By Wade Rockett
SCOPE Magazine, March 1997 issue
When asked how one of his “clients” had behaved in his last moments, the British hangman John Ellis reflected for a moment. “Oh, aw reet,” he said, “tha knows.”
Fortunately, mystery novelist Howard Engel is a bit more expansive in his book Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind. Engel provides plenty of details about how people have historically been sent into eternity at the behest of the courts. More compelling, though, are the human stories behind the events, about how the condemned and the men carrying out their sentences both dealt with their respective fates.
The author begins by delving into a history of the English dynasties of hangmen. Few ever think of hanging as a science, but Engel reproduces several mathematical tables which were developed to figure how long a drop is required to do the job correctly. Technical innovations like the “long drop” are discussed, as are the professional rivalries that developed within the trade.
Engel next examines the practice of beheading, a form of execution that in Europe was viewed as being more dignified than hanging and so was largely reserved for aristocrats. From there the reader is treated to an overview of the methods of “turning off” criminals and generally unpopular people in countries around the world. We learn just how one is broken on a wheel (it isn’t what you’d think) and the particulars of the legendary Chinese Death of a Thousand Cuts.
Chapters are devoted to the guillotine and the fixtures of the American death house — the electric chair, lethal injection, and the gas chamber. Odd trivia like the way in which women’s fashions have been affected by the scaffold and the particulars of paying the executioner turn up. For example, in the notorious French prison on Devil’s Island recruits were rewarded in a typically Gallic manner: with a small sum of money, two bottles of wine, and a tin of sardines.
Engel, who opposes the death penalty, takes a dim view of the American way of death. We seem to be notoriously clumsy and inattentive executioners. Once an argument broke out between a warden and a sheriff over whose job it was to pull the fatal switch on the electric chair. Eventually the condemned, who was strapped into the chair and listening to this bizarre exchange, could hold out no longer and collapsed. He was taken back to his cell and by the time the issue was resolved, his sentence had been commuted to life in prison.
“There is something in the accounts of these events that is more than an appeal to callous, prurient interest,” Engel writes. “There is something of the mystery of life and death itself that forms part of the fascination: the moment when a living creature stops being one.” This tone permeates the book. The grim history of officially-sanctioned death is treated with a humanity and a wry humor that takes a repellent topic and turns it into an engaging and thought-provoking work.