“Why did so many lynchers revert to the noose?” the author asks. And, he continues, “how did they learn to tie the knot?” More broadly, this book uses the “cultural technology” of the rope noose as a ready-made symbol to explore questions of public executions, vengeance, and folk justice in US history. Shuler (literature and black studies, Denison Univ.) begins with a broader history of the noose in Western culture and in some fascinating early chapters looks at the public execution (by hanging) of slaves who were allegedly plotting against the colony of New York in 1741, a 12-year old girl in New England in 1786, John Brown in 1859, and an assortment of other stories. Much of the book’s second half then takes up the harrowing subject of lynching, where the rope noose took on the powerful set of symbols and meanings now associated with it. Those meanings are themselves complex, as evidenced by the fact that the song “Strange Fruit” actually comes from a midwestern, not a southern, lynching. The last portion of the work takes up some more recent stories and documents the continued power of this simple cultural technology. The result is a book that is as haunting as its subject.
–P. Harvey, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs