Retro Review: “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” by Harold Markham

Weird Tales April 1929“In a Dead Man’s Shoes” is a historical short story by Harold Markham, which was first published in the April 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The story may be found online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

I came across this story via the striking interior artwork (see below) of an eighteenth century hanging by prolific Weird Tales interior and cover artist Hugh Rankin under his pseudonym Doak (Doak was Rankin’s middle name), which intrigued me enough to read the story itself. Rankin also supplied the striking Art Deco cover, illustrating a Seabury Quinn Jules de Grandin story, for this issue of Weird Tales, by the way.

Harold Markham is one of the many pulp era authors about whom we know next to nothing. ISFDB lists only six stories by him, published between 1928 and 1936. Three of those stories were published in British horror anthologies, which leads me to believe that Markham may have been British. The remaining three appeared in Weird Tales.

The Fiction Mags Index lists a few non-fiction pieces by Markham that appeared in Boys’ Life and Boy’s Own Paper. Several of these non-fiction articles are about amateur theatre and indeed Harold Markham published a manual for staging amateur theatre productions in 1931. There also is a Harold Markham who ran a coconut plantation in the Solomon Islands from the 1930s into the 1960s and was a prolific letter writer and diarist, though it’s not clear whether he is the Harold Markham who wrote “In a Dead Man’s Shoes”.

Warning: There will be spoilers in the following.

“In a Dead Man’s Shoes” opens with a bang or rather the slamming of a gavel, as a judge sentences a young man named Jim O’Dale to death for highway robbery. O’Dale is remarkably sanguine about his fate. He readily admits that he is guilty and even boasts of a particularly daring heist, where he robbed a fellow highwayman who had previously robbed the actor David Garrick. David Garrick was a real person, by the way, a famous eighteenth century actor and director of the Drury Lane Theatre.

O’Dale only has three requests for the judge. He asks for a reasonably sober hangman to avoid a botched execution, that a certain lady be allowed to visit him in prison and that his old friend, the innkeeper Jacob Larkyn, come to see him hanged. After all, Larkyn paid for O’Dale’s lawyer, though the lawyer never stood a chance in the face of overwhelming evidence. “See ye again at Tyburn,” O’Dale calls out to Larkyn in what turns out to be a very ominous statement.

Larkyn has every intention to watch O’Dale’s execution, since he was the one who tipped off the authorities and led the Bow Street Runners to O’Dale’s hideout. As for why Larkyn sold out his old friend, it’s a classic case of “cherchez le femme”, since both O’Dale and Larkyn happen to be in love with the same woman, Barbara Challis. However, Barbara chose the handsome O’Dale over the unattractive Larkyn, so Larkyn decided to get his rival out of the way and then console the bereaved Barbara. He even paid for O’Dale’s lawyer, because he knew that the evidence against O’Dale was so overwhelming that even the best of lawyers could not save him.

Next, we get the execution of Jim O’Dale at Tyburn, described from Larkyn’s POV in grisly detail. We get plenty of description of the jeering, cheering crowd and of the handsome Jim O’Dale being driven to the gallows, dressed in fine new clothes. This is historically accurate, by the way, since condemned prisoners about the be hung in Tyburn would often wear particularly nice clothes to look their best during their execution.

Even on the way to his own hanging, Jim O’Dale is still charming and suave as ever. He doesn’t have a dying speech, though he does have a final request. He asks to speak to Jacob Larkyn and asks that his fine and very distinctive shoes with wrought gold buckles be given to Larkyn as a final gift. This is contrary to custom, since the hangman gets the clothes of the executed victims as a sort of bonus, though the resale value is questionable considering that people executed by hanging tend to lose control of their bowels and bladder. However, O’Dale tells the hangman that he can have all his other clothes, including a very fine velvet coat, as long as Larkyn gets the shoes “in memory of what he did for Jim O’Dale”.

What makes the shoe request even more strange is that earlier on the same page, it was explained that part of the reason Larkyn hates Jim O’Dale is that O’Dale is handsome and has dainty hands and feet, whereas Larkyn has the big paws and feet of a labourer. So given the difference in their shoe sizes, how will O’Dale’s shoes even fit Larkyn?

The hangman agrees to let Larkyn have the shoes and so the execution proper begins. Charming, handsome and debonair as Jim O’Dale was in life, his death is brutal and unpleasant and he struggles a lot, before the hangman tugs on his legs to break his neck, a scene illustrated by Hugh Rankin in the interior art.

Interior art for "In a Dead Man's Shoes" by Hugh Rankin a.k.a. DoakThe description of the hanging and of Jim O’Dale’s twitching, struggling body is not only quite graphic, it is also accurate compared to descriptions of actual short drop hangings. The only thing that is not entirely accurate is that O’Dale is the only person to be hanged that day, since in the eighteenth century multiple prisoners were usually hanged at once. In fact, the description of the hanging was so accurate that I wondered whether Harold Markham had ever witnessed an execution by hanging. This is not completely unlikely, since the last public hanging execution in the US took place in Kentucky in 1936, i.e. seven years after “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” was published. The UK no longer had public executions in the twentieth century, but Markham might still have witnessed a hanging in a professional capacity (journalist, lawyer, priest, prison warden) of some kind.

