The Botched Hanging: A Deleted Scene from The Lightning in Her Veins
The following is my favorite deleted scene from my in-progress novel, formerly THE BINDING OF SAINT BARBARA, now THE LIGHTNING IN HER VEINS. The original manuscript had multiple perspectives, one of which was that of the warden, Charles Durston.
A part of the warden's backstory was that he and his brother witnessed a terrible hanging when they were children, which, in my story, made Charles want to fight for death by electrocution because at the time it was believed to be more humane than hanging.
I incorporated a real historical event into this scene, and to answer your question (you'll know it when you see it) yes, the following is possible because it happened. Unfortunately, having written this scene ten years ago, I have since lost the source of this incident, so I cannot tell you where to find the original story. If anyone does, please do share it! I'll speak to this historical events a little more at the end of the scene.
|The tombstone of Charles F. Durston, the warden of Auburn Prison, |
who oversaw the first death by electrocution in 1891.
died in 1894 by a heart attack,
only three years after the historical execution.
She had pulled Charles and his younger brother Frederick behind her. The summer breeze wafted her black skirt against their faces. Her boots clomped down the dirt road toward the crowd. They lived upstate and people had come to town from their farms in wagons and on horses as if it were a parade. Loud voices called out, “Roasted peanuts. Raisins for sale.”
He was twelve at the time so it must have been 1852. His father had wanted to take them to a hanging as a deterrent for immoral behavior. Charles’ mother disagreed, arguing “Violence begets violence and evil begets evil.” But then their father left one day, and she suddenly decided to take them. “You don’t have a man to discipline you, so you need to see what happens when people are bad,” she had said. “Hold onto your brother’s hand and whatever you do, don’t let go.” She pushed them through the crowd of people and to the front with other children so they could see. They stood there, not speaking, just listening to the general clamor. Charles didn’t hold his brother’s hand. He had been annoyed with him following him everywhere since their father left. The hot sun made Charles’ dark hair burn to the touch, and a sour smell wafted up from everyone sweating.
It was ten or fifteen minutes before the jailhouse door swung open and an armed man stepped out. Another appeared, and together they marched five prisoners out, up a set of steps, and across a raised wooden platform, which had nooses swaying from an overhang. Charles could see beneath the platform and realized soon he’d see their boots dangling from below. The boys at school talked about how they used to hang people by throwing a rope over a tree and letting them choke, but now they broke their necks. People had said it was more humane, but that day Charles learned that they were wrong.
|The last public hanging in West Virginia in 1897.|
Three of the condemned had purple and green lumps on their faces from a fight. Someone must have tried to slit one of their throats. The man seemed half dead already with a bandage wrapped around his neck and red seeping through the middle. At one point, he staggered forward before a guard steadied him under his noose. The fourth man was the only colored one, and he didn’t look scared at all, but the fifth man wept, his tears streaking through the filth on his face. Charles couldn’t recall having ever seen a grown man cry, and it filled him with a dreadful feeling, like the ground might sink. Then, a boy not much older than him threw a rock and shouted, “Cry in hell.” A woman called out, “Hang them!” Then people pelted them with peanuts and others hurled squishy red and purple fruit, which left wet stains on the men’s dirty clothes. Charles wondered if he should do the same, but he looked back at the crying criminal and just didn’t want to. He couldn’t imagine how awful that man felt, and he didn’t want to make it worse.
The local pastor walked on stage. “Now is the time to reveal your sins before they are revealed to your maker.”
Drool or snot dripped in long strings from the sobbing man as the pastor touched his shoulder and listened to his confession. “May God have mercy on your soul.” Charles hoped they’d all confess and be forgiven. He didn’t want anybody to go to hell, to suffer for all eternity, no matter what their crimes.
A thickset guard pulled a potato sack over his own head. Someone had cut holes for the mouth, nose, and eyes. He walked up behind each man, slipped the rope over each neck, and tightened them.
“Charlie?” Frederick tugged his shirt. “What’s he wearing?”
“Stop that.” He swatted his hand away. “How would I know?”
An old man next to them leaned over and with a gnarled voice said, “He’s hiding his face from them so they won’t point him out to his maker or to the fallen one, Satan.” His brother recoiled and Charles grabbed his chest as a pain, like the sting of a hornet, pierced through his heart.
Without warning the pastor called out, “May God—” and the masked man yanked a lever and the floor dropped out. Charles and Frederick jumped. The men snapped down hard with a thud and crack, plus a third sound like tearing fabric. Everyone gasped, women screamed, and the pastor dropped his Bible.
|The front of Auburn Prison.|
For more photographs see
Auburn Correctional Facility by Eileen McHugh
With his throat already having been partially cut, the drop was enough to rip off the injured man’s head completely. His body fell out of the rope and to the ground, blood spewing everywhere. His head hit the stage with a loud thud and then bumped and rolled across the platform. The guards stood with jaws dropped and eyes unblinking until the head neared the edge of the platform. All at once, everyone realized it would drop off into the crowd, which broke free of shock and in a wave of motion stampeded in the opposite direction.
His mother grabbed him and yanked him hard. He tried to stay with her, but bodies pushed in from all sides, forcing themselves between them. Still, she gripped his hand, and he desperately clung to the tiny slivers of her black dress he could make out between the bodies pressing inward. Then a hand pushed his head down, an elbow dug into his back, something knocked him in the side of his neck. Hot and moist skin pressed against him from all sides. He screamed but all he heard were everyone else’s screams.
