The Last Man to be Hanged
The gallows stood alone in the prison yard; a single noose swayed limply, like an upturned snake, from its wooden crossbeam.
This was only the second time I’d seen gallows in person. The first was during a middle-school field trip to an old military fort, tucked into the endless woodlands of upstate New York. There weren’t any nooses that day; teachers and tour guides alike mumbled about the message it would send to the kids. All that remained was the skeletal frame of the gallows which, raised upon its platform, looked more like an altar than a killing device. We played hangman the whole bus ride home.
This time, however—with the noose strung up—the gallows loomed menacingly. The sight sent places and dates to flutter in my mind as absently as moths around a summer porch-light. I thought of the Middle Ages, of monarchy and the French Revolution, of martyrdom, of concentration camps with rows of suspended silhouettes; I thought of gnarled branches in the Jim Crow south and knots tightened by prairie-sized hands; I thought of America, and lessons I’d forgotten from glossy middle-school textbooks. It struck me how all of these things—separated by miles and centuries—were tied up in one, lifeless object.
But, now it would all end.
Or, at least, in America it would end.
The last execution by hanging in the country was set for this day, at noon sharp, in the Northern New Hampshire Correctional Facility. I could’ve asked a hundred people which state was the only one to still allow execution by hanging and none of them would’ve guessed New Hampshire. They’d reel off the usual suspects: Texas, Oklahoma, Alabama. Never New Hampshire.
The man set to be hanged was Milton Hale. He’d killed his wife and child in 1987 with a pistol. There’d been some controversy over which state he should be tried in because he hid the bodies up in the Maine wilderness. But eventually he was convicted in New Hampshire a couple years later which, coincidentally, was the same year I was born. He’d been sitting on death row for my entire life, wasting away.
More recently, there was some more controversy about the manner in which he should be executed. Hale was allergic to one of the chemicals in the lethal injection formula so, to avoid cruel and unusual punishment, they decided to give him the rope. The final part of the whole mess was that a new law was set to pass in New Hampshire a few months from now which would ban the death penalty entirely.
With all the ingredients to a perfect storm, the media got ahold of it immediately.
The story broke a few months after I started at a paper in Albany and I was one of the many journalists sent to cover it. I made the short drive East with another reporter from the paper, Gerald Sommers—a terse, older guy who’d been passed over for an editor’s position one-too-many times. He insisted on being the one to drive, even though we took my car. Gerald sat next to me in the prison yard, scrutinizing over the scratch-marks in his notebook.
“Look at all these bastards,” he said, glancing up and gesturing to the throng of people around us.
Even though executions are a media goldmine, they’re usually private; only a few spaces are reserved for family of the criminals and family of the victims. Once in a while there will be a little space available for the media to attend, so they base it on a lottery system. A few hundred journalists—eager to leech off the story—enter their names in a pool, but only a handful will be chosen.
In Hale’s case, however, the hanging accommodated for spectators. The prison yard was flocked with seats; a long aisle dissected the middle, leading up to the gallows. It looked like it could’ve been the set-up of a wedding. Or, more aptly, a funeral.
“This is one of the biggest events I’ve ever covered,” Gerald continued. “People are here from all over. That’s Becky Gleason from the Times.” He gestured to a woman in a pinstriped blazer, nibbling down to the lead on her pencil. “And there’s Rodriguez from the Washington Post. Unbelievable, isn’t it?”
“What’s unbelievable?” I asked.
“All the attention this Hale guy’s getting.”
“I suppose so.”
“They’re turning this guy into a damn rock star. And for what? A double-homicide he committed?”
“I don’t think that’s the story, though,” I said. “It’s about the last hanging ever, not the man being hanged. It’s about putting an end to a black-eye this country has worn for centuries.”
Gerald exhaled a slow hiss that made his bottom lip flap like a baseball card stuck between the spokes of a bicycle. He kept his gaze fixed on the gallows, the base of which was nestled against a fifteen foot stone wall which had barbed wire running along the top of it in helixes. The hilly New Hampshire wood peeked out just beyond that. The trees, rusty and orange in the autumn light, had mist clinging to them like Velcro. It was a dying season and death was still to come.
“You think that’s really what the story is here?” Gerald asked abruptly. “You think two-hundred reporters came here to watch America take a baby-step forward?”
“I do think so. That’s the way I’m going to focus my article at least.”
“Kid, I respect that and all, but don’t delude yourself. The reason all these seats are packed, and the reason there are more cameras here than outside the Kardashians’ doorstep is because everyone is hoping something goes terribly terribly wrong. And I think you know that, too, deep down in that oh-so precious heart of yours.”
As he spoke, a pair of heavy doors slid open behind us. All the heads turned around and silence choked the prison yard. The warden came out first—strong-jawed and stone-faced. A physician trailed behind him, swallowed up by the warden’s shadow. Next came a clergyman with a bible sheathed in the crook of his arm. And then came Milton Hale, stooped and shackled, with two armed guards attentive at his either side.
The procession moved forward. The only noise in the yard was Hale’s feet dragging through the grass; they made a whispering sound, like a thumb running up and down a silk tie.
Gerald continued speaking in a hushed voice.
