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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth George Alfred Townsend

Letter IX: The Executions

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Within this enclosed area a structure to be inhabited by neither the living nor the dead was fast approaching completion. It stood gaunt, lofty, long. Saws and hammers made dolorous music on it. Men, in their shirt sleeves, were measuring it and directing its construction in a business way. Now and then some one would ascend its airy stair to test its firmness; others crawled beneath to wedge its slim supports, or carry away the falling debris.

Toward this skeleton edifice all looked with a strange nervousness. It was the thought and speculation of the gravest and the gayest.

It was the gallows.

A beam reached, horizontally, in the air, twenty feet from the ground; four awkward ropes, at irregular intervals, dangled from it, each noosed at the end. It was upheld by three props, one in the center and one at each end. These props came all the way to the ground where they were morticed in heavy bars. Midway of them a floor was laid, twenty by twelve feet, held in its position on the farther side by shorter props, of which there were many, and reached by fifteen creaking steps, railed on either side. But this floor had no supports on the side nearest the eye, except two temporary rods, at the foot of which two inclined beams pointed menacingly, held in poise by ropes from the gallows floor.

And this floor was presently discovered to be a cheat, a trap, a pitfall.

Two hinges only held it to its firmer half. These were to give way at the fatal moment, and leave only the shallow and unreliable air for the bound and smothering to tread upon.

The traps were two, sustained by two different props.

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The nooses were on each side of the central support.

Was this all?

Not all.

Close by the foot of the gallows four wooden boxes were piled upon each other at the edge of four newly excavated pits, the fresh earth of which was already dried and brittle in the burning noon.

Here were to be interred the broken carcasses when the gallows had let go its throttle. They were so placed as the victims should emerge from the gaol door they would be seen near the stair directly in the line of march.

And not far from these, in silence and darkness beneath the prison where they had lain so long and so forbodingly, the body of John Wilkes Booth, sealed up in the brick floor, had long been mouldering. If the dead can hear he had listened many a time to the rattle of their manacles upon the stairs, to the drowsy hum of the trial and the buzz of the garrulous spectators; to the moaning, or the gibing, or the praying in the bolted cells where those whom kindred fate had given a little lease upon life lay waiting for the terrible pronouncement.

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The Life, Crime and Capture of John Wilkes Booth
George Alfred Townsend

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