Today I'm delighted to welcome my good friend and fellow author Hope Tarr, who has kindly consented to stop by and talk about a rather unusual occupation for a historical hero. But before I pass the Wenchly Pen to her, allow me to highlight some of her impressive accomplishments, both as a writer and a tireless advocate for our genre. As a co-founder of Lady Jane's Salon, a monthly romance reading series in New York City, Hope has helped create an amazing venue that attracts authors, editors and readers to gather for an evening of camaraderie and stories–as well as collect books and funds for women's shelters in the area.
As further backstory, Hope earned a Master’s Degree in Developmental Psychology and a Ph.D. in Education only to discover she didn’t want to teach people or analyze them. She wanted to write about them! For the past decade she has been doing just that, writing the books of her heart in both historical and contemporary settings. In addition to MY LORD JACK (July 12, 2010) and A ROGUE’S PLEASURE (August 16, 2010), both reissued with Carina Press, look for her single-title novella, Tomorrow’s Destiny, in A HARLEQUIN CHRISTMAS CAROL with Betina Krahn and Jacquie D’Alessandro this November 10, 2010. (For more details, you can visit her online at www.HopeTarr.com)
And now, without further ado, I turn the page over to Hope!
“Her hero’s a hangman!?!”
So exclaimed author, Patricia Potter when my then editor at Berkley, Cindy Hwang, first approached her to read, and hopefully provide an author quote for, my Scottish-set romance, MY LORD JACK.
Fortunately for me, Pat found the fortitude to finish the book despite its admittedly off-setting premise. In the end she pronounced MY LORD JACK “a book to feast upon.”
Whew! Talk about close calls.
MY LORD JACK went on to receive a nomination for a Dorothy Parker Award of Excellence and a stream of mostly glowing reviews. Sadly by the time the book hit store shelves, Berkley had decided to close the “Highland Fling” Scottish line “Jack” had helped to launch. MY LORD JACK might have received reviewer praise, but he was dead before the trap door was sprung.
Flash forward eight years, ten novels, and one novella later. MY LORD JACK (Carina Press, July 12, 2010) has been given a facelift in the form of a fresh new cover and an editing overhaul—I like think I’ve learned something about craft in the past almost decade—and a second chance at wooing a whole new generation of romance readers.
As tempting as it is to focus on all the cool changes with the reissued book, I find it even more fun to focus on all the reasons I loved, and fought so very hard, to write it in the first place. Topping the list is…
Eighteenth century Britain was a dangerous place indeed, especially if you were a Scot under English rule. The Bloody Code, cant for the English legal system from the late 17th to early 19th century, came by its name honestly. A convicted perpetrator could be executed for stealing anything worth more than five shillings—and that encompassed quite a lot. By 1815, 225 offenses, many piddling by today’s standards, were punishable by death. Crimes carrying the death penalty included destroying turnpike roads, an unwed mother concealing a stillborn child, arson, forgery, stealing from a rabbit warren, murder (not so surprising), and stealing a horse. The latter is the crime that nearly lands my French émigré heroine, Claudia Valemont, in the hangman’s noose. Happily she lands in hero, Jack Campbell’s arms instead.
Enacting harsh penalties was believed to deter crime and keep the peace. Until 1868, executions in Britain were carried out in public. Dickens was one of several men of letters who remarked scathingly on the barbarism of the practice. Legal defense was viewed as a privilege, not a right. Keeping mum when asked to answer the charge was considered an admission of guilt.
By the eighteenth century, the burnings, beheadings, and disemboweling of previous centuries had fallen largely out of favor. In Britain certainly, hanging by the neck until dead was the preferred method.
Neck-breaking is a science, and the best executioners such as my Jack Campbell viewed themselves as craftsmen, not torturers. As such, they took great pains and pride in bringing about the optimal “drop.” That entailed calibrating not only the victim’s weight and height but also his or her body mass. A heavy body requires a shorter drop than a light one. A former form absorbs shock and drops differently than one that’s more…squishy. To get the formula as close to perfect as possible, sometimes weights were affixed to the prisoner’s legs, especially when the condemned was slight, say a woman or child.
English law forbade the execution of a pregnant woman. Not surprisingly, many female inmates bound for the gallows “pleaded their bellies” and were preyed upon by unscrupulous male gaolers and prison guards.
