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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » The Gruesome Appeal of Executions and Executioners in the Arts

The Gruesome Appeal of Executions and Executioners in the Arts

Tower of London: Nobles Were Beheaded Here - Sarah Q

Many popular books, films, songs and poetry have been inspired by people who (officially) take the lives of others, and the manner of their departures.

Shakespeare once said that nothing became a particular man in his life, except the leaving of it. Three hundred years ago, the public flocked to watch the entertainment of executions. Broadsheets of last words or narrative songs were best-sellers; souvenirs. So, artistic use of executions and executioners has been around for a long time.

Modern executioners’ hoods are for sale, for people who want to imagine or play games. Execution is the corollary of discussion over the merits or otherwise of the death penalty. How is it done? Public or private? Descriptions like ‘state-sanctioned murder’, ‘system sponsored killing’, or ‘offing the inconvenient’ convey strong feelings.

Public desire for revenge, for punishment that fits the crime is extremely powerful. When ePetitions were launched by the UK Parliament in August 2011, it’s telling that among the popular front runners, gathering many votes, was a demand for the return of capital punishment.

Literature’s Rich Seam

It’s in the arts that views for and against can be given full reign. Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) followed the tragic career of Gary Gilmore, described as ‘an intractably violent product of America’s prisons’. He was famous for two reasons: robbing and killing two men in cold blood, and insisting on his right to die for his crime.

His protracted fight against what Good Reads described as ‘a system that seemed paradoxically intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death’, was compelling. It illustrated the fascination of the process from court to firing squad, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966, film 1967) also arose from criminal execution.

Novels concerned with executions/executioners include Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities (1859) set in the French Revolution with its guillotine. Billy Budd (started 1888, subsequently revised in different versions; Benjamin Britten’s 1924 opera; stage play 1949; and film 1962) was about discipline aboard an 18th century ship. It was good versus evil with a naive young man hanged from the yardarm.

The Book of Daniel by E L Doctorow, A Perfect Evil by Alex Kava, Caleb Williams by William Godwin and Sleep Toward Heaven by Amanda Eyre Ward were on a list published by Library Thing. Coffin for King Charles: The Trial of Charles I by CV Wedgwood drew on the historical reality of the beheading of the monarch in 1649, and Nine Days a Queen, about the short life on Lady Jane Gray by Ann Rinaldi, also used fact.

Other titles included News From the Dead (Mary Hooper); The Pardon (James Grippando); A Perfect Execution (Tim Binding); The Hangman’s Hymn (PC Doherty); The Hanging Tree (VAC Gatrell) and The Last Face You’ll Ever See (Ivan Solotaroff). There was also The Executioner Always Chops Twice (Geoffrey Abbott) who also produced The Book of Execution: An Encyclopedia of Methods of Judicial Execution, What a Way to Go and Rack, Rope and Red Hot Pincers.

Other Art Forms

Goya’s painted masterpiece, Third of May 1808, is of an execution. The ‘Incredible String Band’ entitled their 1968 album, The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter, and Sharyn McCrumb called her 1993 novel the same. The Hangman’s Daughter (2010) was a novel by Oliver Potzsch, while The Executioner’s Daughter (2000) was a work of fiction from Laura E. Williams.

Marjorie Blackman’s acclaimed racial-relationship series for young people Noughts and Crosses featured execution, with a thought-track stopped mid-sentence as a victim dropped. Another dystopian, speculative fiction with a hanging was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985, movie 1990, opera 2000)

Executions of The Day published top ten movie executions, from Schindler’s List (1993), Dead Man Walking (1995), Cromwell (1970), The Name of the Rose (1986) about burning for heresy, Braveheart (1995) and Sophie Scholl (2005) that used the actual guillotine which executed the real Sophie in 1943. The Passion of the Christ (2004) featured the crucifixion of Christ for real, while Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979) lampooned it.

Apocalypto (2006) relished graphic beheadings. The Green Mile (1999) had three electric chair departures. And that’s without getting into horror or Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Hang ‘em High (1968) and a host of western movie stringings up.

There was also a 1995 documentary, Executions, featuring beheading, stoning, shooting, electrocution, guillotining and chemical killing (gas chambers, lethal injections). Kill Bill (2003; 2004) and mafia films often used vigilante, semi-judicial execution. The Ring and The Book was a narrative dramatic poem by Robert Browning about a trial and failed death sentence appeal.

The Facts

British hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, (his family produced three hangmen) was portrayed in Executioner Pierrepoint, movies Let Him Have It (1991), 10 Rillington Place (1971) and Pierrepoint (2006). He was understandably fascinating, dispatching over 600 men and women, including Nazi war criminals, acid-bath murderer Haigh, simple minded Derek Bentley posthumously pardoned in 1998 and Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in Britain (1955).

Professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust claimed Germans connived happily in the ‘Final Solution’ of extermination of the Jews. For him, it was a ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ issue, which also revealed continuing fascination with the last world war.

The actual Execution Protocol of America’s capital punishment by Stephen Trombley is available to buy. Jack Kevorkian, dubbed “Doctor Death’ because of his assisting dozens of suicides, wrote Prescription Medicide: The Goodness of Planned Death. Execution by suicide is perhaps a legitimate subsection of human behaviour, as is suicide by police shooting.

Public execution by elephant was in South, Southeast Asia and India a common method of execution. They were trained to dismember, crush and torture prisoners and kill quickly or slowly. When European travellers started arriving, their journals record their horror. These were unique literature and eye-witness accounts, but the practice was also used in ancient Rome, renowned for barbaric public spectacle.

Whatever the method and reason, the fact is, executions may enrich the arts in some form.

First published on Suite 101, 19 August 2011

Image: Tower of London: Nobles Were Beheaded Here – Sarah Q

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