Lord High Executioner


Howard Engel is a writer most known for his fiction, and here in his first foray into non-fiction, it shows. And it’s really quite delightful, as far as books about death go. His presence in the text can be felt so much that it’s positively gonzo, and some parts of it read more like the narration of a movie than a book, as he takes you here and there to show you different things and introduce you to different people. I’m sure you’ve noticed how much I appreciate personality in writing style. It’s important to me. It really can’t be underrated and I have to say that this book is extremely successful in this area. Howard Engel comes across as very friendly and highly interested in his chosen subject.

Now there is of course a flaw here that unfortunately nobody could avoid, and that’s the fact that the information the book is about can be very hard to come by. It tries very hard to introduce us to certain executioners and give us a bit of a bio and understanding of their personality. This is fascinating and exactly why it’s being written about. But part of that fascination comes out of mystery, and some mysteries just weren’t meant to be solved. Not very many executioners are known to us, so as a result we get a lot of more general information about how and why executions were performed rather than the book being completely devoted to specific people.

But even here, the author makes the most of it. While most books focus on Western Europe to the point of excluding almost every other part of the world, Engel has done his best here to bring us some diversity and show us a bit about capital punishment in other countries such as Canada and Japan. Could this be because the book itself is Canadian? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss it. It’s very refreshing and something we really should see more often.

Dare I say this book was a fun read? Yes. Because as long as we’re not the ones getting killed, death as a general area of interest can’t not be deeply fascinating. It’s mysterious. It’s scary. It’s why we love horror movies. And this is really about as close to that kind of little ride as a non-fiction book can get. And isn’t it so much better when it’s real anyway? Totally.

Other recommended reads: The Last Gasp, Edison and the Electric Chair, Public Executions.


Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade

As much as I enjoy writing more traditional reviews, I don’t seem to have a ton of motivation when it takes time away from the next billionty books on my to-read list. I also read way too much non-fiction to ever have room enough in my head for everything to stay there more than like a week. So! New format. I’m going to tell you a bunch of cool things I learned, so I don’t forget and so you don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t feel like it. You’re welcome for helping you cheat on your homework.

So here’s what I’m learning from this book.

-Slavery existed in Africa as well, and many of the slaves brought to America had also been slaves in Africa. Another source was prisoners of war (usually not so much a war but a good old fashioned pillaging), “criminals” (often due to entrapment) and if all else failed, kidnapping either by the local king or the white foreigners. Shady business dealings are not even remotely new.

-Slavery started out as more of a religion thing than a race thing. Many of the earliest slaves were white, sentenced to either a stint of several years or even a lifetime of indentured servitude for crimes they committed. It was thought that the whole institution was ok as long as the slaves weren’t Christian. Eventually however the black people started converting to Christianity, taking away their excuse, and white runaways just couldn’t be as easily identified as slaves. So they pulled a new and horrible excuse out of their asses, the one that stated black people weren’t even actual human beings and so their conversion just didn’t count. And so the age of racism as we know it began.

-There were originally slaves in the northern states as well, but because the climate didn’t lend itself to the plantation system it never thrived and somewhat quickly dwindled away.

-It is guessed that an average of 50% of slaves died before they could be put to work, either on the trip itself or shortly afterwards, usually from disease, hunger, or suicide. Despite this, it wasn’t uncommon for the ship’s crew to be treated even worse than the slaves. This is because slave lives were worth a profit, while the crews were not even worth that. When this created difficulty in getting recruits, men could simply be rendered insensibly drunk and carried aboard by “crimps.”

-The slave trade prepared the economy for the industrial revolution.

-Importing or owning slaves was illegal in Georgia until 1750.

-For both moral and economic reasons, there was strong opposition to slavery since even before the American Revolution, and many laws were put into place to either ban or severely restrict the trade. This of course is not to mean that slavery itself was placed under such restrictions this early in the country’s history. Many politicians did want to see slavery itself ended, but primarily under pressure from South Carolina and Georgia, who threatened secession, it didn’t quite pan out.

-Slavery was abolished in England in 1772. The slave trade there lasted until 1807. It became illegal in America a year later. Enforcing these laws of course was another matter altogether. Since ships under the American flag kept getting caught by British ships, then finding legal technicalities and loopholes to keep them out of trouble, it nearly started a war between the Americans and the British, until a treaty to finally enforce the suppression of the slave trade in 1842. American actions under the treaty were not at all enthusiastic, and they did only the bare minimum. For the rest of the duration of the slave trade, Britain remained the only country to give a shit.

-There is a huge amount of overlap between the slave trade and pirates. See Under The Black Flag for more about that.

-In the 1850s, extremists the American south called Fire-Eaters wanted to add new slave states to the country from around the Gulf of Mexico and including Cuba. They called this the “golden circle.” They fought to reopen the slave trade as the only means of getting the new states established. This movement was defeated by both moderates and by the border states, who had a surplus of slaves and didn’t want to see their value decrease. Nevertheless the slave trade saw an increase.

-The (illegal) slave trade continued all the way until 1864.

Phew, so there you have it. I enjoyed the first half of this book, and then got bored. But as you can see there is a ton of information to be found here if you’re interested in the subject.