Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fascination with a hangman's noose

The News & Observer article on today's front page about a noose found hanging from a tree at Duke University brought back some old memories for me. When I was in elementary school, probably around fifth grade, boys in my school became interested in hangman's nooses. This interest had nothing to do with illegal lynchings or racial prejudice. It was more about the westerns that dominated television shows and movies at the time. A lot of shows involved someone being hanged, either as a result of a legal sentence imposed by a judge or as vigilante justice meted out on horse thieves or cattle rustlers.

Whatever the instigation, classmates of mine brought hanks of cord to school to show that they knew how to tie a hangman's noose. It had to have 13 (unlucky) loops, I was informed, and it was not a simple knot to tie, I quickly learned. When I tried it, all I ever got was a cord wrapped around itself that would unravel if you pulled on either end. I never learned to tie a hangman's noose.

Although there was something terribly morbid about young boys in the late 1950s or early 1960s being fascinated about the proper tying of a hangman's noose, there was no hatred or terror or violence associated with it. We can't say the same about that noose hung on a college campus.

Until evidence proves otherwise, I have to assume that the noose is no more than a prank, a ghoulish, mean and hateful one, but a prank nevertheless. It is an indicator of our times that a cord hung from a tree with no identifiable victim, threat or purpose could prompt a police investigation and an outpouring of anger against the perpetrators, whoever they may be.

When I was trying to learn to tie a hangman's noose 50-plus years ago, my older brother warned me that simply tying a hangman's noose (done correctly, I assume) was a crime. I don't know whether that warning was factual or not, but in those days, execution by hanging was still standard practice in some jurisdictions.

If the perpetrators of the Duke noose are identified, I assume they could be charged with some criminal action, but if their purpose was to frighten or intimidate anyone at Duke or across North Carolina, they failed and have only marshaled contempt against their actions.

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