A few years back, as I explained to an acquaintance that I was writing a book about the history of Ohio’s death penalty, he turned to me and said: “Who would read that?” It was a rude question, but also a fair one, and it made me think. I hope the resulting volume, “No Winners Here Tonight,” published in 2009, while perhaps not suitable as a Christmas stocking stuffer, was at the very least an accessible take on a dark subject.
My “Who would read that?” moment has been on my mind recently after finishing “The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose,” by Jack Shuler, a writer and English professor at Denison University. (The title refers to the typical number of rope turns on a perfectly tied noose.) I wouldn’t recommend it either as a Christmas stocking or an Easter basket gift, but it’s a book every student of American history, serious or casual, should read. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the most important books published last year.
Shuler starts his narrative in Jena, Louisiana, where two nooses appeared on a tree at a high school in 2006 after black students sat beneath it in defiance of a rumored (but apparently baseless) rule that only whites could sit there. Subsequent events, including attempted murder charges against a group of black students who apparently beat up a white student, led, on Sept. 20, 2007, to one of the country’s largest civil rights demonstrations. One of the things about the episode that piqued Shuler’s interest initially, he says, was that the perpetrators behind the nooses claimed they didn’t understand the history of lynching or the historical significance of a noose for African Americans. The school’s investigation backed up the students’ claims. How could this be, Shuler asked himself, given the legacy of extrajudicial hanging in this country. “Lynching and capital punishment are a central part of American history,” he writes. “Hanging is a part of American history, our history. So the noose can teach us a lot about the underside of our progressive narratives of freedom, justice, and the rule of law.” In September 2010, Shuler began tracking noose incidents around the country and as of the book’s publication had documented eighty-two instances in which a noose was used for intimidation of a minority group or person.
The book then goes back in time, tracing the history of the noose and hanging in centuries past. We learn of Tollund man, an Iron Age body discovered in a Danish bog with a noose around his neck. Ensuing chapters explore hanging in the Roman Empire, Medieval Europe, colonial New York, during the Indian Wars–including the 1862 mass hanging of 39 Dakota Indians in Minnesota–and in the American South during and after slavery, including lynching as a post-Reconstruction form of terrorism. As Shuler notes, “the hangman’s noose can tell us a story across time and place. It represents a history of violence, a history that for some signifies the proper execution of justice and, for others, the limits of government (or better, human compassion). It represents horror, helplessness, and hopelessness.”
It all sounds terribly depressing, and as an academic treatise it would be hard to stomach. But Shuler is first and foremost a gifted writer, and one not afraid to insert himself directly into his subject matter. The results are an intimate and immensely readable book. “The mob settled down and like vultures gliding the currents, relic hunters began their scavenging, taking pieces of clothing, tree, and rope,” he writes of a 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. Or here he is, in a tense conversation with a member of the Dakota tribe during an interview in a South Dakota casino: “There’s a pause, and the awkwardness between us settles in like skunk-spray through a window in springtime.” He effectively uses this same first-person approach, part journalist, part historian, part open-minded student, whether examining a piece of hemp rope supposedly part of the noose used to hang abolitionist John Brown, or studying the dismantled gallows that Kansas once used to execute condemned criminals, including the two killers immortalized in Truman Capote’s classic true crime account, In Cold Blood.
“Rope is cheap,” Ohio state Senator Bill Seitz quipped last year as Ohio lawmakers debated legislation aimed at replenishing the state’s dwindling supplies of lethal injection drugs. No one seriously considered returning Ohio to a hanging state, but the sentiment also did not fall on unsympathetic ears. “The Thirteenth Turn” is a guidepost to understanding the history behind such a comment and what it means to hear it uttered even now.