Thursday, November 17, 2011

Death by Hanging

In my novel, Lost Hearts, my hero, Richard Bennick is a U.S. Deputy Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which at the time of my novel, in 1877, had full jurisdiction over Indian Territory. The federal court was located in Fort Smith, Arkansas with one of the toughest federal court judges in history, Judge Isaac Charles Parker. During his years on the bench, from 1875-1896, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to death, 79 of which were hanged. He quickly became known as the “Hanging Judge.”

Parker’s chief executioner was a man originally from Bavaria, named George Maledon. Maledon was a small framed man, only five feet, five inches tall. He had large dark eyes, a scraggly beard, and a gloomy appearance. Under Parker’s order, Maledon carried out the hangings for 60 of those men, which earned him the nickname, “Prince of Hangmen.”

Maledon took great pride in his work. Each rope was only used nine to eleven times. He made sure no man strangled, kicking and twisting until he died, but rather died instantaneously, from a broken neck.

Each rope was twenty-seven feet in length and made of the finest Kentucky hemp. To keep them from slipping, Maledon treated them with a pitchy oil substance. He then stretched the ropes on the gallows with two hundred pound bags of sand and oiled them again. Originally and inch and a quarter in diameter, the ropes were stretched to a tight one inch, perfect for knotting and oily enough so it gave no squeak when it jerked.

Maledon claimed his big knot was the secret of a good execution and to form his noose each rope was wrapped thirteen times.

On the gallows, the rope was dropped over the neck the prisoner and tightened over the larynx until it touched skin all the way around. The knot was placed under the left ear in the hollow at the back of the jaw bone. The rope was then brought upward, over the top of the head to hang down in a curve on the other side. That held the knot steady under the ear.

The trap would spring, the man dropped through, and the rope snapped taut. The big knot threw the head sideways and fractured the spine, giving each man a quick, easy death.

In the following excerpt, the hero, Richard, leaves a meeting with the U.S. Marshal and finds himself staring at the famous gallows in Fort Smith, contemplating his own death.

His stomach churned and sweat popped out across his brow. Even now the guilt still lingered. He’d done something, something very bad, he just didn’t know what. He didn’t want to think about it, but Brady was dead, and he had a feeling it was his fault.
God, he needed a drink.
Richard blinked and blew out a shaky breath. Upham had asked a question. What was it?
“Deputy, I think this is too much for you right
“I’m fine, it’s just hot in here.”
“No, you don’t look well. Go home, get some rest, and we’ll talk again in a couple of days. Meantime, you may want to hire yourself an attorney. If this goes to the grand jury, he can have Hobbs and Johnny Bodine subpoenaed. I’ll send as many
deputies out to find them as I have to.” Upham stood and stepped around his desk.
Richard rose and they shook hands.
“Now don’t worry, deputy,” Marshal Upham said as they walked to the office door. “You’ve been very ill. Just give it time. The memories will come back to you.”
Richard said good-bye and limped down the hallway. That’s what he was afraid of.
Outside, he mounted his horse and sat, his gaze captured by the gallows on the south side of the parade grounds.
The platform rose seven feet high, just enough to keep a man’s feet from touching the ground when the lever was pulled. A twelve foot beam supported by heavy timbers, ran the width of the floor, and was strong enough to allow six men to simultaneously drop to their deaths.
Although hangings attracted hundreds of people who camped out near the grounds and brought picnic lunches, Richard had never watched an execution. He’d seen too much of the reality of life to find death entertaining.
How would it feel to stand up there, looking out across a crowd of gawking spectators? Would he choose to wear the hood, or would he stare defiantly over the tops of their heads as the weight of the finest hemp was dropped around his neck.
He could almost imagine the prick of the fibers pressing into his Adam’s apple as the well oiled hemp was pulled snug. He swallowed against the imaginary pressure. The knot would lay heavy behind his left ear, in the hollow of his jaw bone. Then when the trap opened, and his body shot down, the rope would snap taut and break his neck.
The hangman, George Maledon, once told Richard that he had never preformed a “bad” hanging. He had a trick when positioning the rope so men didn’t strangle, thrashing and kicking until
they died.
Richard tightened his grip on the reins. Would hanging be his fate if he couldn’t remember; if Johnny couldn’t be found? Though he struggled daily to do right, maybe in the end, this had always been his destiny.


Tina Donahue said...

Your novel sounds fascinating, Kathy. I must admit, I haven't read a lot of Westerns, but my interest in them has been renewed with the series "Hell on Wheels" (gawd, the hero is luscious) and your books. :)

Renee Vincent said...

VERY interesting post. I've heard of the Hanging Judge through my husband who reads westerns like crazy and has lots of biographies on certain lawmen and bandits of the west.

Great excerpt too!
Wish you posted a cover....or even a buy link. I'm definitely interested.

Jerrie Alexander said...

Great post and excerpt, Kathy. Here at my house westerns are a favorites. Death by Hanging sounds like a must read.

Kathy Otten said...

I'm sorry I couldn't get the pictures to post. I finally gave up at one this morning. I just got my computer back last night and somewhere along the way I lost the post I had origianally prepared.

Kathy Otten said...

I haven't seen Hell on Wheels yet. I am usually on the computer at night. Though I do like luscious heroes. :)

Renee Vincent said...

Kathy, can you post a buy link here in the comments section for me?

Paty Jager said...

Kathy, Great information and an awesome book!

Kathy Otten said...

Here you go Renee,

Sorry about that, I had so many problems last night. I couldn't get the cover to post or the picture of the Fort Smith gallows. Totally forgot the link.


Renee Vincent said...


Jennifer Jakes said...

Oh, Tina, you are SO right about the hero on Hell On Wheels. He is delicious. Excellent show for anyone who loves a real Western.
Kathy - Thanks for the informative post. The book sounds great!

jean hart stewart said...

Love to learn new facts, and these are fascinating...Jean

Kathy Otten said...

Your welcome Renee!

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Paty, Jennifer and Jean!
Appreciate your stopping by. Glad you enjoyed the post. :)

Sarah J. McNeal said...

I imagine hanging was a terrible way to die--not that the electric chair is any better.
I've read Lost Hearts and I loved it. I have never read anything you've written that I didn't think was superior.
Wonderful post today.

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Sarah,
Thanks for the kind words. From what I understand, with the knot positioned correctly, the neck was snapped instantly, which was supposed to be a quick and painless death. It's the bad hangings that slowly strangle a man and make great story premises for a hero who might survive a bad hanging.