Book Review - Langes Seil, Schneller Tod - Traugott Vitz

Cover - Langes Seil, Schneller Tod by Traugott Vitz
Cover - Langes Seil, Schneller Tod
by Traugott Vitz

The Book
Langes Seil, Schneller Tod: Wie Großbritannien seine Mörder hängte.[Long rope, Fast Death: How Great Britain hanged their Murderers] Traugott Vitz, Kirchschlager. 2016.

I had come across an English translation of a chapter from Langes Seil, Schneller Tod in February 2017. The chapter dealt with the execution of various wartime spies in Great Britain and mentioned Josef Jakobs. Several months later, I received an email from the author, Traugott Vitz, and we have been email pals every since. Traugott kindly sent me a copy of his book in German and, while it took me a couple of years due to the illness and death of my father, I did finish it earlier in 2020. My level of German is not all that advanced and quite rusty. I can deal with simple conversations and books fairly well but anything more complex requires a fair degree of effort. With the help of Google Translate, I learned quite a bit of technical legal and execution lingo.

This book covers the history of execution for capital crimes in Great Britain. The vast majority of executions were carried out by hanging and Traugott focuses on that method for his book. He covers the early years when each sheriff was responsible for the executions within his bailiwick. Over time, however, and given the number of botched executions, various individuals attempted to formulate a series of standards for hangings. Things like body weight and rope length were taken into consideration in order to avoid two extremes: the body was too heavy and/or the rope was too long, meaning that the drop energy was sufficient to tear the head from the body (a rather messy event for those viewing the execution) or the body was too light and/or the rope was too short, in which case, the neck was not broke and the hapless criminal suffered a gruesome death by strangulation. The "ideal" hanging resulted in a fracture of the neck and a severing of the spinal cord. The criminal evidently lost consciousness "quickly" and death could usually be declared after an hour. There are also a number of stories about hangmen who were (a) not well trained and (b) suffered from alcoholism. If there's one thing you don't want at your hanging it's a drunk hangman.

My first reading of this book was hampered by my unfamiliarity with technical legal and execution terms. Things like verurteilten, beweistmittel, obduziert, gesetzeslage and verfassungsrechtlichen stymied me untold number of times. Although... I do think I have some of them now. I think my second reading of this book would go much more smoothly!

My sketchy German aside, I rather enjoyed this book. I found the topic to be quite fascinating. As I read, I began to question how the English could believe that death came quickly after an "ideal" hanging. Given that the spinal cord was severed and the body than paralyzed and, given that the head was covered by a hood, how could the authorities be certain that the criminal was not suffering? Traugott even touched upon some of the hangings from Hamelin in which the authorities hooked up the war criminals to heart monitors to assess how quickly death arrived. My question would be... what about hooking criminals up to brain monitors during the process. Which naturally leads to bigger questions... what is death and how do we determine the exact moment of death - brain activity? heart activity?

I found Traugott's book to be quite well written and thought-provoking and I learned a lot about executions by hanging. Traugott and Richard Clark (from the USA) have published a second book, Hangmen at War (in English) which is available for free online. I am planning to read that as well.

Review Score
5 out of 5 - very informative and thought-provoking


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