Monday, May 31, 2010

The Executioner Always Chops Twice

As a criminal lawyer, I have always been fascinated by judicial executions. As one who has been involved personally in more than one big murder trial in which the government was seeking the death penalty, I can tell you that often there is just as much trauma on those who have to impose and then carry out the sentence as there is on the accused. I probably have not mentioned that for four years I quit practicing law and taught criminal justice at the university level. During this time, I got very interested in the subject of the mechanics of executions and taught a special topics course on the death penalty.

Geoffrey Abbott was for many years a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London. He is an expert on the Tower and the many executions which have taken place there over the centuries. He is also an expert in the history and mechanics of judicial executions world wide.

Abbott's book, The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders on the Scaffold, is a humorous look at a very serious subject. As the jacket blurb states: "A mixture of bungled executions, strange last requests and classic final one-liners from medieval times to the present day. Sometimes it's hard to be an executioner, trying to keep someone from popping up to make a quip when they should have spectacularly sunk without trace. Or to be told that the condemned to the guillotine won't have a last drink for fear of 'completely losing his head.' The business of death can be seriously absurd, and nothing illustrates this better than these tales of the gruesome and frankly ridiculous ways in which a number of ill-fated unfortunates met (or failed to meet) their maker."

Abbott describes in horrifying detail such instruments of torture as the rack, the wheel, the boot, and water torture. The book primarily consists of mostly humorous anecdotes regarding executions. Here are a few examples: Murderer Michael Sclafoni who was executed by electric chair in 1930 refused to sit in the chair until the dust was wiped off it exclaiming "Dust! They could at least have given a man about to die a clean chair!"; the murderer William Appel who announced to the witnesses before being strapped to the electric chair "Folks you're about to see a baked Appel!"; the British murderer Henry Thompson who was happy when he found out that he was to be hanged the day before the famous wife killer Dr. Crippen. "Ah well," he exclaimed. "I'll be senior to him in the other shop."

There are many stories in the book about the great French executioner Charles-Henri Sanson. (For those who don't know, the post of executioner was hereditary in France. The great Sanson was the executioner for the King, then for the various Revolutionary governments as they passed by, and then for Napoleon. Through it all Sanson managed to keep his head, ha! ha!.)

The primary method of execution in Britain was hanging. There are many stories of broken ropes, wet ropes, ropes which were too tight, ropes which were too loose, and even a couple of stories of persons who survived being hanged. Probably the weirdest story in the book is that of John Lee, the man who could not be hanged. In 1885, Lee was to be executed for the murder of his elderly employer. Lee told his warders in the prison at Exeter, England that he had dreamed that he could not be hanged. On the day of the execution, Lee was pinioned and noosed, the cap was drawn down over his head and executioner pulled the lever. Nothing happened. The trap door would not open. The executioners desperately tried to get the trap doors to open without success. Finally, the prisoner was removed back to a holding cell while the executioner and a team of carpenters cut a gap in the trap doors "until the gap between them and the surrounding boards was so wide that nothing could cause them to jam." Secondary catches were also removed. Lee was brought back in and prepared for execution. Again the executioner pulled the trap door and nothing happened. At this point the Governor of the Prison halted the execution and notified the British Home Secretary. Lee's sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.

Or the 18th century burglar, Hannah Dagoe, who beat up Thomas Turlis the hangman at the famous British gallows post at Tyburn "dared him to hang her, declaring that come what may, he would not have her clothing afterwards, the garments to which he was entitled, and before he could restrain her, she tore off her clothes and threw them into the crowd, thereby adding considerably to their entertainment." Dagoe finally hanged herself.

This book is not for everybody. However, history buffs and aficionados of crime and gore will have a good time.

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Henry Morton Robinson's THE CARDINAL

I just finished reading the sixty year old pot boiler The Cardinal.

In its day this book was extremely popular. According to the blog Abandoned Books, The Cardinal was the number one bestseller of 1950 and the number four bestseller of 1951. Director Otto Preminger made a movie of the same name based upon the novel starring actor Tom Tryon. Having now read the book and seen the movie, the novel is far superior to the film which changes and condenses plots and in some cases drops plots and characters altogether.

About the only facts which I could dig up about the author, Henry Morton Robinson, came from the "About the Author" blurb in back of the book and the short article on Wikepedia. Robinson was born in Boston, Mass. in 1898 and served in the navy during World War I. He taught English at Columbia University and was the author of a number of popular books. Robinson died in 1961 after taking a sedative and going to sleep in a bathtub.

The Cardinal is the story of the life and career of the title character, Stephen Fermoyle, who rises from being the son of poor Irish immigrants in Boston to be a Prince of the Church. It is reportedly very loosely based on Cardinal Spellman. Being the story of one man's life, the novel has no one single plot and can instead be considered a series of linked stories and plots which involve Fermoyle at various stages of his career.