It wasn’t until the latter half of the Victorian era that childhood began to be seen as a distinct developmental state with a moral imperative of adult protection. Children convicted of a crime, typically theft, were routinely flogged, branded, and imprisoned (often in adult prisons) as well as hanged. Reform, dare I say progress, was slow to come. Under the Children’s Act of 1908, juveniles younger than sixteen could no longer be executed. In 1933 the minimum age for capital punishment was raised to eighteen.
A prominent part of popular culture, public executions gave rise to a distinct vernacular, some sayings from which survive today. “Toe the line,” was originally a directive to the condemned to line the tops of his toes up to the chalk mark drawn by the hangman over the scaffold trap. Hesitating or flinching at the final moment wasn’t only a mark of cowardice. It likely meant the difference between a quick, relatively painless snapping of the vertebrae and prolonged strangulation otherwise known as “kicking up rough.”
Likewise, “leaving just enough rope to hang yourself” isn’t a meaningless figure of speech. A “drop” that was misjudged as too short could result in a convulsive death lasting anywhere from five to forty-five minutes whereas a “long drop” could result in an almost instantaneous passing or, at minimum, a dislocation of the vertebrae leading to a loss of sensation. Small surprise that hangmen often received money purses—essentially advance gratuities—from the condemned or his/her loved ones to ensure that the greatest care was taken to bring about a clean…break.
Gratuities aside, a competent hangman could make a handsome living. Scotland and the North (Lancashire and Yorkshire) tended to provide local hangmen when called for, and a locally retained man might make the modern day equivalent of 400 pounds per offing. A perk of the trade was selling off the victims’ clothing afterward.
Accompanying the science was the lore. Hanging ropes were thought to be lucky and the gallows wood to have healing properties though the modern mind wonders why. The touch of a hanged man’s hand was considered a cure for warts.
Public life in the mannered Days of Yore was heavily ritualized and hangings were no exception. Dying well was a matter of pride, and the Fleet Street press followed celebrated criminals from the prisoner’s dock to the drop, chronicling every lurid detail. Generally the condemned was led up the platform steps to the scaffold, arms pinioned. Once there, the clergyman would offer up a prayer. If a proper priest wasn’t available as might be the case in more remote area, a chaplain or beadle (minor parish official charged with preserving order at church services and sometimes civil functions) might be there in his stead to ensure all was carried out to the letter of cannon and civil law. Especially if a gentleman, the condemned was permitted the courtesy of a few final words directed to the crowd. Afterward, the hangman or his assistant would drop a white hood over the victim’s head and place the noose about the throat. Once the victim was optimally positioned—and enjoined to stay that way—the solemn silence would be broken and the lever pulled. The trap door beneath the victim’s feet would fold, sending him hurtling.
The New Drop of 1787, the invention of Lincolnshire shoemaker and executioner William Marwood, saw the advent of an elevated platform and a collapsible trap door covered in at the sides. The latter collapses downward when a bolt is pulled by the hangman. To prevent kicking, which would throw off those aforementioned careful calibrations, the victim’s legs were pinioned as well.
The modern noose fashioned with a metal ring or “eye” was another of Marwood’s innovations. Positioning the brass ring under the victim’s chin or at the left corner of his jaw beneath the ear throws back the head upon falling, resulting in a fracture or dislocation. A further improvement was the addition of a leather washer to keep the noose from slipping.
For even the most circumspect, the hanging trade took a heavy toll. Nightmares, drinking, and shaking hands signaled the time to take on a new living, and my hero, Jack is no exception. Not many, perhaps not any, actual hangmen had a lovely and loving former French courtesan such as Claudia to guide them away from the Hanging Tree toward a Happily Ever After. Then again, real life being infinitely stranger than fiction, perhaps some did! (For those of you who are interested in pursuing the subject, my favorite references include Lord High Executioner. An Unashamed Look at Hangsmen; Headsman, and Their Kind by Howard Engel (1996); and The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low (1982, 1999)
Cara/Andrea back again, and left, er, rather breathless (in a good way!) by such a fascinating glimpse of history. So now that you've read about hangmen, Hope and I were wondering . . . what other unusual or unique occupations for a hero or heroine have you read about? Hope has kindly consented to give away a signed copy of VANQUISHED, the launch her Victorian-set "Men of Roxbury House" trilogy. We'll draw a name at random from those who leave a comment here between today and Friday morning.