Once they were far enough from the stage, people spread out and Charles could finally breathe.
“Frederick? Frederick?” She grabbed him by the arms. “Where is your brother? Did you let him go?”
He couldn’t respond. He didn’t know.
“Charles?” She shook him by the shoulders and then smacked him across the face.
He grabbed his cheek and looked back horrified.
“Say something. Where is your brother? Why did you let him go?” His mother turned back and Charles looked too. He spotted an old man on the ground, a girl splayed out, and then another, and another. People who pushed and shoved moments before sprinted back to find the loved ones they left behind or lost during the commotion. Charles scanned the bodies until he found a boy curled up with a man leaning over. He pointed and his mother gripped his wrist and took off, dragging him behind her.
They reached him in a matter of moments, but Charles stopped a few feet away. He saw the man wasn’t leaning over his brother but was bending down right in front of him to scoop up the decapitated head, sliding it into the potato sack with holes cut for eyes. Their mother held Frederick against her chest. “It’s all right. I have you. You’re safe.”
Freddy stared straight ahead without acknowledging them. His pale skin shimmered in the hot sun.
“Frederick?” She held him out, pressed her hands against his face. “Freddy? My son, are you hurt? Say something.”
Frederick turned green and convulsed in his mother’s grip before bile drooled out of his mouth and down his chin.
A man stopped and helped carry Frederick away from the gallows and to some shade under a tree and eventually they got him to stand on his own, but Frederick remained in that strange empty state all the way home. He refused food or drink, and when he finally slept, he tossed and turned until he awoke them with shrill shrieks. Their mother slept next to him in Freddy’s bed. Charles’ bed was only a few feet away. He was so tired that when his brother cried out for the third time, he couldn’t keep his eyes open. Half-asleep, he listened as his mother pleaded with God. “What do I do? What can I do? It’s all right baby. You are safe,” she wept. “God, help me. I don’t know what to do. I’m so sorry. Please, God, please, help me.”
|The Lockstep, a control device used to move prisoners|
in Auburn Prison from one location to the other.
For more photographs see
Auburn Correctional Facility by Eileen McHugh
A pinch in Charles’ chest woke him sometime later. His mother still lay sleeping but now alone in his brother’s bed. Charles did not want to frighten her, so he did not wake her but quietly slipped out of bed. He found his brother half-lit in lamplight in their mother’s room. “Frederick?” he whispered. Charles walked closer and saw several items scattered on the floor before him. He knew them well. His father left behind a pair of cufflinks, two letters to their mother from before they were born, and his wedding band.
Charles sat down next to him. “Which is your favorite?”
“Mother said we will get to have these when we get older.”
“Can I have the ring?” Freddy’s voice was so small, he didn’t need to whisper.
“She might give it to you now if you asked.”
He shook his head.
“I should have held onto you tighter. I’m sorry.” It wasn’t enough. Charles didn’t know how he could ever make it up to his brother. Charles was older. He was supposed to take care of him and he failed.
Freddy rearranged the items, stacked the letters haphazardly on their mother’s nightstand. “Where did father go?”
Charles shook his head. “I don’t know.”
A tear followed the lines of his brother’s cheekbone. “I saw his face.”
Charles recalled that head, the blood. “I did too.”
“You saw Father’s face too?”
“Today, it was him. I couldn’t tell it was him before because of the bruises, but I could tell when it was in front of me.” A tear landed on the letters, and Frederick dabbed at it, but the ink smudged. “It was Father. I saw his eyes blink. His head was alive, and he saw me. He saw me watching him die.”
“That’s what you’ve been dreaming?”
“That’s what happened, today. Father left because I wasn’t good enough and now he’ll hate me forever because I watched him die.”
“Father didn’t leave because of you.” Charles’ swallowed hard. “And today, that’s not what happened. That man was a criminal, not Father. Father didn’t hate you.”
“He did. You don’t know. You weren’t around when he’d tell me.”
Charles didn’t know what he was talking about.
“When we were alone, he told me to do things but I wasn’t good enough and he said he hated me.”
Charles started to shake. Even though he didn’t fully understand at the time, he still knew something terrible had happened.
Frederick continued as he picked up the lantern and headed back toward their room. “In my dreams, he speaks to me. He says ‘Evil begets evil and evil has you.”
Charles didn’t know what to say. The house moaned from the wind as if mourning something they had all lost that day. “It was just a dream.”
Charles watched him slide back into bed with their mother and then he got down on his knees next to the bed and whispered. “I’m sorry I didn’t protect you. I should have watched out for you better today and before. I promise I will protect you forever. I’ll never let anything bad happen to you again. I’ll protect you always.”
So did you figure out which part leads to the question, is that really possible? Yep, it's the accidental decapitation. As mentioned in the beginning, this is based on a historical event. During my research I found an account of a man having been decapitated during a hanging due to a neck injury where someone had attempted to cut his throat. I could swear I found this story in one of the following secondary resources:
Edison and the Electric Chair by Mark Essig
Executioner's Current by Richard Moran
AC/DC: The Savage Tale of the First Standards War by Tom McNichol
But I also did an extensive amount of research using Fulton History sifting through hundreds of newspapers for primary sources and first-hand accounts. It's possible this is where the mysterious account awaits.