The characters in The Cardinal are mostly caricatures and stereotypes. The book describes a Catholic Triumphalism which would not be possible in a contemporary novel. The novel also takes a very romanticised view of the Church and clerical life in general. It is full of cliches and characters whose only purpose is to evoke a romanticized piety in the reader.

For instance, Father Fermoyle's sister Ellen is a pious Carmelite nun who contracts tuberculosis. Obviously she is intended to evoke the memory of Saint Therese. When Fermoyle is feeling that his vocation is challenged by his love for a woman, he goes off to a Benedictine monastery and is assigned to work in the kitchen beside a simple lay brother who stays mystically close to God through his work. Obviously, this is supposed to evoke shades of Brother Lawrence of The Practice of the Presence of God fame.

The reader has to be taught a moral lesson, so when Father Fermoyle's little sister refuses to marry a nice Catholic boy like she ought to and runs off with a Hispanic dancer (who also turns out to be a notorious back alley abortionist), we know that things are not going to turn out well. After all, the wages of sin is death. Mona, who is pregnant in a flop house, goes to a church and prays before a statute of Saint Anthony to be found by her family. Mona's prayers are answered and she is rescued by her brothers. However, there is a complication in her pregnancy which requires Monsignor Fermoyle to decide to let the doctors abort the child or let Mona face certain death. Of course, Mona dies in child birth and Monsignor Fermoyle names his newborn niece Regina in honor of the Blessed Mother. (I was told by an older lady of my acquantance that Protestant girls of her generation hesitated before dating Catholic boys because of this very scene in this novel.)

I have to say that the book is very well written for the type of thing that it is which is what we today would probably call beach reading. (In fact, I read a whole bunch of The Cardinal at the beach week before last.)

The Cardinal is a cliched Catholic soap opera. In short, The Cardinal is wonderful and I had great fun reading it. It would be well worth the time and money for anyone who loves the Church to dig up a copy of this old pot boiler.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Happy Cinco De Mayo!

In honor of Cinco De Mayo here's a book review which I posted on my other blog last year:

I have recently finished reading two books about the Mexican Revolution, Zapata and the Mexican Revolution by John Womack, Jr. and Villa: Soldier of the Mexican Revolution by Robert L. Scheina.

I enjoyed both of these books very much. However, if you are reading history for pleasure, I would recommend the Poncho Villa book over Womack's exhaustive microscopic look at the movement in the Mexican State of Morelos led by General Emiliano Zapata, whose image appears at left.

It is easier to describe what Zapata and the Mexican Revolution is not than what it is. The book is not a biography of Emiliano Zapata. It is also not a general history of the Mexican Revolution. This book is an exhaustive and detailed treatment of the Mexican Revolution in the State of Morelos, the events leading up to the Revolution, and the events following the assassination of Zapata and the end of the fighting. This is excellent history which is rich in detail. This reviewer's only criticism is that the book is so detailed that it is easy to get lost in the details.

By contrast, Villa: Soldier of the Mexican Revolution is a gold mine of information contained in a fast paced, well written narrative. Although the book is only a little over 100 pages long, after reading the book, I feel like I was riding along with Villa's army on campaign. Poncho Villa must go down in military history as one of the great captains. A master of light cavalry tactics and the lightning raid, Villa learned how to "get their first with the most," and conduct what the Germans would later call blitzkrieg. Although almost illiterate and uneducated, Villa was a natural soldier who mastered logistics. I was fascinated by Scheina's narrative, which explained the reason behind all those old photographs you see of the Mexican Revolution with all the soldiers sitting on top of railroad boxcars. Villa's soldiers rode on top of the train because their horses rode in the boxcars. Villa would transport his entire army by train near where he wanted to attack, unload the troops and horses, and let them have it.

The byzantine politics behind the Mexican Revolution are too detailed to go into here, but after reading these two books I probably know more about the politics of Mexico in the years 1910-1920 than I do about the politics of the U.S. in 2009. The story of Zapata and the small farmers of Southern Mexico is the endless struggle of the weak against the strong, the poor and disenfranchised against the rich. The Bad Catholic highly recommends both books.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Voodoo & Hoodoo

This morning I finished reading Voodoo & Hoodoo: Their Tradition and Craft as Revealed by Actual Practitioners (1978) by James Haskins.

This is a very interesting and entertaining book. In the first three chapters, Haskins traces the roots of Voodoo in the traditional religions of the people of West Africa, its transmission to the New World through the slaves, and its contemporary practice circa the 1970s.

Haskins tells of his upbringing in rural Alabama and hearing stories from his Grandma Hattie about the magic worked by "Root Doctors." He remembers being told not to eat at any strange person's house because they might poison your food. You should not even go to the bathroom at a strange person's house because they might be able to collect hairs or other bodily substances and use them against you in a conjure.

