If you’re in the mood for some scathing, dark and wickedly barbed satire, look no further – A Handbook on Hanging by Charles Duff will fit the bill nicely. First published in 1928, this slim volume is a withering condemnation of capital punishment and the bloodthirsty nation that condones the practice, disguised as a helpful how-to manual. Its full title is A Handbook on Hanging: Being a short introduction to the fine art of Execution, and containing much useful information on Neckbreaking, Throttling, Strangling, Asphyxiation, Decapitation and Electrocution; as well as Data and Wrinkles for Hangmen, an account of the late Mr. Berry’s method of Killing and his working list of Drops; to which is added a Hangman’s Ready Reckoner and Certain Other Items of Interest, All Very Proper to Be Read and Kept in Every Family
A member of the European AbeBooks office, Charlotte, came across the book on her recent visit to the Ludwigsburg Antiquarian Book Fair in Germany.
The book has been compared to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal by nearly everyone who has come in contact with it, and it’s no wonder. Swift’s 18th-century acerbic essay outlining his plan to alleviate Irish poverty by eating spare Irish babies (thus securing a food source while effectively reducing mouths to feed) is one of the most famous pieces of satire in existence. And following in its footsteps, Duff’s book uses the deadpan, total embrace of a hideous subject to elucidate its point. Written as a tribute to the art of hanging (and other means of execution), backed up with genuine facts and statistics, it masterfully forces the reader to see the grotesque, brutal hypocrisy inherent in the practice. Even while much attention is paid to the humor of the writing, there is no pulling punches, and consequently no denying the absolute horror involved in execution. The guide is quite thorough, with Duff covering everything from cases of bungled hanging, to executions of innocent men, to the dying (ha!) art of hanging.
In some passages, he writes wistfully about the depreciation of the ceremony and artistry of execution, lamenting its inability to achieve its fair recognition:
In the United Kingdom there is an average of about 150 cases of murder known to the police every year. Of these only ninety on an average are proceeded against, and in only about twenty-ﬁve are there actual convictions for murder. We execute a mere baker’s dozen of human beings every year. It will be seen from this that, unless the emoluments of the English hangman were very high or at all events brought with them very substantial perquisites, our public executioner could never hope merely by virtue of his office to become a rich man. Although this may be in the best tradition of the Government Service, you will agree that it is deplorable. And it is all the more deplorable when we compare the delicate art of the hangman with that of the ‘electrocutioner’ or the guillotiner, or the garrotter of other countries less civilized than ourselves.
What skill is required to turn a switch? What skill is required to twist a garrote? What skill is required to decapitate with the aid of an elaborate engine? I do not include in the same category as these three the German method of beheading with a sword. Thank Heaven there is still some art — or rather science — remaining on the Continent of Europe. The Germans go even further than we do in recognition of their science, for their executioner performs his ceremony in full evening dress, like a violinist playing a symphony to an enraptured audience at the Wigmore Hall; like Smeterlin playing Szymanowski; or any other virtuoso appearing at a public function. Our hangman performs in a lounge suit; or, for all I know, in plus fours. He certainly does not function either in evening dress or even a smoking jacket, though in Scotland he has before now worked in kilts. This shows how casually we English treat the business.
Charles Duff (1894-1966) was an English naval officer and linguist, by and large. A Handbook on Hanging was only one of nearly two dozen books he wrote, but the subject matter of the others stuck to more straightforward fare, chiefly language studies and travel guides. He was passionately anti-fascist, a fact which led him to resign from the Foreign Office in the 1930s, less than a decade after publishing A Handbook on Hanging.
The New York Review of Books issued a reprinting in 2001 with a foreword by Christopher Hitchens, fittingly enough. All in all, the book remains somewhat obscure, but has garnered a devoted cult following and has been reprinted many times, as recently as 2011.