“The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is a short story by Stanton A. Coblentz, which was first published in the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales and is therefore eligible for the 1945 Retro Hugos. The story may be found online here.
Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.
This story takes the form of a tale told around the fireplace. One night, man called Carrigan, who’s worked as a state executioner for thirty years, is hanging out with friends and telling stories about his work. The fact that Carrigan is so open about what he does for a living is remarkable, considering that most real life executioners rarely talk about their work (executioners also have a high rate of depression and suicide), though there are exceptions who like to give interviews or write memoirs. And considering that executioners were historically shunned and often had to live outside the city gate, it’s also remarkable that Carrigan even has friends, even if those friends mainly seem to be interested in the macabre stories Carrigan has to tell.
Carrigan is quite unapologetic about his line of work. And so when one of his friends, the first person narrator of this story, asks him if there was ever a prisoner who got away, Carrigan tells the story of a convicted bank robber and murderer he calls Scar-Face because the man had a distinctive scar on his face.
Throughout his trial, Scar-Face insists that he is innocent and did not fire the shot that killed a bank clerk, but it is to no avail. He is sentenced to death anyway. On death row, Scar-Face is remarkably cool and sanguine, even as his execution date draws near.
On the way to the gallows, Scar-Face is polite and cheery and even helps his executioners to blindfold him. Meanwhile, Carrigan is overcome by a spooky feeling. And though Carrigan has zero moral qualms about executing people and even brags that he has already hanged fifty men, he is uncommonly reluctant to pull the lever. When Carrigan finally pulls the lever after all, what happens is… nothing. The trap door does not open and Scar-Face does not hang.
Carrigan pulls the lever again and again, but the trap door just won’t open. So Carrigan and his assistants check the gallows and everything seems to be in order. Even the trap door opens as intended, when Scar-Face is not standing on it. But as soon as they return the condemned to the gallows, the trap door once more refuses to open. At one point, Carrigan even has his assistants try the gallows on himself, with the rope tied around his waist rather than his neck. The trap door opens. So Scar-Face is brought back to the gallows and once again nothing happens.
Eventually, Carrigan and his assistants give up. Scar-Face is returned to his cell and Carrigan has to explain to the state governor why the execution could not be carried out. The governor is furious and threatens to fire Carrigan, but eventually relents, since there are plenty of witnesses to confirm that the failed execution wasn’t Carrigan’s fault.
And so a new execution date is set and a new gallows is built. The governor even shows up in person to witness the execution. Scar-Face is taken to the gallows and once more nothing happens. The trap door refuses to open and a thorough examination of the gallows finds no technical fault. Exasperated, the governor finally gives up and commutes Scar-Face’s sentence to life imprisonment. Of course, this would never have happened in reality, at least not in the US, where executioners try again and again, if the first execution attempt fails. And yes, there are several examples.
Carrigan concludes his tale by reporting that a few years later, a member of Scar-Face’s old gang made a death bed confession and admitted that he shot the bank clerk. So Scar-Face was innocent after all and is promptly freed. When his friends ask Carrigan about his theories why Scar-Face couldn’t be hanged, Carrigan admits that during the final execution attempt, he saw a strange mist in the gallows chamber, a mist which coalesced into a pair of hands that held the trap door shut.
I have to admit that I chose this story at random, while (virtually) flipping through the July 1944 issue of Weird Tales. What attracted me was the title and the evocative interior art by A.R. Tilburne. Besides, the story is very short – only four pages long – and so I decided to read it.
I wrote in my review of “Guard in the Dark” by Allison V. Harding that her stories were often dismissed as forgettable fillers in later years. I felt that was too harsh a verdict for “Guard in the Dark”. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang”, on the other hand, really is a filler. The story is well written – the general writing quality in Weird Tales seems higher under Dorothy McIlwraith than during Farnworth Wright’s tenure – and effective, but it is also very slight. There isn’t any deeper meaning nor does the story offer any opinion on the death penalty one way or another. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is merely a spooky anecdote. There also is very little supernatural content in this story apart from the mysterious misty hands. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” could have been published just as well in the likes of Black Mask or Dime Mystery or any other crime pulp.
The fact that the story is well written is no surprise, as author Stanton A Coblentz was a veteran pulp writer who had started publishing in the 1920s and kept writing well into the 1960s. He was a frequent contributor to Amazing Stories and the other Hugo Gernsback magazines. “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is somewhat atypical for Coblentz, since most of his work seems to have been science fiction, quite a lot of it satirical. In addition to writing speculative fiction, Coblentz also was a poet and literary critic.
“The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang” is very likely based on a real case, that of John “Babbacombe” Lee, who was sentenced to death for the murder of his employer in England in 1885 and survived three attempts to hang him, when the trap door would not open. As in “The Man Who Wouldn’t Hang”, the gallows functioned perfectly fine, when tested. Like the fictional Scar-Face, John “Babbacombe” Lee had his sentence first commuted to life imprisonment and was eventually freed. Though John “Babbacombe” Lee was not saved by supernatural intervention. Instead, the most likely explanation for the failure to hang him is that the gallows had been disassembled and set up in a different part of the prison prior to Lee’s execution. In the process, the trap door mechanism had become misaligned and the trap door refused to open. An alternate explanation is that a prisoner tasked with setting up the gallows in its new location had deliberately sabotaged the mechanism. But whatever the reason, John “Babbacombe” Lee survived his execution by sixty years.
The case of John “Babbacombe” Lee is fairly well known and was also described in detail in the memoirs of James Berry, the executioner who was supposed to hang him. Coblentz likely stumbled over this story at some point and fictionalised it.
A neat spooky anecdote, lots of atmosphere, but little substance.