A HISTORY OF THE NOOSE
The story of a rope, a symbol, and rough justice in America.
The hangman’s knot is a simple thing to tie, just a rope carefully coiled around itself up to thirteen times. But in those thirteen turns lies a powerful symbol, one of the most powerful in history, and particularly in America, whose relationship to the noose is all too deep and complicated.
Our history with hangings is shockingly recent. The last man to be hanged in the United States was Billy Bailey, who was executed in Delaware in 1996 for committing a double murder. Hanging has since been disallowed in that state, but it is still legal, in certain situations, in New Hampshire and Washington. An incident in Jena, Louisiana, in 2006, in which nooses were used to symbolically menace black students, is a fresh reminder of just how potent this emblem of racism and savage violence still is.
All that meaning, and all that history, is a lot to see in a coiled rope. But the fact is, that meaning is felt by all of us. And Jack Shuler, a professor of American literature and black studies, is the right man to explore it: from Judas Iscariot, perhaps the most infamous hanged man, to the killing of Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murderers at the heart of Capote’s In Cold Blood, and beyond. Shuler goes era by era, tracing the evolution of this dark practice in episodes, and revealing the ways each one impacted the society around it. As he investigates the death of John Brown and the 1930 lynching that inspired the song “Strange Fruit,” his travels take him across America—and not just the South—uncovering our deep secrets and searching for meaning.
Shuler’s account is a kind of shadow history of America: for all the celebrated strides we’ve made towards integration and harmony, those victories are hollow without an appreciation for what they vanquished. The Thirteenth Turn is a courageous and searching book that reminds us where we come from, and what is lost if we forget.
“The potency of the noose—as device, spectacle and ritual—laid raw and bare…A panoramic, unforgettable rendering of ‘the long fade of strangulation.’”—Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)
“fascinating…a book that is as haunting as its subject.” — CHOICE (Highly Recommended)
“Richly researched and beautifully written, this is an essential history of our country, as seen through one homely, terrifying object.”— The Boston Globe
“The Thirteenth Turn is a finely tuned study of a peculiar tragedy that shadows the triumph of what it means to be an American.” —The Washington Post
“The Thirteenth Turn is a comprehensive, remarkable and necessary examination of our country’s ugly past and enforcement of capital punishment.” —Truthdig
“Shuler’s rich and disturbing account of the power of the noose as ‘synecdoche, a part that stands for the whole,’ brings together a history that stands as a shameful example of how the law can be twisted and defied where necessary, to enforce a race-based inferior caste alien to the common law.”—David Thomas Konig, The Common Reader
“The Thirteenth Turn is a thoughtful, profound book. Jack Shuler has taken an object we are all too familiar with in our history-the noose-and found in its story an urgent lesson on how to live.”—Helen Prejean, CSJ, author of Dead Man Walking and Death of Innocents
“The Thirteenth Turn is history that is rendered with the narrative drive of a page-turning novel. Jack Shuler is an immensely talented writer, and he has given a human face to one of America’s most disturbing symbols.”—Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of The Cove
“Shuler’s work is an eye-opening, thought-provoking, and complete history of the hangman’s knot. For anyone interested in the real story of race and justice in America, The Thirteenth Turn is an essential read.”—Will Francome, writer of In Prison My Whole Life
“Jack Shuler has tackled all the big questions posed by Jena and left us with the kind of answers that bear the marks of deep suffering. Shuler’s research drew him into dark and forbidding places, but he has emerged with the grotesque beauty we call truth.” — Alan Bean, Executive Director of Friends of Justice and author of Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas
Jack Shuler on WNPR, “Hangings in America”