The master and his apprentice occupied the hangman’s cell, intently focussed on their macabre lesson.
‘The knot is instrumental in the breaking of the spine, son. There is no room for error on placing the knot,’ advised the master.
A man in his fifties, the master was growing older, developing a bald patch at the crown of his scalp and his hands trembled constantly, affecting his script, his grip and his ability to tie a noose. It was time to hand his unenviable livelihood away. He had been responsible for 19 executions at the gallows just four paces outside the door, most of them having been clean and instantaneous, yet he had learned some hard lessons too. He would be present for his apprentice’s first execution, and no more after that. It was important that the younger man learnt fast and thoroughly.
The apprentice looked at the coil of rope his master offered in his outstretched hand, trying to come to terms with the gravity of this new vocation. Mixed emotions welled within his stomach and his chest – fear, nausea, sadness, empathy, an immutable thirst for justice – and binding all of that was a steely sense of resolve.
The master, hands trembling under the weight of the rope, tried to read behind the young man’s eyes. ‘Take the rope, son.’ The apprentice looked up from the coil of rope and the men’s eyes met.
‘I remind you sir,’ said the apprentice, ‘that I wish for you to not call me that.’
‘Ah yes, forgive me son,’ responded the master, oblivious to his continued offence. ‘I do it out of mere habit.’
‘It would please me if you would break the habit. My mother graces Heaven because my father is a wretch – ‘
‘Aye, that is true,’ the master interrupted.
‘ – and I would prefer not to be reminded of my connection to any father, except that of my only true father now; the good Lord in the kingdom of Heaven.’
The master watched his reflection in his pupil’s glassy eyes. The apprentice held his eye, attempting stoicism, but a single tear betrayed him by springing from his eye and free-falling down his face, followed by a trembling lip and a single sob, before quickly recovering his composure. The master felt his own eyes fill up for the man, but managed to hold back the water.
‘Not many men get to legally avenge their mother’s death,’ said the master. ‘You need to take the rope, before my hand gives out.’
The apprentice took the rope.
‘Let’s see what your noose looks like,’ said the master, taking a small wooden stool from the corner and drawing it into the centre of the room before sitting on it. The apprentice kneeled, and uncoiled the rope, feeling the fibres of the hemp strands run through his palms as he let it uncoil to the floor. He took one end of the rope, and made a large loop, folding the tail of the rope back along the edge of the noose. The master watched closely, every flick of the apprentice’s finger and every turn of the rope. The result was a fine noose.
‘That’s good work, son. A capital job indeed. Now rise and fit it round my neck.’
The apprentice looked up at the master, and then rose to a standing position. When he had accepted this new vocation, he was riding a wave of righteous anger, as were all others in the Clifton Hills community. Christian decency demanded an eye for an eye, and his poor murdered mother should be avenged. The apprentice had readily presented at the State Executioner’s office volunteering his services to hang the wretched devil who confessed to the bloody affair. He hadn’t foreseen any possibility that in the following weeks, as the emotional wave ebbed, that shades of grey might wash out what was initially a black and white picture. Now he stood in a chilled, bluestone cell in the gaol, the trap only six paces away, the lever only three. The ominous cypress beam dominated overhead, decorated with the scars and patina left behind by forty-four previous executions, the most notable being that of Ned Kelly’s eleven years earlier.
Now as he was about to place a noose around another human being’s neck for the first time, the conflicting emotions resurfaced. He was able to muster enough mettle to slip the noose over his master’s crown. The master inhaled sharply as he felt the rope slide past his ears, and the rest of his body joined his hands in the trembling.
‘Now slide the knot around to the left ear, right under the jaw there. You want the knot to sit firm against the jawbone, else the rope might not draw tight right enough and you’ve got a death by strangulation on your conscience.’
‘My conscience is my own worry,’ said the apprentice, terser than intended.
‘Ah, that it is my boy. Your emotions are justified in wanting to inflict a painful and miserable death, but you will be under close scrutiny from the sheriff and the warden, and a decapitated body or a man writhing in agony on the end of this rope for minutes on end will reflect poorly on my craftmanship.’
The knot rested secure under his left ear, firm but tight.
