There is, to the best of my knowledge, no single right and proper method to construct a gallows. A few elements are common to just about every design, but the grim carpenters’ flourishes of the scaffold reflect the tastes of the community and the eye of the builders. There is always a raised platform; there are always stairs leading to the platform, usually thirteen; there is always a crossbeam around which to string the noose; and there is always a trapdoor to launch the condemned into the hereafter. Beyond that, the timbers of the frame are a matter of discretion. Supporting braces and thick beams are common for permanent installations. Temporary gallows will often rely on a nock rather than a full cleat to hold the bitter end of the killing rope. A shoreside hanging can even rely on a high tide and the scuttling claws of the merciless deep to clean up the turgid mess left by a dead man dancing.
Spectacle is often the name of the game. Public capital punishment aims to deter unwanted behavior through the magic of mirror neurons. The ol’ “there but for the grace of God go I” routine. That’s why your standard gallows lacks skirts below the drop. The hangman, in his victorious perch, hears the snap, sees the final twitch, and smells the final perfume. But the hanging isn’t for the benefit of the hangman. It’s not even really to punish the condemned. It’s for the audience. It always has been. To see the tiptoe twirl, to observe the tented trousers, to gaze as the dignity is wrenched from the man as the breath is wrenched from his lungs.
That’s how it usually works anyway. But when you’ve got a mess of hangings to do, they all sort of blend in with each other. For the hempen purge on the outskirts of Sacramento, efficacy outweighed spectacle. So it was that instead of 2×4 crossbraces for the lower uprights, most of the ad hoc gallows lining I-5 featured sheets of plywood or OSB speed screwed right to the 4×4 posts. It wasn’t elegant, but it was cheap, fast, and reliable enough for the task at hand. Luckily for Anika and me, the construction meant we could duck out of the rain once the sky turned a leaden gray and began pelting us with unexpected summer hail.
Anika: “Do we really have to go into town?”
Me: “If we want to make Seattle before the snow starts, we do. Every day we waste hunting is a day not spent hiking.” I once tried to count how many times I’d been up and down this stretch of Eisenhower’s Vanity as a boy. I lost count somewhere around 80. I’m quite sure it was more than that. This time was undoubtedly the slowest. “Whatever their weird politics, their physiology hasn’t changed. They’re just as prone to scurvy as the next guy. They’ll pay handsomely for our orange powder.”
Anika: “Weird politics? You mean this?” She pointed upwards. I had stripped the old noose from our makeshift shelter and closed the trapdoor. No one kept any old superstitions anymore, including me, but try as I might, I couldn’t bring myself to feel comfortable snoozing underneath a hanging rope. Still, we were taking refuge in a… a vintage, pre-used machine of execution and it showed in the whites of our eyes.
Me: “No. It’s not so much what they did right after the collapse, it’s more what they replaced it with.”
Anika: “What did they replace it with?”
Me: “I’ll show you tomorrow.”
Hail played us a surreal tattoo as we cautiously invited Death’s little brother over for a quick visit.
Not even a vigorous sun could warm the grave’s chill out of our bones the next morning. We had to get to the I-5/80 mixing bowl for the quickest route to the ruins of the state capitol building and the trademoot conducted there thrice weekly.
Me: “Since I’m not sure what day it is, I want to prepare you for the worst case.”
Inspiring, yes? Like they say though: it’s never safe to hope for the best without preparing for the worst. I got that from an old
Leaether Strip song. Thanks, Claus. Front Line Assembly song (Provision). Thanks, Bill.
Me: “There’s a trademoot three days a week, but there’s a rulemoot on another three. They take one day off out of…” I hesitated, unsure of why exactly they kept an old tradition, “out of habit, I guess. It used to be to honor the Abrahamic God, but I’m buffaloed if I can figure it out now.” My voice dropped half an octave against my will. “A trademoot is just an open air market, but a rulemoot is what replaced the old laws, the old institutions. Power does not abide a vacuum, after all.” I think I botched that quote now, in retrospect.
Anika: “So what is it? What’s a ‘rulemoot’?”
Me: “Forgive me answering a question with a question, but how did you decide what the rules were on the plantation?”
Anika: “Mr. Grayson did all that. He wrote the rules and got help from some of the hands if anyone ever broke them. We hardly ever had to hang anyone.” She scanned the haphazard gallows surrounding us. “Not like this. I think I can remember two, maybe three. But I must have been a little kid for the first one. I don’t remember it well.”
Me: “So it was a dictatorship. Mr. Grayson was the lord and the lord’s word was law?”
Anika: “When you say it like that, it sounds bad. But most of the time it was just boring. Why risk getting hanged just to break some rules? It’s not like they were tough to follow. Not most of the time anyway.” She fell silent for a moment. “I mean, why would anyone ever break the rules? They usually make pretty good sense.”
Me: “People always have their reasons. Sometimes, the reasons make perfectly good sense. Before the collapse, we had this whole big justice system to give the accused the chance to defend themselves in court. And if you’ll believe it, that’s one of the few things that survived here. They’ve still got trials and due process and everything.”
Anika: “What’s ‘due process’?”
Me: “Well, the short answer is ‘the rights of the accused,’ things like a speedy trial, the right to have your case heard by a jury of your peers, rules of evidence, that sort of thing. A longer answer would include some statutory review before legislation is passed. This is the part where Sacramento, um, parted ways with the English common law traditions.”
Anika: “And this is the rulemoot stuff?”
Me: “This is the rulemoot stuff. The survivors of the purge didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of Old California. Before the bombs, California was just stuffed with…” I hesitated, searching for some clever turn of phrase. What I came up with sounded tinny and lame, even to me, “with bureaucratic bandits.” Anika shot me a look half of pity, half of puzzlement.
