Wild Talents

A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book

Edited and Annotated by Mr. X

Chapter Thirty-One



IN FEBRUARY, 1885, in an English prison, there was one of the dream-like occurrences that the materialists think are real. But every character concerned in it was fading away, so that now there is probably no survivor. From time to time repairs had to be made, because the walls of the prison were dissolving. By way of rusts, the iron bars were disappearing.

Upon February 23rd, 1885 -- as we say, in terms of our fanciful demarcations -- just as if a 23rd of February, which is only relative to rhythms of sunshine, could be a real day -- just as if one could say really where a January stops and a February begins -- just as if one could really pick a period out of time, and say that there ever was really a year 1885 --

Early in what is called a morning of what is so arbitrarily and fancifully called the 23rd of February, 1885, John Lee, in his cell, in the penitentiary, at Exeter, England, was waiting to be hanged.

In the yard of a prison of stone, with bars of iron, [328/329] John Lee led past a group of hard and motionless witnesses, to the scaffold. There were newspaper men present. Though they probably considered it professional to look as expressionless as stones, or bars of iron, there was nothing in Lee's case to be sentimental about. His crime had been commonplace and sordid. He was a laborer, who had lived with an old woman, who had a little property, and, hoping to get that, he had killed her. John Lee was led past a group, almost of minerals. It was a scene of the mechanism and solidity of legal procedure, as nearly real as mechanism and solidity can be.

Noose on his neck, and up on the scaffold they stood him on a trap door. The door was held in position by a bolt. When this bolt was drawn, the door fell --

John Lee, who hadn't a friend, and hadn't a dollar --

The Sheriff of Exeter, behind whom was Great Britain.

The Sheriff waved his hand. It represented Justice and Great Britain.

The bolt was drawn, but the trap door did not fall. John Lee stood with the noose around his neck.

It was embarrassing. He should have been strangling. There is something of an etiquette in all things, and this was indecorum. They tinkered with the bolt. There was no difficulty. whatsoever, with the bolt: but when it was drawn, with John Lee standing on the trap door, the door would not fall.

Something unreasonable was happening. Just what is the procedure, in the case of somebody, who is standing erect, when he should be dangling? The Sheriff ordered John Lee back to his cell. [329/330]

The people in the prison yard were not so stolid. They fluttered, and groups of them were talking it over. But there was no talk that could do John Lee any good. This was what is called stern reality. The Sheriff did not flutter. I have a note upon him, twenty years later: he was in trouble with a religious sect of which he was a member, because he ordered his beer by the barrel. He was as solid as beer and beef and the British Government.

The warders looked into the matter thoroughly -- except that there wasn't anything to look into. Everytime they drew back the bolt, with John Lee out of the way, the door fell, as it should fall. One of the warders stood in Lee's place, where, instead of placing the noose around his neck, he clung to the rope. The bolt was drawn, the door fell, as it should fall, and down dropped the warder, as he should drop.

There was a woman they could not push. A man they could not crucify. The man they could not drown. There was the man they could not imprison. The dog they could not lose.

John Lee was led back to the scaffold. The witnesses did not know whether to be awed or not. But, after all, it was just one of those things that nobody could explain, but that could not happen again --

Or that to a college professor it could not -- to anybody educated in the principles of mechanics and physics it could not -- that, to anybody, not an untutored laboring man, but committed to unquestioning belief in everything that a professor of physics would say in maintaining that the trap door would have to fall -- [330/331]

The bolt was drawn.

The trap door would not fall.

John Lee stood unhangable.

That when, the first time, John Lee was led past these newspaper men, and town officials, and others who had been invited to the ceremony, any one of them could have overstepped any line that all were told to toe would have been little short of inconceivable. But a doctor, whose professional appearance was much faded, interceded. Others were shaky. The Sheriff said that John Lee had been sentenced to be hanged, and that John Lee would be hanged.

They had done everything thinkable. Any suggestions? Somebody suggested that rains might have swollen the wooden door, causing friction. There had been, in all tests, no friction: but, by way of taking every possible precaution, a warder planed the edges of the door. They experimented, and, every time, the door fell, as it should fall.

They stood him on the scaffold again.

The door would not fall.

This scene of an attempted execution dissolved, like a dream-picture. The newspaper men faded away, or burst away. The newspaper men ran out into the streets of Exeter. In the streets, they ran, shouting the news of the man who could not be hanged. The Sheriff, who had tried hard to be a real Sheriff, went to pieces. He'd do this about it, and then he'd do that about it, and then -- "Take him away!" He communicated with the Home Secretary. There was something about all this that so shook the Home Secretary that he authorized a delay. [331/332]

The matter was debated in the House of Commons, where some of the members denounced a proposed defeat of justice by superstition. Nevertheless the execution was attempted again. Lee's sentence was commuted to life-imprisonment, but he was released in December, 1907. His story was re-told in the newspapers of that time. I take from Lloyd's Weekly News (London) Jan. 5, 1908.(1)

I have tried to think of a conventional explanation, in the case of John Lee. All attempts fail. He hadn't a dollar.

There may be some commonplace explanation that I have not thought of: but my notion is that the explanation that I have thought of will some day be considered as commonplace as are now regarded the impenetrable mysteries of electricity and radio-activity. [332]

1. John Lee. "The man they could not hang." Lloyd's Weekly News, January 5, 1908, pp.1, 5-6. This article was one of a series, for the other articles: John Lee. "The man they could not hang." Lloyd's Weekly News, December 22, 1907, p.1 c.3-4; December 29, 1907, pp.1, 5-6; January 12, 1908, pp.1, 9-10; January 19, 1908, p.9; January 26, 1908, p.9.

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