The chapter on the transmission of Voodoo to the New World is very interesting. Voodoo or Vodou refers to spirits. West African tribal religion believed in a supreme god but he is too powerful to pray to directly. Therefore, worshipers ask for help from spirits. Haskins details that slaves held by Catholics, the Spanish and the French, adapted well to Roman Catholicism since they related Catholic saints and the Blessed Virgin Mary with Voodoo spirits. Catholic slaves were also able to hide what they were doing from the masters by couching their voodoo practice in terms of Catholic worship.

In the English Protestant colonies, however, the masters sought to try to wipe out the native religion entirely. Haskins details how Protestant religion, being primarily book based, was something totally foreign to the slaves. The most popular Protestant group among slaves came to be the Baptists, because the slaves could relate full immersion baptism with the worship which had been given to the river spirits in Africa. Overall, though, the religious elements of spiritualism among Protestant slaves was driven underground and the resulting magical practice tended to be more occult and less Christian than among blacks who had adopted Catholicism.

Haskins then has chapters which give examples of recipes for conjure on a variety of subjects. Chapter headings are as follows: To Do Ill, To Do Good, In Matters of Law, and In Matters of Love.

These conjure recipes involve roots, powders, obtaining hairs and bodily substances from a victim or patient, killing animals, writing a persons name on eggs, breaking eggs and other practices. Some of them are disgusting and some are entertaining.
For instance: "To keep a man crazy about her and uninterested in wandering, a woman simply has to mix some of her menstrual blood into his food or drink." Or this spell which is supposed to freeze the mouths of witnesses against you in a court case: "Write the names of your opponent, his witnesses, and his lawyer on a piece of parchment paper. Place it between two bricks. On the day of the trial set a bucket full of ice on top of the bricks and your opponents will be unable to testify against you."

I have some personal experience with this subject. Being involved with the criminal justice system in South Georgia I have had a "Root Doctor" spell placed on me before. Chicken heads and eggs with the name of the judge and the lawyers written on them have been found on the courthouse lawn. That was almost twenty years ago. Haskins writes, circa 1978, that the traditional practice is declining as people become more educated and less isolated in rural areas.

This book is a great read for anyone who is interested in this subject. Although out of print for many years it does not appear that it is difficult to find a used copy on the Internet.

Peace and Love.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Voodoo Secrets

Yesterday I watched this excellent documentary from the History Channel. Voodoo Secrets (2005) is narrated by actor Michael Dorn, who played Star Trek's Mr. Worf.

The film begins in the nation of Benin in West Africa and shows the current practice of the voodoo or spiritualist religion of the native peoples. The traditional religion of West Africa believed that there were spirits everywhere and the spirits can be made to act on behalf of human beings. In order to gain the assistance of the spirits, worshipers offer the sacrifice of animals and rituals which may involve the believed possession of people by the spirits.

The documentary shows a woman going to see a Voodoo healer for treatment of severe headaches. The healer sends his patient to the Voodoo market to obtain an animal skull which the healer then blesses and performs ritual magic to transfer the woman's headache from her body to the animal head.

The film then shifts to the Caribbean and North America. It is explained that when slaves from West Africa were introduced to Catholicism, they identified Catholic saints with the spirits they had worshiped in Africa. The film details the events of the slave revolt in Haiti in the 18th century. The leaders of the revolution began the revolution with a Voodoo ceremony and pledged allegiance to the spirit of war if he would help them in their struggle. This is what Pat Robertson was talking about when he made his infamous comment after the Haitian earthquake that the leaders of the Haitian Revolution had sold their souls to the devil.

When slaves from Santa Domingo were transported to New Orleans, this began the long tradition of New Orleans voodoo. The legends and the few facts surrounding the Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau are detailed. Another interesting tidbit is the untimely sudden death of author Robert Tallant in the 1950s. Tallant was the author of a sensational book published in the 1940s called Voodoo in New Orleans which many Voodoo practitioners believed contained many lies and exaggerations including libeling the great Marie Laveau.

Voodoo Secrets is well worth the time of anyone who is interested in this subject.

The Purpose of the Eclectic Reader

I am starting this blog, The Eclectic Reader, because occasionally there are books and films which I would like to discuss which I do not feel are appropriate for my other blog, LOVE IN THE RUINS, which is primarily dedicated to Catholic Christianity.

For instance, right now I am finishing up reading a book called Voodoo & Hoodoo, which will probably be the first book discussed on this blog.

Posts to this blog will probably be very sporadic. Whenever I want to talk about material that I don't feel is appropriate for my conservative Catholic audience over at my other blog, I'll stick it on here.

The Bad Catholic