland, Scotland has no corps of hangmen of its own: a grave weakness in an otherwise strong country. (96)

It is a difficult problem for prison authorities to find ways and means of amusing men who are awaiting strangulation, and I doubt my own ability to do so. As a rule condemned men are hard to please. (97)

In 1950 there appeared in Britain an illuminating work by George Riley Scott full of choice anecdotes about the old hangmen on the national scroll of honor. In the rich and honest past it was easy to collect information about hanging and hangmen. Not so today, when the State makes every possible effort to keep the whole business dark; and the contemporary hangman is the very soul of discretion from the State point of view. No servants of the State, not even those Nardacs of science entrusted with Research for Destruction by Atomization and Vaporization, have to be more careful of their life, habits, and conversation. (98)

But let one thing be quite clear: these doubts of guilt and proofs of innocence of executed persons must not be taken to reflect upon the integrity—the absolute and unchallengeable integrity—of our hangmen. If they occasionally make mistakes, strangle instead of asphyxiate or neck-break or vice versa, or pull off an occasional head, such incidents are mere accidents. Do we not all sometimes get out of the wrong side of the bed of a morning? (105)

In a book with the engaging title, Loafing Round the Globe, written by the German Richard Katz, and translated by Gerald Griffin, the author interviewed an American sheriff and, when it came to hanging, he asked this question: "Do you carry out the execution yourself, Sheriff?" The sheriff replied: "Of course we do it ourselves, myself and my men. We have no hangmen to help us. If the murderer is tractable and relaxes his muscles, he is killed instantaneously. Otherwise he does a bit of jazzing in the air. He takes somewhere about five minutes to finish his capering. However, that is his own fault. Don't blame us. We are not cruel. In fact, if he wants to make a little speech or sing a song before the white cap is adjusted, we give him time to do so. You should be here to see us giving them their send-off. The next batch will be tied up in October." (106)

Electrocution is unsportsmanlike, and the smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighborhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present. (116)

[Convict Haywood Patterson:] "The State of Alabama burned Will Stokes, an ax-killer. When they turned on the current for Stokes the z-z-z-z-z-z of the current sounded right through the row. Then it stopped and a guard came along and said: 'Stokes died hard. They had to stick a needle through his head to make sure of it.'"
A needle through the head! They might just as well have hanged him. (118)
[Note on the above:] In the U.S.A. the letter "z" is pronounced "zee," so this would be zee-zee-zee, which sounds nicer than izz-izz-izz, etc.

It certainly seems strange that a nation so advanced in science and engineering as to be able to make highly efficient H-bombs, and some excruciatingly effective poison gases, and utterly devastating compounds for chemical and bacteriological warfare, should not be able to invent something better than the crude electric chair. (120)

I have already referred to the bad pay and lack of pension arrangements for hangmen. In view of the delicacy and importance of their work it is remarkable that they do not receive honors or decorations; not even the humble O.B.E. ever goes the way of the hangman. It is a scandal. If we cannot decorate them, why does not some philanthropist—an armament king, for example—offer them a prize of honor? When will there be Nobel Prize for our hangmen, as there is for other great artists, scientists, and public benefactors? We never see even a statue erected for executioners. An acquaintance would not believe me when I assured him that there was not in the whole of London a single statue of a hangman. (124-5)

When we think of the gala days of the past (gala in Anglo-Saxon meant gallows), we realize how much we are missing. A well conducted execution is like a sonnet by Petrarch, a statue by Michelangelo, or a painting by Velazquez, and would be a spectacle far more satisfying to the British public than a Shakespeare play, or even a good dog-race. (125-6)

If this story of Eichmann points any moral, it is the danger of power-worship and of blind obedience to a political master. And also that the executioner who works bureaucratically, sitting comfortably at a desk, merely obeying orders from above, is the sophisticated or advanced stage in the evolution of executioners, in comparison with which that of our simple-hearted hangmen is merely primitive. Does it not make England feel proud of her honest-to-god hangmen? (135)

