Impartial consideration of capital punishment is usually unexpected -- as surprising as a singer without a song, or a politician without an excuse.
Which is why The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose by academic Jack Shuler is a welcome addition to the subject, where recent polls on the death penalty in Canada has more of us than ever -- 62 per cent -- wanting to reintroduce it.
While Shuler deals primarily with death by hanging in the U.S., his dispassionate look at both legal and illegal uses of the noose makes his contribution to the subject more illuminating than the more typical, biased appeal in favour or against.
Anything that takes the heat out of the discussion of state-sanctioned killing, and spares us the preaching, is worth reading.
At the same time, Shuler's economic writing style, unlike that of most academics, recognizes that the more you can interest people, the more likely you are to retain their attention. This he achieves in his description of history and events.
There are 13 turns in the hangman's noose because, it is said, fewer turns than that may brutally choke the condemned rather than kill quickly with minimal pain. (Nobody has returned from the experience to confirm it.)
Shuler, a professor of American literature and black studies at Ohio's Denison University, has included some lurid photos of lynching in the U.S., commonly of blacks, and descriptions of how they took place. Quite a number involved the obvious bigots of the Ku Klux Klan.
One shocking statistic Schuler mentions is that between 1882 and 1968 there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States -- 3,446 blacks and 1,297 whites. That's more than one a week.
Among the famous hangings Shuler examines: that of the abolitionist John Brown; the 1930s lynchings that inspired the song Strange Fruit, made famous by Billie Holiday; that of the two murderers who were the protagonists in Truman Capote's famous In Cold Blood; Saddam Hussein's execution eight years ago; the assembly-line hanging of 38 Dakota Indians in Minnesota in 1862, following legal proceedings that were obviously anything but, and conducted solely in a language (English) they didn't understand; hangings in Ancient Greece and in today's Iran; and the suicide of Judas Iscariot. (The Christian Bible, Matthew 27:5, says he hanged himself, a conclusion some say was the start of hanging's bad reputation.)
The last hanging in Canada was in 1962; we abolished capital punishment for civilians in 1976 and for the military in 1998. The last hanging in Manitoba (at Headingley jail) was in 1952, for the shooting of a Winnipeg police detective. Two-thirds of U.S. states still have the death penalty; the vast majority use lethal injection.
Shuler also looks at the noose and its employment in history as a menacing symbol of racism and savage violence, its use as an emblem of fear, as well as an instrument of political control.
Perhaps the most disquieting aspect of Shuler's book is his explanation of how easy it is today for just about anyone to witness a public execution or a replay of it, thanks to the Internet. Shuler wonders what kind of an impact this exposure is having on people, especially on children.
If you can stomach Shuler's description of botched hangings, The Thirteenth Turn is a comprehensive look at what some consider man's valid attempt to control human behaviour, and which others decry as nothing short of state-sponsored savagery.
The Thirteenth Turn is a worthwhile primer in a never-ending argument. Shuler doesn't take sides -- he just provides the ammunition.
Barry Craig is a retired journalist. The only execution he ever witnessed was his own, when traffic court hung him out to dry.