The first time that Tom White saw a criminal hanged he was just a boy, and the executioner was his father.
The first hanging that Tom witnessed was carried out in January 1894. A ninteen-year-old black man, Ed Nichols, had been convicted of raping a girl and sentenced to be "hung by the neck until he is dead". The duty of performing the execution, wich hadn't occurred in the county for a decade, fell to the sheriff.
Tom's father hired a carpenter to construct the gallows near the southern wall of the prison, the only place where the ceiling was sufficiently high. The location was ten feet from Nichol's cell, and the condemned man –who maintained his innocence and still hoped for a reprieve from the governor– could hear the planks being sawed and nailed, sawed and nailed, the pace quickening. Tom's father was determined to make the killing mercifully swift, and once the apparatus was completed, he repeatedly tested it with sacks of sand.
On the day of the execution, Tom, who was twelve years old, stood on a tier inside the jail. No one shooed him away, not even his father, and he could see Nichols, who was dressed in his new suit, being led by Tom's father to the scaffolding, time measured in each step and breath. As Tom listened, a preacher read Nichols's finals statement: "Sheriff White has been very accommodating to me indeed. I feel prepared to meet death. My soul is at peace with all mankind." The preacher offered his own holy words. "Ed Nichols is to swing to eternity," he said. "Sheriff Death is on his black steed, is but a short distance away, coming to arrest the soul of this man to meet the trial at the higher bar where God himself is supreme ruler, Jesus, his son the attorney, and the Holy Ghost the prosecutor".
When the preacher finished, Tom heard a familiar voice. It was his father, reading the death warrant. The noose was fitted around Nichols's neck, and a black hood placed over his head. Tom could no longer see Nichols's face, but he could see his father holding the lever for the trapdoor. At two minutes before four in the afternoon, his father sprang the trap. The body fell before jerking violently upward. A sound of astonishment and horror rippled through the crowd. Despite all the meticulous construction, Nichols was still moving, still trembling with life. "He kicked and jerked around a long time," Tom later recalled. "It seemed like he would never give up and die". Finally, his body stopped moving and was cute down from the rope.
David Grann, Killers of the flower moon.
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