‘Now we must move to the scales. A correct weight is imperative for knowing how far to let the drop.’
Both men moved to the scales, where the master stepped upon them and demonstrated the correct procedure for an accurate measurement.
Moving to a wooden bureau, the master opened a narrow book and showed his apprentice the table of drops.
‘Greater minds than ours dictate the length of the drop, son.’
‘The British Home Office,’ said the apprentice, reading from the top of the table.
‘No drop should exceed eight feet.’
‘That’s right,’ replied the master. ‘Although I think they guess as much as we once had to.’
‘What’s your meaning?’ asked the apprentice.
‘Well, the rule is that all deaths must be instantaneous without being unnecessarily violent, even when they clearly aren’t. Abide by this chart my boy, and the surgeon won’t question your methods, despite any bungling. I’ve found it to get the job done more often than it turns to suffering, so maybe there’s something in it. Still, seeing a man kick and struggle for twenty minutes at the end of this rope is something that will stay with you.’
‘So what does the chart say for your weight?’ asked the apprentice.
‘Well son,’ began his master, ‘the scales say 13 stone 1 pound. That makes me 183 pounds, so by the book the length of the drop must be four-foot-seven.’
The apprentice’s eyes scanned the chart, looking at the rows of numbers. He was literate enough, knew his arithmetic and his reading, though he wasn’t so good at writing, but could get by well enough as to appear educated. Looking at the way the rope sat around his master’s neck, the apprentice pondered the alternatives to a precise and clean break. The rope sat a little lower than a short but deep, stitched wound on the master’s throat.
‘And what of your wound? How will it hold up to the drop?’
‘Ah, I reckon it will give out soon enough, but if you place the knot correctly, I’ll be dead before I’m aware of it, and if the chart holds true there won’t be enough force to tear my head entirely from my shoulders.’
‘Should I practice caution and make the drop shorter to save it from tearing from your shoulders?’
‘By God’s mercy, absolutely not!’ hissed the master. ‘And don’t get any notion of raising such concerns with the surgeon either. I’ve seen his meddling in my trade have grievous consequences. I won’t be the victim of one of his arbitrary decisions to change the state of things. The Heavenly Father knows I did what I did, though I don’t, but I’ll face him in fair judgment. I ought not have to go and suffer a cruel mortal death unless He wills it himself. You follow that chart son, you place this knot exactly as it is now and leave the rest to the Lord. Do you understand me?’
‘As you’ll have it,’ said the apprentice flatly.
A brief moment of silence fell before the apprentice spoke again.
‘Why did you kill her?’
Now the master’s eyes betrayed his emotions, and whilst he abstained from sobbing, his tears flowed freely.
‘I cannot even remember doing it, though I know that I did. I loved your mother, I did. My heart was her kingdom. While I was riding the tram down Bourke Street, I saw her walking in the street, arm in arm with Thomas Hogan. I took her out walking, to have a proper conversation about it with her, and when she told me she would never love me, that her love was for only Hogan, it was the devil himself bringing hell up to Earth for me to suffer here. It was the devil took control of my body. I was cast outside and the devil crawled inside me and it was he that slashed your mother’s throat. I’ll swear it on the Bible if you bring one to me.’
‘It was you. You are the devil!’ shouted the apprentice, enraged by his master’s blame-shifting.
‘Right you are, I suppose you are right. It was these trembling hands that held the razor on that cursed night, and I stand before you now ready to pay my debt to you, and to her, and to the righteous people of the colony.’
‘You tried to commit suicide and escape your true justice.’
‘I tell you again it was the devil inside me, son. I have never been capable of such inexcusable sins. I would never wilfully commit such unholy crimes. My faculties had abandoned me.’
‘You’ve made an orphan of me,’ said the apprentice. ‘In one despicable act, you’ve robbed me of my mother and my father.’
‘This is true,’ said the master, ‘but you still have your father until that trap swings open.’
‘That trap will swing open. I will pull that lever with a sure and steady hand, and I will watch my father, the devil, plunge to his rightful place. Until then, him and I have nothing to speak of, except our lessons.’
The master wiped the tears from his cheeks, smiled at his son one last time, and began demonstrating how the white hood was to be fitted to the condemned.