We all know that there can be arguments in favor of a retention of the death penalty in certain circumstances. For example, if States must have wars, they must also see that those who fight their battles do not run away at critical moments when the enemy has to be faced. Hence, the military mind usually offers the soldier the certainty of being executed by his own side if he should run away, against the possibility that he will come out of battle alive if he takes his chance with his comrades. And, if it be conceded that war is a reasonable activity, such an argument is not unreasonable—even allowing for the fact that it might indicate some lack of confidence in his men on the part of the commander. (141)

Constant readers of the admirable daily Press (not excluding the equally admirable sabbath newspapers, some of which have a true sense of moral and other values) have noticed that, after the end of World War II, there was an increase in crimes of violence everywhere—as there was after World War I and, indeed, as there is everywhere after a good war. It need hardly surprise any sensible person that, when healthy young men have been trained and brain-washed to be ferocious (or "conditioned" as the jargon has it) and to maim or, better still, kill the enemy, they bring back with them to civil life some of those very uncivil habits. (144)

As a matter of purely academic interest it may be stated that only in the Year of Grace 1950 was drawing and quartering legally abolished in Scotland, though it has long been out of fashion even there. (152)

When Sir Samuel Romilly agitated against the continuance of hanging, drawing, and quartering—in the good old days castration preceded the disemboweling—the Law Officers of the Crown declared he was "breaking down the bulwarks of the Constitution." Glorious bulwarks. Now only hanging remains, and if that goes completely (it is already on the move) where will the Constitution be? We cannot have a Constitution without bulwarks—that is obvious, so the only thing we can do is to conserve the art of hanging by every means in our power.
If it were not that the prestige of the Church of England has so deplorably declined, I would suggest a strong appeal to the bishops on behalf of the hangman's rapidly disappearing art. Christian Churches can usually be relied upon to support State killing: in 1810 there were six bishops and an archbishop in the majority of thirty-two votes to eleven which defeated the measure to abolish hanging for the theft of five-shillings' worth of anything, and 5s., as you know, is now less than an American dollar. It must be a great comfort to all our hangmen to think that today they can be equally sure of Christian support for a continuance of their office. Indeed, when we come to look squarely at the present position in regard to the death penalty in England it will be found that its two greatest supporters are the Law and the Church, as they always have been in the past; for which, may the Lord make us truly thankful. Readers know that one of the favorite political arguments in favor of the death penalty is that public opinion demands it. If I am not mistaken, Pontius Pilate, a staunch representative of Law and Order, used a similar argument in relation to a famous political execution about which he had to give the final decision. Home Secretaries may have forgotten the case, but if a New Testament should ever come their way, they can read it in the Gospels: time permitting. It is a well-written, moving story. (154)

Those were the days! But in the nineteenth century a powerful spirit of hypocrisy seized the English ruling class which thought that, because certain scenes at public hangings were unseemly, therefore public hangings must be abolished. Besides, those who said that capital punishment was a deterrent to crime were having a great laugh turned against them: everybody knew that there was more thieving and pocket-picking during a public hanging than at any other period—and this at a time when a man could be hanged for such crimes! (155)

The Fenian Movement was inspired by the Irish Republican Brotherhood, a revolutionary body formed in New York in 1858 with the avowed aim of establishing an Irish Republic independent of Britain. That was enough for a patriotic English jury. In times of political stress or hysteria it is usually sufficient to prove that a man or woman has been associated with some person, body, association, party, or belief for a properly chosen jury to find him or her guilty of some perhaps major or capital crime. The method and technique is known to all attentive students of law and politics. (156-7)

He it was who discovered that a three-quarter-inch rope of five strands of Italian hemp is the best for hanging men. Four strands will suffice for many women; and even three work well enough for infants. Mr. Berry first used the brass eyelet; a marvelous technical advance. (163)

The great Sir Bernard Spilsbury, M.D., who for many years was the principal scientific witness—pathologist—for the prosecution in murder trials in England, was deeply interested in judicial hanging. In his long experience of post-mortem examinations of the hanged, he came to realize that the cervical spine of a human being could be broken at a more or less constant level. This was ably demonstrated again and again by the technical skill of modern hangmen. It set the great man thinking. Could this scientific fact be used for the advantage of the art and to help the hangman's clients? Sir Bernard was at heart a humane man, and after due consideration of the problems involved—profound some of them, and involving ballistics and mathematics—he at last reached the conclusion that an increase of three inches in the drop would be an advance for the cause of humanitarianism. Such was his prestige that his recommendation was officially accepted—and this notwithstanding the deep conservatism which we find in almost everything relating to hangmanship. It is by such small advances as this that science progresses. (166)

