March 4th, 2008 Headsman
Capital punishment’s limitless literary potential has drawn the written word to it since time immemorial.
We touch through the condemned, a living creature poised on the threshold of death, that most universal and awful mystery of existence: small wonder that one of history’s most successful religions traces its foundation, its symbology, and its most sublime literature, to the execution of a Roman subject 2,000 years ago.
Conversely, the condition of a human being — even an infamous malefactor — helpless before the scaffold elicits the interest of the empathetic soul, awakens it to the compelling challenges of life.
What are justice, goodness, mercy?
What is an individual’s place (for an execution is an intrinsically social event) among his or her fellows?
Sophocles poses this question in Antigone; so does Stephen King in The Green Mile; between and beyond them lie unnumbered works both immortal and obscure, from every land and time and genre that if they have no other virtues at least concur upon one essential fact:
The death penalty makes for damned good drama.
Just as artists draw Calvary into their work, that work has drawn artists themselves unto Calvary — or the specter of the Calvary drawn artistry from seemingly modest men and women. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully” as Dr. Johnson had it, and we might observe this oft-repeated pith was issued in the most urgent context: a petition for clemency for a condemned clergyman who hanged at Tyburn nevertheless.
These stories — the fictional and the factual, borderless at the plane of the eternal; the gesture of saying what must not be said either in mortifying defiance of one’s milieu or from the ironic safety of certain death — these stories are mileposts marking a timeless path: from the bosom of a community to expulsion, where the corporeal death (however awful and real) is for its witnesses the metaphor of isolation, the lot alike of great heroes, great villains … and great artists.
Mar. 4: Thomas Usk
Mar. 5: Ferrante Pallavicino
Mar. 6: Jurgen Stroop
Mar. 7: Perpetua
Mar. 8: An Italian highwayman
Mar. 9: Emanuel Ringelblum
Mar. 10: Dante Alighieri condemned
Mar. 11: Jean-Marie Bastien-Thiry
On this day..
- 1685: Thomas Fallowfield at Leicester Square and numerous others at Tyburn - 2017
- 1864: Three Idaho robbers, choked on gold - 2016
- 1852: "Brown", lynched in California - 2015
- 2009: Abdullah Saleh Al-Kohali - 2014
- 1656: The Chief Black and White Eunuchs of Topkapi Palace - 2013
- 1561: Cardinal Carlo Carafa, papal nephew - 2012
- 1780: The slave Violet, her head stuck on a pole - 2011
- 1771: Green Tea Hag, the beginning of Dutch Learning - 2010
- 1870: Thomas Scott, "take me out of here or kill me" - 2009