“Progress doesn’t get viewers,” he said. “Even history, to some extent, doesn’t. What everyone wants to see is pain. They want to see blood. They want to see four dead in a drunk driving accident. And most of all they want to see this old man get payback for a crime he committed before you were even born.”
Hale was close to us now and I realized just how frail he was. His face was wrinkled as a week old apple, the knobs of his spine jutted out from beneath his prison uniform, and the rest of his skin clung to his bones like wet papier-mâché.
“And the biggest secret of all, kid,” Gerald breathed, “is that everyone…the readers, the viewers, the reporters…is silently hoping that this all goes to shit. They hope the old man vomits out of fear, or the rope snaps…or that he dangles there so long he pisses himself.”
I’d done a bit of research before the trip and learned that the hanging is simulated beforehand with a sand bag roughly the same weight as the victim—in Hale’s case it couldn’t have been more than one hundred and forty pounds. The noose is coiled between five and thirteen times at the top, boiled and stretched until it’s taut as a ship’s rigging, and then greased so the knots can be adjusted. The intention is to ensure that Hale, or anyone else, doesn’t suffer once the platform drops.
“That won’t happen,” I muttered to Gerald. “None of it. They know what they’re doing. It will be quick; it will be painless.”
“I wouldn’t mind if he suffered a bit,” he replied.
Hale was just a few feet from the gallows when he paused and took an elongated step. My immediate thought was that fear had prevented him from moving, but he continued on and then I saw that it was a small patch of mud he’d stepped over.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
“Hmm,” Gerard responded. I wasn’t sure if it was a question or a statement.
“He stepped over a patch of mud.”
I wasn’t sure what this tiny act kindled inside of me, or why, but I tried explaining it. “Well, it’s just, the man’s about to die and he goes out of his way to avoid a little mud.”
“What are you saying? That Hale’s a vain bastard for not wanting to dirty his shoes?”
“It’s just such a human thing to do. This guy has minutes left in his life, but he’s still human, right up until the end.”
By now, the procession was standing on the wooden platform; Hale faced the noose, which wavered in front of him like the golden pendulum of a grandfather clock. From my research I knew he must have been given his last meal just moments before. He’d also been read his last rites. Yet, for some reason, I couldn’t remember if people on death row received penance. All that remained was his final statement.
“Who gives a shit about the mud,” Gerald said again.
“I do,” I responded, a bit louder than I intended; a few people broke their gazes at Hale to look at me. “I think that’s something readers are interested to hear,” I said, more quietly this time.
“Naivety and self-righteousness don’t make for a journalist, kid. It’s better you learn that now. Oh, and another thing, this guy is barely human, so you should just drop the whole mud business. It means jack-shit.”
“What the hell makes you such a cynic?” I asked. “You’ve got no reason to—”
Gerald turned to me immediately, his eyes sharp as crosshairs.
“I’ve got no reason? You don’t know anything about me, kid, and you know even less about the world.” His words were studded with bayonets. “I lost my daughter before she was even born. Choked to death by her umbilical cord. And this bastard here,” he said, gesturing to Hale, “killed his own kid and his wife. My daughter did nothing. So don’t tell me I have no reason to want that man to suffer, just like everyone else here wants him to suffer.”
Whatever words I did have were swept away by a gust of autumn wind; it fussed against the stone walls and severed dead leaves from their branches, causing them to scatter about the prison yard. I searched for something to say.
I opened my mouth, but the warden began speaking. He looked directly at Hale, but Hale kept a hollow stare fixed on the noose.
“Martin Hale, you have been charged and convicted of the murders of your wife, Barbara Hale, and your daughter, Emily Hale, which occurred in 1987. You have been sentenced to death by hanging.” The warden paused. The silence in the yard was accompanied by a low whine, like a microphone getting feedback. “Do you have any final words?”
The reporters readied their pens, frothing like horses at a starting gate.
“I do, yes,” Hale said, the words scraping against his throat, which was rusty as old-plumbing. “I’ve known I was going to die for nearly half my life now, and that burden has felt like a death each day. But now that the day is—”
He hesitated, the words catching somewhere and his hands trembling at his sides. The sound of scratching pens stopped; ink clotted dry.
“But now that the day is here,” he continued, “I’m happy. And even though the people who should hear me say it aren’t here, I’m sorry. I’m sorry to my wife, my daughter, my family. They’re all gone, but everything comes around in the end.”
Hale took a step closer to the noose and nodded. In turn, the warden nodded to one of the guards. Hale bowed his head and closed his eyes while the guard draped the noose around his neck.
I felt everyone leaning forward in their seats, fingers clenched with an unspoken anticipation. I felt Gerald’s breathe tighten. I felt the frayed hairs of the noose bristling against Hale’s throat. And I leaned forward too, wondering, maybe hoping, what if something goes wrong.
The platform opened with a bang like a gavel and, on this day, the rope held firm.
Derek Rose is a fiction writer located in the tiny town of Stillwater, New York. He enjoys movies with no climax, sitcoms with no laugh tracks, and music that puts most of his friends to sleep. His work has also appeared in Crab Fat Literary Magazine and The Mosaic.