We have lived in the shadow of execution and capital punishment for almost all of human history. Its practice can be traced to all regions of the world, through many eras up to the present day where it is now practiced in 58 countries. In varying cultures and ages this form of public deterrence has manifested itself in the form of hanging, dismemberment and immolation, with horrific and deadly consequences for those deemed guilty. The significance of the gallows has often been underplayed by the concentrated attention on the victims of the death penalty over the centuries. It is the hangman himself who represents the importance of capital punishment, the embodiment of terror, blood-lust, and an actor on behalf of the state.
History provides a smorgasbord of reasons as to why a given regime might want to provide tacit licensure to killing. Explanations range from repressing dissenting elements to upholding systems of retributive justice, but a common denominator in most forms of capital punishment is an executioner who is, for the most part, independent of the governing body whilst carrying out killings at their behest.
The ordeal of the hangman is often portrayed, perhaps accurately, as an internal wrestling match between morality and justice. However, depending on the context of the execution, the reality of the job for the executioner can evidently be seen as more harrowing. The treatment of people enlisted to do the dirty work of the regime in the Ottoman Empire and parts of Japan, gypsies and the maligned Burakumin class respectively, had to endure a lifetime ostracized from their communities for conducting the work that they were ordered and generally expected as under-classes to carry out. Well-respected hangmen they were not.
The experience of repressed ‘undesirables’ in Ottoman Turkey and Japan can be contrasted with the mild respect that the Pierrepont dynasty of executioners commanded in the 20th Century. The killing of the condemned has also historically been carried out professionally by the police force or armed forces, men who had earned trust and respect for their role in defending the state. The killings performed in post-Revolutionary France illustrate an especially gory example of this in history.
Nevertheless, in highlighting this discrepancy it is important to note the commonality amongst all executioners – that they play a role. The executioner, whether respected or denigrated, acts independently of him or herself to lessen the burden of shame on the regime itself. The state kills and intimidates vicariously through the looming figure of the hangman and not the potentially morally compromised individual himself. In this sense, the wooden frame of the gallows becomes a stage on which the executioner performs to his greatest ability, independent of any moral compass.