The most chilling description I ever heard of a hanging was in John Sturges’s 1959 Western, “Last Train From Gun Hill,” when duty-bound marshal Kirk Douglas tells his prisoner, Earl Holliman, who raped and murdered Douglas’s Native American wife, what will happen to him after his trial: “And then they’ll come around some cold morning, right before sunup. They’ll tie your arms behind you. You’ll start blubbering, kicking and yelling for help. It won’t do you any good. They’ll drag you out in the yard and heave you up on that platform. Fix that rope around your neck and leave you out there all alone with a big black hood over your eyes. You know that last sound you hear? A kind of thump when they kick the trapdoor catch and down you go. You’ll hit the end of that rope like a sack of potatoes. All dead weight. It’ll be white hot around your neck and your Adam’s apple will turn to mush. You’ll fight for your breath. You haven’t got any breath. Your brain will begin to boil. You’ll scream and holler. But nobody’ll hear you. You’ll hear it. But nobody else. Finally, you’re just swinging there. All alone and dead.”

It is unfortunate that Jack Shuler devotes only three paragraphs to Hollywood Westerns in his otherwise compelling cultural study of the noose. Particularly for the baby boomer generation that grew up on television Westerns, our national understanding, morally, legally and physiologically, of hanging and lynching is largely shaped by Hollywood dramatizations in horse operas. From the simply plotted “The Lone Ranger” and “The Gene Autry Show” to the more complex “The Virginian,” “Gunsmoke” and “Cimarron Strip,” television Westerns were obsessed with public hangings, nooses and lynchings. Stalwart lawmen, defenders of the rule of law, always stood up to lynch mobs; small towns were often cowardly places that produced mobs; hangings were acceptable only as a form of legal execution for a person found guilty in a court of law; and the “white man’s law,” which represented justice, was always superior to anyone else’s law, usually Indians’, which was always motivated by base revenge, something television and movie Westerns exploited but always deplored.

In the Western, hanging is either justice or injustice, moral or immoral, lawful or lawless. But the noose as an image is always ominous, menacing. In essence, all baby boomer Westerns were anti-lynching but not anti-hanging. Interestingly, most boomers were encouraged as children to read only one Western, Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Ox-Bow Incident,” an anti-lynching novel made into a famous anti-lynching film. A chapter on the baby boomers as the last generation widely exposed to the Western and the frontier myths of the lawful hanging and gunfighter justice would have added much to “The Thirteenth Turn.”

As a result, readers might have found it a bit more plausible when in 2006 white students at a Jena, La., high school who hung nooses on a tree claimed they had no awareness of the nooses’ historical significance. If they had been taught a sanitized version of American racial history and had never seen movies like “The Hanging Tree,” “Hangman’s Knot,” “Hang ‘Em High” or even comic television Westerns like “Maverick,” “Destry,” “F Troop,” “Alias Smith and Jones” or “Laredo,” where hanging was a common subject, how would these students know about lynching or about hanging as the most common form of American execution in the past? On the other hand, the violent encounters between black and white students in Jena that led to the conviction of six black teens for beating a white student — and, in September 2007, to one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in the past 30 years and a rash of noose incidents around the nation — might lead one to think that symbolic lynching as intimidation is in the American DNA as much as real lynching is.

Shuler begins his book with the Jena noose-hanging incident, perpetrated by children and grandchildren of baby boomers who grew up without Westerns and without any pop-culture knowledge of lynchings and hangings and their relationship to the American character. By framing the book in this way, he seems to be suggesting that the noose may not be deep in our contemporary conscious knowledge but that it is strangely, even dangerously submerged in our psyche. Speaking of our psyche, some discussion of the thwarted lynching in Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book commonly read by schoolchildren, might have been helpful as well.

‘The Thirteenth Turn: A History of the Noose’ by Jack Shuler (PublicAffairs)

Nonetheless, there is much to commend in this study of the noose, as a knot of intricate design, as a technique for killing and as a symbol of intimidation revealing “the underside of our progressive narratives of freedom, justice, and the rule of law.” (The book’s preoccupation with criminal and political history explains why there is no mention of autoerotic asphyxiation or hanging and sexual arousal.)

Shuler begins with a consideration of the knot itself — the title of the book refers to the 13 twists that constitute a popular version of the hangman’s noose — and the skill it takes to make it. A good hangman’s noose is no casual thing. The theory behind the noose is that, properly constructed, along with the proper drop through the trapdoor of the gallows, it should produce instantaneous and nearly painless death by severing the neck vertebrae from the spine. In “Shadow of the Gallows,” a classic history of hanging in Great Britain, published in 1954, Justin Atholl claimed that “hanging as carried out in Britain has been technically perfected.” Shuler counters that the technique has never really been perfected at all and that most people die of strangulation, not a broken neck, when they are hanged.

Following Shuler’s discussion of the knot are accounts of the hanging death of Judas Iscariot, arguably the most famous suicide by hanging in history; the oldest human remains found with a noose around his neck; public executions in the Middle Ages and beyond, which were often attended by thousands, including children. Shuler describes the tradition of the public execution sermon and the last words of the condemned, usually contrite and repentant but sometimes not, as some yelled execrations or protested their innocence. There is an account of the execution of John Brown, arguably the most famous hanging in American history.

All this is thoroughly engaging, albeit grisly, but the chapters dealing with race and lynchings, and race and public executions, in the United States are the ghastly heart of the book. From the arbitrary executions after failed slave conspiracies to the mass execution of 38 Dakota Indian men in 1862 to lynchings in Prohibition-era Marion, Ind., and post-Reconstruction North Carolina, “The Thirteenth Turn” is riveting in its way, both gruesome and heartfelt. What makes the book most compelling is that Shuler goes to the sites of these executions and lynchings, talks to local historians or descendants of historical actors, reminding us, to paraphrase Faulkner, that the past is not even past, just suppressed. Shuler does not want America’s violent past to be merely remembered but to haunt our present in a Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque way.

The best book of pure journalistic accounts of executions by hanging remains August Mencken’s 1942 compilation, “By the Neck.” But “The Thirteenth Turn” is a finely tuned study of a peculiar tragedy that shadows the triumph of what it means to be an American.

Gerald Early is a professor of English and African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis. His latest book is “A Level Playing Field: African American Athletes and the Republic of Sports.”


A History of the Noose

By Jack Shuler

PublicAffairs. 354 pp. $28.99