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Hangmen Also Die

A HANDBOOK ON HANGING By Charles Duff; NYRB Press: 240 pp., $12.95 paper

April 08, 2001|CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS | Christopher Hitchens, a columnist for Vanity Fair and The Nation, is the author of "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," to be published in May. His essay will be published this month as the introduction to a new edition of "A Handbook on Hanging."

'They're selling postcards of the hanging," Bob Dylan intones flatly in the opening stave of his long and haunting lament, "Desolation Row." Those who have had the opportunity to read James Allen's extraordinary book "Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America" will need no further illustration of what is intended: For several generations (and well into the fourth decade of the 20th century), public immolation of outcasts furnished an occasion for Saturnalia. The lurid photographs of the event, cheaply reproduced for sale and salacity and still counted as "collectibles" (which is how Allen, an antique dealer, came across them), were often the least of it. Fingers, toes and ears, or pieces of the rope, or even private parts in the special instance of alleged rapists, were given and taken as souvenirs, trophies or talismans.

Generally speaking, the hanging was just the beginning of the treat, a treat for which special excursion trains were run and special editions run off the presses. A semi-garroting would be 1952998688too turbulent and outlandish and was finally domesticated and moved inside official doors and gates, the element of prurient lavishness was not entirely discarded. There were still rituals by which the victim could be kept endlessly uncertain of his fate, and there were still excited descriptions by radio and newsmen, and there were still ways in which-as the name "Old Sparky" in Florida continues to remind us-the object of all the excitement could be burned alive.

Many playwrights and novelists have expended themselves on the occult ways in which these practices-the gratification of the mob, the amputation of souvenir body parts, the elaborate and la1935894902another even more obvious line of descent: the lineage of the American penal system from the English one. Look at the history of capital punishment in Britain and you will find all the ancestors of the pornography of lynching. "Hanging, drawing, and quartering'-the procedure whereby a half-strangled convict is cut down, eviscerated, and castrated alive, and then dismembered and burned-was the big attraction at what is now Marble Arch on the northeastern corner of Hyde Park, then called Tyburn. Grisly keepsakes were commonplace. Favorable vantage points were for sale. Ministers of religion (usually Protestant) were on hand. Executioners were celebrities. The free availability of strong drink, loose women and a generalized atmosphere of fiesta were of the essence.

An awareness of this history and a strong revulsion against English tradition form the underlay of this potent book. Charles St. Lawrence Duff, who occasionally employed his Gaelic synonym 1130460264Little enough is known about his life, yet his name alone makes it a certainty that he was born into a Catholic or nationalist family, in what is now Northern Ireland, but several years before Ireland was partitioned. When the first of "A Handbook on Hanging's" seven editions was published in 1928, it was subtitled "A Satire': One need not be too fanciful in imagining the young Duff, having witnessed many hangings and shootings of Irish rebels, modeling himself in part on Swift and "A Modest Proposal." The last public hanging in Britain was of a Fenian named Michael Barrett in May of 1868; Duff mentions it with particular scorn. (His next book, published in the rather early, not to say advanced, year of 1932, was entitled "James Joyce and the Plain Reader.') He refers, in closing this book, to "the Struldbrugs who order our affairs," which witnesses at any rate to a close reading of Gulliver.

Duff might, indeed, have made room for a substantially wider range of literary allusion than he did, since English literature has not exactly declined the challenge presented by the gibbet 1634624544of vicious crime at public hangings; Dickens in "Barnaby Rudge" gave us a hangman-the unrelievedly hateful Mr. Dennis-whose chief delight is to reminisce, as if over sexual conquests, about his part in dispatching young women, and infants, and sometimes mother-and-child combinations. In an obscene piece of vernacular, Dennis describes this exercise as "working-off': an expression for which Duff also finds sarcastic use. (The portrait of Dennis, Dickens insisted, was taken from life and reality.) Oscar Wilde found the hanging day the most onerous and terrifying of his entire sentence. George Orwell, writing in Duff's own day, noted, primly but grimly, that there was one aspect of the hanging process that was known and whispered by everybody but never mentioned in print or polite society. (He meant the stupendous erection that results from dislocation of the neck, and that is a commonplace in sadomasochistic literature from Jean Genet onwards.)

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