Magazine | October 31, 2011, Issue

A Hankie for the Hangman

I have seen the enemy and, as usual, it’s us.   

When the Supreme Court refused to intervene in the Troy Davis execution, the lethal injection that had been scheduled for a few hours earlier was administered. Suddenly he was dead and just as suddenly the air went out of the assembled edgy protesters and the grim troops in full riot gear that had been brought in. The atmosphere changed so fast you could almost hear the pop and hiss of an enormous cultural balloon that had been resolutely pricked, leaving nothing but rubbery bits and pieces of anticlimax floating down over the scene.

But America has repealed the law of anticlimaxes. There’s another cultural balloon where that one came from, and our Pandora, no slouch, was able to produce it first crack out of the box and get it going that very same night.

Once it was clear that 22 years of petitions, appeals, stays, and fears of civil insurrection had failed to save Davis, the Rousseauean wing of our great diversity realized that they needed a new and different war of nerves to bring about the abolition of capital punishment. They found it so fast you could almost hear the squealing skid as they hit their brakes and spun around to pick up their new poster child: the Weeping Warden.

I forget his name — or if he gave it — but he was a retired prison official who spoke shakily, holding back tears, about the emotional damage he and his confreres had sustained from being part of lethal-injection “teams.” News anchors immediately pounced, comparing execution squads in prisons to soldiers in battle, wondering if there was any difference, and running a Tweet line asking viewers to vote Yes or No.

The Weeping Warden is the overnight sensation of American moral philosophy. Get ready for it; there will be Roundtables, Special Reports, Overviews, and lots of newly minted Weeping Warden counselors, all of whom will contend that capital punishment must go because it forces decent people to become killers. They will also give us an acronym, without which no American war of nerves can proceed apace: Post-Execution Guilt, or PEG.

A centerpiece of their campaign will be how PEG influenced England’s decision to abolish capital punishment in 1969. This story will be told over and over because it refutes the stiff upper lip, something our compassionistas love to do. It’s about the hanging of Edith Thompson in 1923.

Edith Thompson, 28, was a childless suburban matron who worked as a buyer for a London hat store. Like Madame Bovary, she was bored by her husband, devoured cheap romantic novels, and had an affair, but not with a suave aristocrat. Her lover was Freddy Bywaters, 20, a merchant seaman. It was a perfect arrangement for her temperament: She slept with him when he was home, but when he was away she wrote him some 60 letters full of descriptions of how she tried to murder her husband with ground glass in his coffee, cyanide in his shepherd’s pie, and so forth — all based on scenes from her favorite novels and designed to impress the uncomplicated Bywaters with the depth of her devotion.

#page#One night as she was returning home with her husband, Bywaters sprang out of the bushes and fatally stabbed his rival. He was soon caught, and so was Edith when police found dozens of her letters that he had saved. Her lawyer got nowhere with the cheap-novels defense; easy familiarity with “identifying” and “role playing” was decades in the future. She was found guilty of what we call conspiracy to commit murder. Expecting reprieve, she got word of its denial just a few days before she was to hang, and she fell apart. The account of her animal-like terror is unbearable to read and moved me to a “rescue fantasy” such as I have for Joan of Arc. Beyond the balm of sedation, she had to be carried to the gallows, struggling and screaming, and held down on the trap door.

But the worst was yet to come. When the trap sprang and her body jerked against the end of the rope, her genital area expelled a massive gush of blood. She could not have been pregnant; she had been in prison for about four months so the authorities would have known it, and she could have used pregnancy to gain a stay of execution and probably a reprieve. Possibly she was so numbed by terror that her periods had stopped, or maybe the abortion she had had early in her affair with Bywaters had damaged her internally.

Whatever it was, her hangman, John Ellis, was destroyed. He quit his job immediately; a year later he tried while drunk to shoot himself in the head but missed and was charged with attempted suicide — a crime at that time. After a year in prison he worked sporadically as a salesman, then joined a traveling carnival where he demonstrated hanging techniques. By 1932 he was a hopeless drunk who threatened to kill his wife and daughter, and finally killed himself by slashing his throat.

America would kill for a Weeping Warden like that, which is why we have so much trouble defining our moral principles. The principle alone is never enough; we must have a victim to go with it, and when we find him we make him so famous that he exchanges victimhood for celebrity. The moral principle that started it all crops up from time to time on his hit show, Ask the Weeping Warden, but the ethics of the death penalty take a back seat to its effect on those “children and grandchildren” that everyone keeps dragging in to the discussions.

By contrast, John Ellis did not intend to draw attention to himself but to a case. Refusing to have anything to do with the press, he was soon forgotten, but the English never again regarded the noose in quite the same way after Edith Thompson. To Ellis, she was the only victim.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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