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

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