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Executioners' Songs | The Nation

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Executioners' Songs

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What is it about America's tradition of death that makes it so persistent? The procession of names on Sing Sing's roster of the condemned is more illuminating than numbers. In the early years, McElvaine, Cotto, McGuire, Pustalka, McDonald, Zachello, O'Laughlin, Strollo, Governale, Garfalo, Hampartjoomian, Samarco, Candido, Zanza, McHenry, McKenna, Hing, Wing, Draniewicz, Kushnieruk, Jankowski, Levandowski, Boyanowski; on a single day in 1914, Horowitz, Cirofici, Seidenschmer, Rosenberg; until about 1930, with given names Archangelo, Albito, Antonio, Giuseppe, Giovanbatista, Pasquale, Ludwig, Carrl, Pietro, Oreste, Johan, Eulogia, Eng, Enrique, Matteo, Lorenzo, Luigi, Petrius, Saito, Alric, Kasimir, Israel, Yun Tieh.

About the Author

JoAnn Wypijewski
JoAnn Wypijewski, who writes The Nation’s “Carnal Knowledge” column, has been traveling the country...

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Sex, or the fear of it, has been almost as important in the construction of this nightmare as racism.

We can pretend the politics of liberation can be tracked along clearly marked lines, or we can remember that history is like desire.

For all the South's murderous history, it was New York that, in 1835, privatized state-sanctioned murder, removing from public view the brute force of a life extinguished while, under the shroud of procedure, further legitimizing its use against those targeted for the most repressive control: the poor and, especially, immigrants.

The great wave of immigration to the United States occurred between 1845 and 1924, with many of the newcomers settling in the Northeast. They suffered most in the depressions of the late nineteenth century but were also the easiest to brand an undesirable class. In 1891 a Buffalo reporter reviled Italian immigrants, characterizing their desperation--e.g., salvaging cigar butts from the street to boil, unwind and recycle as "new" cigars--as another of their "un-American codes and modes." New York had introduced the electric chair to the nation in 1888; on July 7, 1891, Sing Sing held its first execution, a quadruple one. We know only the prisoners' names and "races": Harris Alonzo Smiler (W), James Slocum (W), Joseph Wood (B), Shibayo Jugiro (A). Throughout its history Sing Sing would specialize in multiple executions, the same day or over the space of a week--a signal to "un-Americans" made most plain on 6-19-53, the night the Rosenbergs were electrocuted ten minutes apart.

Around 1947, after the second great migration of blacks South to North, and following the return of white workers to the factories, the names on the death roster give way sharply to Johnson, Washington, Jones, Sims, Jackson, Davis, Bunch, Walker, Richardson, Daniels. Where blacks had accounted for 14.5 percent of Sing Sing's condemned from 1891 to 1929 (a span including the first great migration) and 21 percent from 1930 to 1946, their representation leapt to 41 percent from 1947 to 1959, and to 80 percent in 1960-63, start of the modern civil rights movement, and closing years of the Death House. The question Who is American? had been simplified to Who is white? Eddie Lee Mays (B), 34, laborer, was the last to die, 8-15-63.

Race may be the main thing one notices coursing through these statistics, but it is never the only thing. Lynching reached its highest point (for people of both colors) in the Populist era, when poor blacks and whites made efforts to ally against the elites. As illustrated in Orlando Patterson's Rituals of Blood, the occurrences of lynchings of African-Americans plunged in the 1920s but saw an uptick in the mid-1930s, coincident with renewed efforts, by Communists and socialists in the South, to organize workers across the color line. (Nationwide, in the period before the Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, the socially volatile 1920s and '30s toted up the highest number of state-sanctioned murders, these peaking in 1939.)

It is possible, too, to correlate, as some scholars have, the periods of intensification of lynchings with downturns in the cotton industry, when poor blacks and whites would be in fiercest competition, rich planters in greatest fear of black-white solidarity, and the basest passions inflamed by the original poison, the sodality of the skin. It is likely that those postcards of lynchings were made not just to terrorize blacks but to reaffirm that sodality.

* * *

[Consider the] relationship between the organized death of living labour (capital punishment) and the oppression of the living by dead labour (the punishment of capital)
      --Peter Linebaugh,
The London Hanged

Contemplation of execution is different from contemplation of ordinary death, even violent death. Power, not suffering, is the essential focus, although the imposition of suffering, at whim and as example, may be the greatest of oppressive powers. The faces in Christianson's Condemned are unlike the faces of the condemned now appearing on public phone boxes, selling some vague consciousness while advertising Benetton. They are, also, unlike the mugshots from death row that feature on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's website, together with criminal histories, descriptions of last meals--an exposition that, through relentless repetition, erases the prisoner in the very act of disclosure. In these other cases, who pauses to think about the iron-handed industrial control over Benetton's contract workers, for instance, in the face of those individuals subject to the ultimate state control? Who wonders at the institutional machinations behind the Texas website's implicit command--scroll down, drop out, drop dead?

Christianson's book does not go so far as to make those sorts of connections explicit, but it masterfully opens pathways for thought. What is the meaning of this regimen of death? Why was this one condemned and not another one? What was the purpose of this arbitrary decision or that? How did it feel to be the worker who took stock of the "July 4th, 1951 copy of Declaration of Independence, Cardboard with 6 of children's pictures,...Two pictures of Ethel cut from newspapers,...A complete listing of each and every visit with Ethel, Family and Lawyer," things left in Julius Rosenberg's cell, and of all the things left in all the other cells of the dead? Why were General Electric's contributions so methodically set forth and so worthy of preservation? How, now, does it feel to be the worker who searches for a vein in the one strapped to a gurney?

Allen's book, on the other hand, suppresses thought to elicit pity. And pity, as Hilton Als points out in an interesting essay that groans with ambivalence over its inclusion in Without Sanctuary, comes down to "white people exercising their largesse in my face as they say Tell me about yourself, meaning Tell me how you've suffered? Isn't that what you people do?"

Sometimes, oftentimes, people resist rather than suffer. It is the necessary answer to the click-clack, click-clack sounding in remembrance of those killed as a lesson.

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