November 17, 2010

Death by Hanging

Today's blog is by Historical Romance author Kathy Otten. Enjoy! And make sure you visit her website for more information on Kathy and her books.

In my new novel, Lost Hearts, my hero, Richard Bennick is a U.S. Deputy Marshal for the Western District of Arkansas, which at the time of my novel, in 1877, had full jurisdiction over Indian Territory. The federal court was located in Fort Smith, Arkansas with one of the toughest federal court judges in history, Judge Isaac Charles Parker. During his years on the bench, from 1875-1896, Judge Parker sentenced 160 men to death, 79 of which were hanged. He quickly became known as the “Hanging Judge.”

Parker’s chief executioner was a man originally from Bavaria, named George Maledon. Maledon was a small framed man, only five feet, five inches tall. He had large dark eyes, a scraggly beard, and a gloomy appearance. Under Parker’s order, Maledon carried out the hangings for 60 of those men, which earned him the nickname, “Prince of Hangmen.”

Maledon took great pride in his work. Each rope was only used eleven times. He made sure no man strangled, kicking and twisting until he died, but rather died instantaneously, from a broken neck.

Each rope was twenty-seven feet in length and made of the finest hemp. To keep them from slipping, Maledon treated them with a pitchy oil substance. He then stretched the ropes on the gallows with two hundred pound bags of sand and oiled them again. Originally an inch and a quarter in diameter, the ropes were stretched to a tight one inch, perfect for knotting and oily enough so it gave no squeak when it jerked.

Maledon claimed his big knot was the secret of a good execution and to form his noose each rope was wrapped thirteen times.

On the gallows, the rope was dropped over the neck the prisoner and tightened over the larynx until it touched skin all the way around. The knot was placed under the left ear in the hollow at the back of the jaw bone. The rope was then brought upward, over the top of the head to hang down in a curve on the other side. That held the knot steady under the ear.

The trap would spring, the man dropped through, and the rope snapped taut. The big knot threw the head sideways and fractured the spine, giving each man a quick, easy death.

In the following excerpt, the hero, Richard, leaves a meeting with the U.S. Marshal and finds himself staring at the famous gallows in Fort Smith, contemplating his own death.

His stomach churned and sweat popped out across his brow. Even now the guilt still lingered. He’d done something, something very bad, he just didn’t know what. He didn’t want to think about it, but Brady was dead, and he had a feeling it was his fault.

God, he needed a drink.


Richard blinked and blew out a shaky breath. Upham had asked a question. What was it?

“Deputy, I think this is too much for you right now.”

“I’m fine, it’s just hot in here.”

“No, you don’t look well. Go home, get some rest, and we’ll talk again in a couple of days. Meantime, you may want to hire yourself an attorney. If this goes to the grand jury, he can have Hobbs and Johnny Bodine subpoenaed. I’ll send as many deputies out to find them as I have to.” Upham stood and stepped around his desk.

Richard rose and they shook hands.

“Now don’t worry, deputy,” Marshal Upham said as they walked to the office door. “You’ve been very ill. Just give it time. The memories will come back to you.”

Richard said good-bye and limped down the hallway. That’s what he was afraid of.

Outside, he mounted his horse and sat, his gaze captured by the gallows on the south side of the parade grounds. The platform rose seven feet high, just enough to keep a man’s feet from touching the ground when the lever was pulled. A twelve foot beam supported by heavy timbers, ran the width of the floor, and was strong enough to allow six men to simultaneously drop to their deaths.

Although hangings attracted hundreds of people who camped out near the grounds and brought picnic lunches, Richard had never watched an execution. He’d seen too much of the reality of life to find death entertaining.

How would it feel to stand up there, looking out across a crowd of gawking spectators? Would he choose to wear the hood, or would he stare defiantly over the tops of their heads as the weight of the finest hemp was dropped around his neck.

He could almost imagine the prick of the fibers pressing into his Adam’s apple as the well oiled hemp was pulled snug. He swallowed against the imaginary pressure. The knot would lay heavy behind his left ear, in the hollow of his jaw bone. Then when the trap opened, and his body shot down, the rope would snap taut and break his neck.

The hangman, George Maledon, once told Richard that he had never preformed a “bad” hanging. He had a trick when positioning the rope so men didn’t strangle, thrashing and kicking until they died.

Richard tightened his grip on the reins. Would hanging be his fate if he couldn’t remember; if Johnny couldn’t be found? Though he struggled daily to do right, maybe in the end, this had always been his destiny.

Check out Kathy's new release,
Lost Hearts.
Now available at The Wild Rose Press.


Sarah Grimm said...


Interesting blog post, thanks for sharing it with us today. I knew a little about hanging, but not that much.

Lost Hearts sounds like a wonderful book, it's definately going on my TBR list.


Kathy Otten said...

Thanks so much for having me here today.
One of the things I love about researching historical novels is all the fascinating bits of trivia. I learned this just to write this scene, though originally it was Johnny who was supposed to wonder what a hanging was like. As usual the characters had their own ideas and Richard was the one who ended up in trouble.

Debra St. John said...

Hi Kathy,

I just love this cover! Makes me want to run out and buy the book!

Thanks for sharing an excerpt.

Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Kathy,
What an interesting topic to blog about. Lost hearts sounds like another one of your great stories.



Kathy Otten said...

Thanks for stopping by. The wonderful cover was done by Nicola Martinez, who has done all my covers. :)

Kathy Otten said...

Hi Margaret,
I tried to find a topic that hadn't been done before. And since it was a tiny bit of a scene, I went with it.

Cheryl Pierson said...

VERY INTERESTING POST! I did not know it was such a science. It makes you wonder how Maledon knew all those things--he had to have made a few mistakes when he first started out.

Congratulations on Lost Hearts. I'm looking forward to reading it!


Kathy Otten said...

Hi Cheryl,
Great question. Maybe he learned from the previous executioner. I just know that he swore he never performed a bad hanging and he would take the time to talk about his craft to anyone who would listen.

P.L. Parker said...

History does have these little "quirks." Interesting blog.

Kathy Otten said...

Hello P L Parker,
I guess I enjoy the quirks of history more than those of the present.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Kathy, great info for those of us who write western historicals. Thanks. Best of luck with your books.

Kathy Otten said...

Thank you, Caroline. Appreciate your stopping by.

Karen Michelle Nutt said...

I loved the tidbit of history you shared with us.

I also enjoyed the excerpt, too. Makes me want to know if the hero ends up remembering what really happened. Felt the his worry right along with him when he thought about the noose tightening around his neck.

I wish you the best with your release.

Kathy Otten said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the excerpt. The thing about this hero is that part of him believes he deserves to be hanged.