Anika: “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Me: “Did you know you used to have a license to sell tacos?”
Anika: “What’s a ‘license’?”
Me: “You’d pay the county or the city or whatever for a permit to sell tacos. In return, the police wouldn’t harass you and the courts wouldn’t fine you or throw you in jail.” I hesitated a bit before adding, “or worse.” Her eyes widened.
Anika: “What for? I don’t get it.”
Me: “Well, in the case of tacos, it was for food safety. If you eat bad food, you can get sick.”
Anika: “How did a license make the tacos any safer?”
I did not have an answer for her. So, like the responsible adult I am, I changed the subject.
Me: “Part of the reason Sacramento had the big purge was because this sort of thing got a bit out of control. Well, that was their opinion anyway. And with Washington DC out of the picture, they could grab their pitchforks and torches, hoist the black flag, spit on their hands, and set to the business of slitting throats. Metaphorically speaking.” The metaphor was thin. A strangled throat is different from a slit throat, but the difference to the dead is academic.
By now, we were off the interstate, and the blackened stump of the capitol building was beginning to peek through the hem of the 9th Street skyline. I hushed Anika to listen for the sounds of the moot. I heard nothing. This was not a good sign.
Anika: “You were saying something about bureaucratic banditry.”
Me: “Yeah. Well, they decided they didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past. The last I heard, they were using a variant on Caesarian sovereignty in the event they needed a temporary ruler.”
Anika: “What’s a see-saryan sov-whats-it?”
Me: “Anyone who wants to can immediately run for a four-year term of office at any rulemoot. If elected, you serve your time, at the end of which you are hanged in public on the Black Gallows in the International World Peace Rose Garden.”
Anika: “No way. You’re lying.”
Me: “I don’t know if they still do it that way, but that’s how it used to be. What’s more, even speaking up at a rulemoot can be a death sentence.” It was clear she thought I was pulling her leg. I wish I was. Tolerance for two-bit tinpot tyrants was running awfully low, so Sacramentarians decided to raise the stakes for would-be petty autocrats. “Any citizen can propose any rule change at a rulemoot. To do you, you ascend the Black Gallows, loop a secured noose of your own tying around your neck, and take the next five minutes and five minutes only to deliver your proposal and your plea. Then there’s some sort of a deliberation process. I think folks can line up to give brief comments or something, after which the assembled crowd votes yea or nay. If the motion passes, it is now law. If it fails, the lever is pulled and you hang by your neck until you are dead, dead dead.”
Anika: “That’s insane! This place must be a madhouse!”
Me: “You might be surprised. Plenty of laws get passed this way. Most of them are pretty standard things: no murder, no theft, no rape, that sort of thing. And nobody’s stupid enough to try to pass a new law if they aren’t very sure they’ll have the support of the crowd.” I paused to consider something. “I’d reckon they don’t have a lot of civic participation on windy days.”
We rounded the bend onto Lincoln Street. No vendor stalls. But the grounds were thronged. Rulemoot, and a busy one at that.
Me: “Crap. Look kid, maybe we should come back for trademoot tomorrow. We don’t need to be here for this.”
Anika ignored me and joined the crowd. I followed as best as I could, but a eight year old girl can dart through a packed mob in a way not immediately available to a grown man. I caught up with her at the perimeter of the rose garden. A massive, extremely sturdy-looking oak and concrete gallows painted jet black hosted three figures: one wore a hood and stood near a ratcheted lever, another was seated before an old CRT monitor, spectacles perched precariously on the end of his nose, and the final stood tall, florid no doubt from recently finishing what he thought was a stirring speech on the Issues of the Day.
The vote, it seems, had just come in. The adjustable sign that could switch back and forth between “open” and “closed” was shifted to indicate that the polls were indeed the latter.
The slight man at the computer peered at his screen, wrinkled his nose, scanned the crowd, and with a fluid, practiced motion, shot a thumbs down, three times to the dropsman on duty. On the third signal, the executioner pulled the crank, and the would-be sovereign danced his final jig with the grim reaper. A final call for business sounded in the yard. None answered. Citizens filed out in an orderly fashion. Anika’s curiosity was piqued. She tugged on the nearest guy’s sleeve.
Anika: “Who was that guy, mister?”
Him: “Jacob Crews.”
Anika: “Why’d they hang him like that?”
Him: “You must be from out of town.”
Anika: “West Bayou. I’m with him.” She pointed at me. Interesting, since I don’t recall formally inviting her to join me.
Him: “You’re a long way from home, girl. That man,” he jabbed a weathered knuckle at the corpse with the shit in its pants, “tried to raise a gang. You don’t do that in Sacramento unless that’s how you want to end up. It’s only a matter of time before we round up his flunkies and hang them too”
Anika: “How do you know they were a gang? Maybe they were just doing regular work for him.” Smart kid, I thought, quietly, to myself, in a manner that betrayed neither approval nor censure.
Him: “Why do you think we gave him a chance to talk first? Candidates for office get twenty minutes to make a campaign pitch before the vote. He didn’t get elected.”
Anika: “Candidate? But you just said he was raising a gang.”
It was his turn to look puzzled.
Him: “Child, would you do me the favor of explaining what, exactly, is the difference?”
The rope was sturdy. The noose was tied expertly. The drop was clean, the break sharp. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.
Anika and I resolved to conclude our business promptly first thing the next day so that we could put as much daylight between ourselves and this accursed town as possible before the following sundown.
Previous posts in this series
The Truth Shall Set You Free
It’s Better to Regret Something You Have Done Than to Regret Something You Haven’t Done
That One Time I Met a Bull
Locke and Key
Ich Bin Ein Ausländer
Land of Sunshine