Hanging Matters

08.27.14

The Twisted History of the Noose

The story of hanging is long—there are hangings in Homer and the Bible—and often tragic—if for lynching alone—but rarely less than fascinating.

Jack Shuler’s The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose features an evocative account of the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which reached its infamous nadir when 38 American Indians were hanged in public in Mankato, Minnesota. At the heart of this chronicle of the country’s “largest simultaneous execution” is a mesmerizing bit of prose that even the most jaded reader is likely to find moving.

“They did not go quietly,” Shuler writes. “As they stood on the scaffold … the men had called out their names to let the others know they were not alone, to speak their names into being, to bear witness. I am One Who Jealously Guards His Home. I am One Who Walks Clothed in Owl Feathers. I am His People. I am Red Leaf. I am Rattling Runner. I am One Who Stands on a Cloud.”

This stirring moment arrives in a chapter that spotlights the highs and lows of a persistently uneven book. Alongside his harrowing depiction of state-sanctioned mass killing, Shuler offers a string of digressions that only distract from his core goals.

He tells us about the fashion sense he shares with a Minnesota Historical Society staffer (“We both wear beards and the same uniform: shirt, tie, khakis, and hoodie.”) He recalls the time, seemingly unrelated to his work on this book, when he grew so frustrated with an interview subject that he considered phoning home and asking for backup. And, peering deep into his own navel, he interrogates himself about his motives for writing the book: “What’s the endgame? What’s the motivation? Political? Personal? Can I trace every strand of the knot from beginning to end? Is this about the knot or is this about me?”

The incongruity is jarring. It would be ridiculous to suggest that there’s no place for autobiographical details in a serious work of history. Countless essays, works of journalism, and touchstones of narrative nonfiction have shown us otherwise. But there’s a trivial quality to most of Shuler’s self-conscious meanderings, and this gives them an out-of-place feel. The material itself is plenty powerful without them.

The Thirteenth Turn has other problems. Shuler’s writing can be careless. Telling the horrible story of the execution of an uneducated 12-year-old girl in 18th-century Connecticut, he says that her “apparent ignorance continued during her final days in jail, a sign, perhaps of her stress, her youth, or her ignorance.” Ignorance is a sign of ignorance? Later, he says that the killers from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood “disrupted the life of a western farmer and his family.” They did a lot more than that.

“The noose has become the new burning cross, the ready symbol for expressing hate and fostering a climate of fear.”

There’s also the matter of Shuler’s scattershot approach. Familiar incidents like the hanging of John Brown and the lynching that inspired the song Strange Fruit are both considered at length, yet nothing really novel is said about either. Meanwhile, other deserving events get short-shrift: the hanging of Nat Turner merits one paragraph; Nathan Hale’s hanging, three passing mentions.

Look beyond its flaws, though, and you’ll find a book that also happens to contain some powerful images and scenes. These tend to arrive when Shuler tempers his impulse to insert himself into the action.

He starts by roaming deep into the past, cataloging the hangings that appear in Homer, Dante, and the Bible, and discussing pre-Christian hangings that might’ve been carried out for sacrificial purposes. He explains that a prototypical hangman’s knot involves 13 turns of the rope, evidence of a particularly gruesome sort of criminal premeditation.

He’s at his most poised in the pages where he reckons with the ways in which the noose—both as a symbol and a killing device—has been wielded as a means of terrorizing African Americans, during slavery and thereafter.

“Lynching isn’t something many wish to discuss, let alone bring up in a classroom,” says Shuler, who teaches literature and black studies at Denison University in Ohio. “It’s a nasty part of American history; the stories produce discomfort, especially for white people like myself. And well they should: the violence and the numbers are staggering.” Given the nature of the crimes and the climate in which they were committed, the numbers themselves are inexact. But Shuler notes that in their 1995 book, A Festival of Violence, Stewart E. Tolnay and E.M. Beck found that 2,500 black Americans were lynched in the South in the half-century ending in 1930.

Shocking public hangings also happened in the North. In the spring and summer of 1741, after a reputed slave uprising, “authorities in the city of New York hanged twenty-one people and burned thirteen others at the stake … Of those executed,” Shuler writes, “four were white and thirty were black.” The gallows, he says, was probably in the space now occupied by City Hall Park in Manhattan, a disturbing idea to anyone who’s ever strolled across the picturesque plot of land favored by break-taking office workers and snapshot-happy tourists.

One of Shuler’s missions is to remind us that the noose is not a relic of the past. He points out that the last lawful hanging in the U.S. occurred in January 1996, when convicted double-murderer Billy Bailey was executed in Delaware, and notes that New Hampshire and Washington have legal provisions that allow for the death penalty to be carried out by hanging. These facts might seem remote from the lives of most readers, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of his reporting on the many recent instances in which a noose has been used to intimidate African Americans.

One such incident involved Jason Upthegrove, a Lima, Ohio, NAACP chapter president. In 2008, after police shot and killed an unarmed black woman named Tarika Wilson, Upthegrove pressed local officials to end a documented “pattern of racial profiling.” “The media, both local and national, picked up the story,” Shuler writes. “That’s when the pushback started. First it was phone calls. Then racist flyers on cars and lampposts.” That February, a noose arrived in a package mailed to Upthegrove’s home. An Oregon man with ties to a white supremacist group was arrested and sentenced to an 18-month prison term.

Shuler notes that this is one of many such occurrences, and lists a series of recent cases of harassment and intimidation in which a noose was employed. Again, statistics paint only a partial picture, but he cites a report that tallied “over 106 noose incident-related lawsuits” filed in the U.S. in the first two years of Barack Obama’s presidency. “The noose,” he says, “has become the new burning cross, the ready symbol for expressing hate and fostering a climate of fear in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout the United States.”

This is a crucial point. But the narrative loses urgency when Shuler unspools one of his off-topic asides. In his chapter about the execution of the Dakota Indians, for instance, he provides an unedifying account of a minor disagreement he had with a present-day tribesman. Then he launches into a breathless detour that’s meant to convince us of his mettle but ends up having the opposite effect: “One time a man I was interviewing accused me of being an operative of one of his longtime rivals, an accusation that said a lot about him. I pulled out my phone and said I was calling my mother and he could talk to her and that my word is my word and that if he didn’t believe me, well, my mother could set him straight.”

Later, Shuler invokes the death of a schoolmate who hanged himself. He does so despite conceding that “(t)his is not a book about suicide” and explaining that he “didn’t know [his fellow student] that well”—facts that make his decision to include this story feel particularly cynical.

In The Thirteenth Turn, Shuler does some good, important work. But he also exhibits a tin ear, and demonstrates an unappealing penchant for introducing himself as a character into episodes that don’t benefit from his presence. There are moments when the book thrives—but this tends to happen when he’s an offstage chronicler of events, not an active participant in them. The most engaging essayists and historians can seamlessly blend the personal and the political. On this front, Shuler’s still got some work to do.