We must never forget that the professional military man's training makes a natural or inclined killer into a professional killer, and that, in the last resort, it will be either a military or a political mind—and which is more dangerous is anybody's guess—that will decide upon the release of these horrific weapons. In this century there have already been two World Wars, each one appalling in its results for mankind. Both were started by a collaboration of politicians and finished by the military. Now they are all again collaborating as they were before, all ostensibly for defense purposes! In these circumstances there is no need to look far for very great reasons for fear, and fear is the basis of all kinds of neuroses. In sadism the neurotic and psychotic find releases, as the infamous Marquis de Sade made clear enough a long time ago. There can be a great release in hanging. (169)

Having made this clear, we may return to our muttons. (170)

And this in spite of the fact that Mr. Berry was not one of those men who are vindictive to five places of decimals. . . . (170)

1, St. Domingo Grove,
Everton, Liverpool,
Sept. 2nd, 1884.
In compliance with your request, I have pleasure in giving you a certificate as to the manner in which you conducted the execution of Peter Cassidy in H.M. Prison, Kirkdale. I may now repeat the statement which I gave in evidence at the Inquest, 'that I have never seen an execution more satisfactorily performed.' This was very gratifying to me.
Your rope was of excellent quality; fine, soft, pliable, and strong. You adjusted the ring directed forwards in the manner in which I have recommended in my pamphlet, Judicial Hanging. You gave a sufficient length of drop, considering the weight of the culprit, and completely dislocated the atlas and axis (first and second vertebrae). I have reckoned that the weight of the criminal, multiplied by the length of the drop, might range from 1,120 to 1,260 foot-pounds, and I have calculated that this vis viva in the case of Cassidy amounted to 1,140 foot pounds.
The pinioning and other details were carried out with due decorum. I hope, whoever be appointed to the post of Public Executioner may be prohibited from also performing the part of a 'showman' to gratify a depraved and morbid public curiosity.
James Barr, M.D.,
Medical Officer, H.M. Prison,
To Mr. James Berry. (175-6)

At a recent execution, a hangman's engineer fell into the pit with the client. At another, the drop worked but did not kill the client, who remarked: "What do you take me for? A b___ Yo-Yo!" (179)

"I calculate for three minutes to be occupied from the time of entering the condemned cell to the finish of life's great tragedy for the doomed man, so I enter the cell punctually at three minutes to eight." (179)

For many years there have been few changes in what happens in our prisons, and what is quoted above may be taken as including the traditional fundamentals, except that nowadays a hanging is more perfunctory and accompanied by less solemnity and pageantry than in better and more spacious days. The Holy Procession is not always formed, and if there is a procession it is the procession of a drab age. (182)

It is true that there are countries and moments in which the legal erasure of human life is temporarily abolished, but sooner or later a Leader of Enlightenment appears who reverts to the good old tradition. (184-5)

In executing the Judgment of Death, the hangman never fails. And nothing else matters to the State. (187)

There may be setbacks but the mystique of hanging has not been exploded. It may remain in the minds of many until the last hydrogen bomb has done its work of educating an obstinate humanity.
We live in an age when government based on force is accepted or tolerated or enforced over the greater part of the earth. But, if events should ever prove that force is not necessary to the happiness and welfare of mankind—and that day may come—then war and capital punishment will disappear. There will be no more hangmen to embellish the romantic concepts of humanity. The hangman's rope, the brass eyelet, the pinions and accoutrements of his great art, the ceremonious ritual of dispatch, the instruments without which there can be no science of government as now accepted: these will disappear.
Those who favor capital punishment and regard hanging as an essential adjunct to their interests and welfare will regard this as a sad prospect for the human race.
They may, nevertheless, take comfort from the fact that it is not yet so. (196)

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