A Hanging at Cinder Bottom: An Excerpt

Glenn Taylor



August 21, 1910

The condemned man wore no shoes. He stood over the drain hole in his cell and hummed the low notes running swollen in his blood. He shed his trousers while he hummed, and his shirt and his undergarments too. Each he folded in a square and set upon the straw tick in the corner. The foul drain at the floor’s middle called out to him in the singing voice of his woman down the hall. He answered, a long weary-throated note, a brand of humming borne from a troublesome lot.

He was better than six foot two inches and sturdy despite incarceration. He’d turned thirty in January. Most considered him the handsomest man they’d seen, though he wore a wide scar across his jaw.

At the pith, the condemned man was good, but he’d forever run afoul of temperance and lawmen.

Daylight through the barred window marked his lower half. His feet were pale, and his pecker, in ordinary times a swag-bellied hog of considerable proportion, was, on this morning, contracted. His woman’s voice grew louder, and in his mind he could see her, and he hummed to his contracted pecker a snake-charmer tune fetched from a hoochie kootch show, and its furrows protracted, and it was made long and serpentine. And the condemned man imagined then that it grew longer still and mined the drainpipe clear to the cell of his woman, and it whispered to her there, Keep your temper. And this thought made him smile.

Down the hall, the condemned woman hummed along. When he crescendoed she did too. When he went so low she couldn’t hear him, she sang things like, There’s a hole in his pants, where the crabs and bedbugs dance.

It was the same snake-charmer melody the Alhambra house band had played seven years prior, on the night the condemned man had lit out of town, the night a big-name magician had levitated a woman on the Alhambra’s stage while the melody built. High above, crouched on the fly rig, the man who was now condemned had hummed along, and he’d spat tobacco juice down upon the stage from a height that caused much spatter, and he’d cursed the magician for having not paid the gambling debt he’d owed.

The tunes they hummed to each other down the corridor and through the drainpipes had meanings. They’d worked out a system of codes. The condemned woman knew then from his hum that the morning-shift hall guard had arrived, and that it was nearing time to change into her finery. She took off her underskirt while she sang. She took off her umbrella drawers. Each she folded in a square and set upon the straw tick in the corner.

She was graceful and everywhere arched proportionate. Her skin was tanned despite incarceration, and she stood above the drain hole and hummed some more, waiting for her man.

Young officer Reed would be along shortly with the last meal and fine clothes they’d requested, and she knew he’d not be able to take his eyes off her, for even after a month in the pokey, the condemned woman was the cat’s whisker.

Outside, the chief of police, a runt of a man named Rutherford, watched the people come on foot and horseback and great big farm wagons with three families to a bed. The night before, passenger cars on the nine o’clock train had folks pressed to the windows, and more had stuffed themselves into boxcars and empty coal hoppers.

Now it was morning, a Sunday. Rain fell hard after forty days without. On Railroad Avenue, mud ruts made by wagon wheels multiplied and widened. A tied, riderless horse had been made to drink rye whiskey. It fell down buckskinned and got up half brown.

By nine o’clock, three thousand people had gathered at Keystone in order that they might witness a public hanging in the state of West Virginia. There’d not been another in thirteen years, and this one was to be a double.

Chief Rutherford had not expected word to get out as wide and fast as it had. In truth, the impending execution was not intended to be publicly viewed, beyond choice residents of Keystone. It was likewise not in any way legal. Few had even known the pair was incarcerated before Thursday. It was on Wednesday that circuit judge Rufus Beavers—who had no jurisdiction even if the condemned had been given a trial—declared guilt and handed down the sentence too. He said they’d hang just as soon as the big black oak was roped. This he’d proclaimed inside the jailer’s office, with exactly seven men present. Rutherford had believed that such actualities would prohibit word’s spread, that it would only leak a little on Thursday, when it was decided that a fast gallows would be built. And when it became clear that the date of the hanging was the Sabbath, the God-fearing, he hoped, would keep away. And so it was that all of the police chief’s beliefs had proved foolish.

Even the first rain in over a month could not keep the people away.

Rutherford watched them walk in it.

