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Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind

by Howard Engel

In Lord High Executioner, Toronto mystery-writer Howard Engel makes his first foray into non-fiction by providing an historical overview of judicially endorsed agents of death. Though candidly admitting he believes capital punishment ought to be abolished, Engel’s intent is not to convert the pro-capital-punishment crowd. His book serves, rather, as an anecdotal look at the ritual of killing in the name of public good.

Lord High Executioner cites the obligatory biblical and classical literary references about public executions before sinking its teeth into what really interests the author – the hangmen’s British lineage. Here Engel is at his best, bringing to life the famous and the infamous. Engel also outlines the watershed innovations in execution technology, including a scientific chart for calculating trapdoor drops.

For such a gruesome and obviously morbid subject, Engel is surprisingly funny. In understated wit, he writes that a hanging ending in decapitation (literally giving the intended too much rope) “fails on esthetics and decorum.” He also refers to one hangman who issued all of his charges the same five-foot length of rope – without taking into account factors such as height and weight – as “a true democrat.”

However, by splicing together anecdote after anecdote, Engel ends up creating a series of snapshots rather than a unified work. Relying on primary sources and simple accounts of executions rather than commentary and overviews, the chapters become less and less discernible. It’s a rigid mold that makes the book feel encyclopedic in spite of Engel’s flair and wit. Though entertaining and insightful, there is an impetus missing and the narrative is not nearly as engaging as it might have been.


Reviewer: Michael McGowan

Publisher: Key Porter


Price: $21.95

Page Count: 256 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 1-55013-822-7

Released: Sept.

Issue Date: 1996-8

Categories: Science, Technology & Environment