Eternal moment ends in fear, disbelief and violent death
WHEN the clock in the Dutch Reformed Church in front of Maximum Security Prison began to strike the hour of seven, the condemned men were on their marks on the trapdoors, the ropes around their necks and their escorts by their side.
For a second, time stood still. The moment so long awaited had arrived. The prisoners stood still on the trapdoors for that eternal moment. They were about to pay the price for their greed, for their rapacity, for their callous, murderous hearts, for the opportunities they had missed to do good things, for the opportunities they had denied their victims, for the pain they had caused to so many others. Their hearts were beating in their charges and took a step away from the rail. The hangman looked backwards and down over his right shoulder as the metal cam- rod device supporting the cross- supports under the trapdoors slid forward and allowed gravity to take over. The officials and standby warders on the far side of the room stiffened.
The trapdoors opened with a mechanical thud. Kellunck! The prisoners’ bare feet desperately sought purchase on the receding trapdoors and a rush of air escaped upwards between the doors. Shooosh! The prisoners fell straight into the dimly lit room below, some in
Their bodies continued to fall for a short distance, stretching their necks to an obscene length
silence, some with a desperate groan, one barely conscious. They experienced the instant dread of all mammals: uncontrolled free fall. Their bowels and bladders voided compulsively, the muscles controlling their internal organs responding to some primordial command to prepare for flight or battle. Their abdominal muscles involuntarily contracted and they gasped vainly for breath… A moment later the trapdoors slammed against their stopper bags with a double blow that reverberated throughout the building and could be felt by everyone in it as a faint tremor. Whabam! The singing in all sections of the prison below immediately rose an octave. Someone’s dying, Lord, kumbaya.
The ropes snapped tight as the prisoners reached the end of their prescribed drops. The steel rings on the nooses smashed into the muscles and blood vessels on the left side of the prisoners’ necks and slammed their heads over to the right. Their bodies continued to fall for a short distance, stretching their necks to an obscene length, until the downward momentum was stopped by the neck muscles and tendons.
Simultaneously a round of loud cracks echoed in the gallows room upstairs as the prisoners’ spinal cords broke. The bruised flesh and the tortured neck muscles held the bodies up and pulled them back a short distance. Signals from the tormented brains took their usual route down the spinal columns, but found their path largely terminated in torn nerve endings. The prisoners’ tongues were squeezed upwards and out of their gaping mouths. Their eyes gorged on the blood and tissue being forced into their eye sockets by the constrictive force of the ropes around their necks. Blood and mucus spurted into the white hoods, mainly from their mouths and noses. In two or three cases necks were torn open on the side of the steel ring on the noose. In another an ear was partly torn off.
The bell in the spire of the Dutch Reformed Church still resonated in the background, slowly sounding to the final strike of the gong.
This extract is from Shepherds and Butchers, a novel about the effects of the death sentence, by Chris Marnewick ( Umuzi). It was published in 2008.