The Long Drop
On Friday December 2nd 2005 at 0900 hrs Australian Eastern Summer Time the authoritarian regime that rules Singapore will hang a young Australian by the name of Nguyen Tuong Van. Nguyen was in 2002 arrested in Singapore carrying 392 grammes of heroin.
Singaporean law provides for a mandatory death sentence for anyone found in possession of more than 15 grammes of heroin. Singapore NEVER grants clemency in such cases.
I am not here to screech against the death penalty nor to protest this 25 year old's innocence nor even to explain his case. You can find the tragic details here. His guilt is manifest. He confessed, pleaded guilty and assisted the Singaporean authorities. All to no avail as far as Nguyen is concerned.
I oppose the death penalty in all its forms, to be sure, but what can you do? I mean, civilised countries like the United States of America, China and Iran just REJOICE in killing the oppressed, black, retarded, perverted and stupid and if that is the case well then state sanctioned murder must be OK. I advance all the standard arguments of the chardonnay drinking left against state sanctioned murder, but said arguments will not save the unfortunate young man who now languishes in Changi Prison awaiting the executioner's knock.
Rather I would like in this article to consider the mode of Nguyen's death. To dance one's life away at the end of a good length of hemp (though in Singapore it seems more likely a synthetic fibre will be employed) carries with it a degree of romance that is absent in the American approach of a gurney and four different chemicals administered via a cannula by a medical practitioner - the Hippocratic oath notwithstanding.
Hanging: A Complex Affair
Hanging has long been the death of the traitor. Consider the relief that Judas Iscariot chose for himself (it is held by some that "Iscariot" means "the Suffocated") and note well the practice of the English who, for centuries, had hanging as the primary mode of death for those convicted of crimes of deception. Nevertheless before we proceed let us consider the three different methods of stringing someone up.
1. The Haul
This is perhaps the most gruesome method. A noose (of no particular form) is placed around the neck of the doomed whilst he or she stands freely on the ground. The hangman (no doubt a hearty sort) would then heave away at the other end (the rope passing over an appropriate pulley or fulcrum) hauling the unfortunate condemned towards heaven. The victim strangles slowly over several horrific hours. It is without doubt a truly excruciating death and provides great entertainment for the salivating mob. Such is the finesse of this method that it formed the first part of the notorious English practice of hanging, drawing and quartering those convicted of treason.
2. The Short Drop
By the eighteenth century humanist principles had begun their inexorable expansion through Western Europe and along with the auto-de-fe the Haul method of hanging had become unfashionable. In this the Age of the Enlightenment, it was generally held that the gravely wicked should be punished severely but not with the sadistic glee. With this in mind the English now introduced the short drop method of hanging and other forms of execution were eschewed. The recalcitrant offender (who had not been fortunate enough to be transported to American or later Australia) would stand upon a scaffold and with a traditional hangmans noose around his or her neck be dropped a mere 18 inches to his or her demise. It was thought that this drop would compromise the cervical spine sufficient to cause near instant death. Alas this was, in most cases, not the case. To break the neck using the short drop required both skill and luck on the part of the hangman and the majority of prisoners choked horribly at the end of the rope.
3. The Long Drop
By the 1860's the principles of the Enlightenment had long informed the basis of civil society and a string of dreadful executions had stained practice of English justice. The hangman of the day (who by convention is not named) introduced a new method which promised an "instant and humane death" for those who were sentenced to the Extreme Sanction. The mechanics of this method were outlined in the Schedule of Hangman's Weights and Measures, a copy of which is not reproduced here for fear that the foolish may take advantage of it. Rest assured that a copy is in the possession of your diligent correspondent.
The fiendish secret of the long drop method was the calculation, by exact formula, of the weight of the condemned against the depth of the drop he or she had to fall to bring around 1000 pounds of force against the cervical spine, the idea being that this would cause the odontoid process to breach the relevant section of the spinal cord producing a clean and quick death. Paralysis and unconsciousness was instant and, after one hour on the rope, the miscreant would assuredly be dead.
Alas the theory was not matched by the practice. To calculate the formula incorrectly resulted in one of two horrible deaths. Either the drop was insufficient to bring the necessary force to bear on the neck and so the prisoner strangled as in days of yore or it was too long and, rendering excessive force, decapitated the villain. Also if the noose was positioned inexpertly (ie the knot needs to be placed to the front of the neck under the left ear) the severing of the spinal cord will be incomplete leaving the victim to perform a final danse macabre.