However, twentieth century hangings were long drop hangings, at least in the US and the UK and its former and current colonies. Short drop hangings such as the executions at Tyburn and the resulting violent death struggles were long a thing of the past by the early twentieth century, at least for official executions. Therefore, it’s also quite possible that Markham used lurid reports about executions at Tyburn from old broadsheets or the Newgate Calendar as the basis for the graphic description of the hanging of Jim O’Dale.

The hanging of Jim O’Dale is such an unpleasant sight that Larkyn feels a little ashamed for what he’s done, especially since he is obliged to wait and watch his rival swinging dead in the wind for an hour, until the body is cut down. We get another nice bit of period detail, as spectators try to snag a piece of a hangman’s rope, which was a popular good luck talisman during the era. The hangman also keeps his word and gives Larkyn the late Jim O’Dale’s shoes.

A drink at a nearby pub lifts Larkyn’s spirit and he even wonders that since parts of the hangman’s rope are considered good luck charms, whether O’Dale’s shoes will not bring him luck. So Larkyn decides to try on the nice new shoes and lo and behold, they even fit, though they are a little tight.

Now Larkyn goes to see Barbara Challis, hoping to console her in her grief over Jim O’Dale. Barbara, who did not attend the execution, has clearly been crying, but she’s also oddly triumphant, as she tells Larkyn that O’Dale asked her to make sure that Larkyn is rewarded for everything he did for them. Again, this sounds rather ominous, but Larkyn is too besotted by the pretty Barbara to notice.

Barbara hugs Larkyn and cries on his shoulder and reveals yet another last wish of Jim O’Dale. For O’Dale did not want Barbara to mourn him, but wanted her to move on. He specifically asked her to go to the Drury Lane Theatre on the night of his hanging to distract herself by watching celebrated actor David Garrett play Hamlet. And since a lady can hardly go to the theatre alone, Barbara asks Larkyn to accompany her. After all, it was Jim O’Dale’s last wish.

After the play, Barbara asks Larkyn to take her to the stage door to see the great David Garrett himself. There is a crowd at the stage door, but Larkyn pushed his way through to David Garrett himself and asks the actor to talk to Barbara. Though used to fan requests, Garrett is uncommonly interested in Larkyn and particularly in his shoes – the very distinctive shoes with the gold buckles that Jim O’Dale bequeathed to Larkyn as a final gift.

Turns out that the shoes really belong to David Garrett and were stolen, when Garrett fell victim to a highwayman, a highwayman who was subsequently robbed by Jim O’Dale. Larkyn tries to explain that he came by the shoes honestly, that Jim O’Dale gave them to him, but suddenly Barbara calls out that Larkyn has the shoes, because he was O’Dale’s fence and that they will find plenty of more stolen goods hidden in Larkyn’s closet.

Now Larkyn finally realises that he has been tricked, but it’s too late. He is arrested and taken to Newgate. The story ends with Larkyn having a vision of his own trial and hanging, while Barbara looks on in triumph.

“In a Dead Man’s Shoes” is a neat, atmospheric and well-constructed historical crime story. However, even though the story was published in Weird Tales, it is not even remotely supernatural. Larkyn does not fall victim to a vengeful ghost, but to the carefully plotted revenge of Jim O’Dale and Barbara.

This isn’t as unusual as you’d think, since Weird Tales did publish quite a few stories in the 1920s that were heavy on torture and physical brutality, but had no supernatural content. “The Copper Bowl” by George Fielding Eliot, published in the December 1928 issue of Weird Tales and reprinted several times since then, is probably the best known example. Even before either genre was fully codified, the lines between horror and thriller were fluid and so stories of non-supernatural horror like “The Copper Bowl” or “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” could find a home in Weird Tales.

“The Copper Bowl” hasn’t aged well, since it’s a yellow peril story and very racist. In fact, I’m stunned that the last reprint of that story was in 2017. Meanwhile, “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” has never been reprinted, even though it’s a well plotted revenge story and manages to be not grossly offensive.

Indeed, it is notable how well executed (pun fully intended) this story is. Markham never mentions an exact date beyond the reign of George III (which lasted a whopping sixty years), yet Markham weaves plenty of details into the story that evoke the second half of the eighteenth century. The story is also well researched. But then, there was quite a lot of good and well researched historical fiction to be found in the pulps, particularly in Adventure. Sadly, comparatively little of it has been reprinted.

Markham’s keen interest in theatre, which is evidenced by the fact that he wrote several articles and a whole book on staging amateur theatre productions, comes through in the story with regard to the David Garrick subplot. Though I wonder whether Garrick was better remembered in the 1920s, since this story was the first I’d heard of him, though I know I inadvertently visited his grave in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The revenge plot is well crafted, too, especially considering how short the story is (only seven pages). Many of the utterances of Jim O’Dale and Barbara seem friendly and pleasant on the surface, but take on an ominous double meaning upon rereading the story. Markham also drops in the clue that Jim O’Dale robbed the man who robbed David Garrick into the very first scene in the courtroom and thus sets up the pay-off.

A well-plotted historical crime tale that really deserves more attention than it got.

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1 Response to Retro Review: “In a Dead Man’s Shoes” by Harold Markham

  1. Pingback: Retro Review: “The Hanging of Alfred Wadham” by E.F. Benson | Cora Buhlert

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