One other point of interest is that only in the United States was the traditional hangman's noose composed of 13 loops at the terminal end. In Britain and other nations that adhered to the provisions of the Schedule I mention above the noose consisted of nine loops if the the traditional form was used at all. Quite often a simple eyelet loop was employed.
Lynching: The Original Family Day Out.
I think my beloved blog sister Bucko the Depraved said it best, when he reminded me of that famous quote, "What a strange fruit hangs from the poplar tree."
Now that we have reviewed the sinister mechanics of the hangman's art let us turn our attention to some other aspects of this popular form of execution. Nguyen will not be publicly hanged, instead he will die on a gallows in a death chamber deep withing Changi prison, in the company of some government officials, his spiritual adviser and, obviously, the hangman.
This seems to me to defeat the purpose of a hanging. The very nature of hanging makes it a most satisfactory method of execution if deterrance is the goal. By killing Nugyen secretly in dim room out of public sight, surely the real benefit to society is lost? If Singapore so strongly supports hanging for drug traffickers they should have no qualms about letting the people of Singapore and indeed the world see the consequences of such a crime? Are they ashamed?
It is at this stage we must consider that curiously American passtime of public lynching. In my wanderings across the digital cesspool that is the internet I have discovered a most sobering website called Without Sanctuary. This site is a bitter testimony to the untold thousands who were killed outside of the ambit of US law.
Study these pictures well. Each victim has a name and left behind people who loved and needed him or her. Typically many of the individuals represented here have had their names expunged from the record in a last public act of humiliation. You will see these unfortunates reduced to a crude racial slur; "nigger", "nigra" and "black devils" to name a few.
I hasten to say that lynching was not restricted to the southern states of the US (though it was most popular there) but also in the Mid West and Western states and territories of the Union. African Americans were not the only sacrifices on the altar of public vengeance, Hispanics, Italians, Chinese and more rarely fringe dwelling whites also drank the bitter draught of mob justice in the Land of the Free. Curiously Montana lynched more whites than any other state.
Note too Gentle Reader, that hanging was not always the dominant mode of murder at these events. We can see from the way in which many of the depicted victims necks are positioned that they did not die from a severed spinal cord. Countless lynched victims were burnt ("cookin' coon"), shot, flogged and generally mutilated. These images are replete with torture and exquisite suffering.
Hauling the victim aloft was often merely a device of exposition and this is important to understand. Hangings were public events designed to humiliate the doomed subject, terrify and subjugate hated groups within the community (blacks, immigrants, queers, the poor and other undesirables) and most importantly satisfy the blood lust of the raving majority. A lynched victim was displayed for all to savour like some ghastly exhibit at a freak show.
What I find most frightening about Without Sanctuary is that the images catalogued are mostly in the form of postcards. These were sold as souvenirs of lynchings and circulated widely in the United States by post even though the practice of mailing such malignant treasures was outlawed in 1908. Given the nature of these "extra-legal killings" it comes as no surprise that this legal prohibition was widely ignored.
Look carefully at these images, not just of the lynched subjects (who are often indistinct) but at the grinning faces of the crowds. Are they not of the resinous heart? See how they consist not just of angry white men, but women and gleeful youths and children too. Truly a lynching was a social event at which one went to be seen, to have one's approval of the collective will acknowledged, to cheer lustily in group frenzy and to delight at the screaming and wailing of the wretched condemned.
The record at Without Sanctuary extends into the 1930's - a decade well within living memory and that being the case one might wonder if they are related to some of the lynched. Perhaps more chilling is the thought that some of you may well have relatives amongst those pictured in the madding crowds.
But surely this was murder? Well under US law it most certainly was. In some feeble attempt to justify their actions the perpetrators of these vile events would often put forward a charge of the lynched individuals "wrong doing". Often the lynched had been arrested on suspicion of a crime and were wrenched from the hands of the law, having been denied due process were tortured to death. Authorities are on the record as saying they deplored such killings, but given the "inadequacies" of the justice system in the US such vigilante actions were to be expected. These same authorities would protest that the instigators of lynchings could not be identified and so no action could be taken.
Clearly they did not receive postcards.
So what? Well at the very least we can remember those who were brutalised and slaughtered in the service of "justice" and "decency" whether or not they had the benefit of due process. These ghoulish pictures bear potent testimony to their suffering and the grotesque inhumanity of their tormentors. Perhaps too as we peruse the dreadful legacy so faithfully preserved at Without Sanctuary we might think of Nguyen Tuong Van on Friday December 2nd and hope that the hangman has made his calculations correctly.
This article is dedicated to Nguyen Tuong Van and all those who have been murdered in the name of Justice.