He stuck his head inside the jailhouse to be sure his men looked alive. Six of seven were there. Three rode the bench and three leaned against the block wall. Behind them came humming, singing. More symphonious orchestration from the condemned, each day the same tune. Every lawman knew better than his own name by then that there was a place in France where the naked ladies dance and there was a hole in the wall where the men could see it all. On and on it went. The condemned had a repertoire of words a mile long. They stuck those words without cease into the snake-charmer song. There was a place in New York where the hambone chased the pork. There was a place Rutherford prowls where the chickens pork the hoot owls.

It was relatively cool inside the jail. Humid, but no sun to speak of through the small windows facing north. Rutherford looked at an officer who was in particularly bad shape from the previous night’s imbibing. “Pick your chin up Reed,” he said.

Reed was one of three black men on the police force and the son of Fred Reed, owner and president of the Union Political and Social Club. He was gut-sick, but he nodded and did his best to look alive. “Clothes is patted and stacked,” he said. “I’m to fetch the chicken at ten.”

“What about my noontime eggs?” Rutherford said. He hadn’t yet eaten a thing.

“They’ll be ready.”

The two of them listened to the condemned woman sing of oiled bedsprings and steeple dicks and the devil as the man in the moon. Her voice was high and sweet.

“Last lullaby she’ll ever croon,” the chief said. He stepped outside again.

In the street, a Chinese man in a stovepipe hat walked along bent, a flat-top trunk on his back. He nearly lost his footing in the mud, then continued until he was square in front of the jailhouse. A leather strap secured the heavy trunk, strung bandolier-style across his chest. He sat down careful and undid himself. Then he stood and pushed the long box onto its side, kicking mud at the mass of ankles passing by. He rigged a tarpaulin to a telegraph pole in order to keep dry. He took off his slicker. His tan three-piece suit was dry. He undid the trunk’s latches, hefted out his broken-down Punch and Judy booth, and proceeded to erect it around himself where he stood. It took no more than a minute. Head-high and striped red and white, a curtain up top framed in whittled driftwood to frighten and delight.

The rain slowed. A woman with a baby on her hip stopped to watch, and then a young man did the same. So too did a drunkard with bleared eye and clumsy foot. “What is that contraption?” the drunkard asked, and, as if to answer, a voice erupted from inside the bright booth.

“Good Men and Madames of Keystone!” The greeting cut through the drizzle like a horn. More stopped and waited to be entertained. The street clogged and the rain picked up again. Umbrellas deployed. “I shall send round my bottler,” the voice went on, “and if you’ll put a coin in the hat, the Great Professor Verjo will furnish you a show!” The Chinese man emerged from the booth and twirled his hat from his head. He maintained a scalp-lock fashion, like an Iroquois warrior, a singular black rope of hair falling to the small of his back, the rest of his head kept bare by straight razor. “Right here, right here,” he called, hat brim upturned and waiting on compensation. A nickel hit the bottom, then another. The people were confused by him. Some had never known a Chinese man. Those from Keystone knew only Mr. Wan, and he had never worn a vest-suit in his life. One woman asked another, “Is he Injun or Chinaman?” They wanted to know how he spoke good English. The man calling himself Professor Verjo had long since grown accustomed to such folk, and he was predisposed to answer any question on his origins. He told the truth. He was born in a freight yard at Los Angeles, California.

In front of the Busy Bee Restaurant, a jewelry peddler heard the Punch and Judy man’s call. The peddler stuck his fingers in his mouth and whistled so loud that the woman regarding his wares stumbled back. He banged his stand with a cow’s bell and called, “Here, here is where your money is wise! Gold watch-chains! Silverware!”

Another man on Bridge Street stuck a fist of rolled paper high over his head and waved. He called, “Only true confession of Goldie and Abe! Here are the words of the Kid and the Queen! The rest are forgeries! Here’s your confession!”

The calls carried through the open jailhouse door, down the narrow hall, and into the cells of the condemned man and woman. Abe Baach ceased his humming. He looked upon his bare feet and smiled and spoke to himself. “That’s it boys,” he said, quiet. “Run em in and run em out.”

Goldie Toothman called out a high note and danced a circle around the drain hole.

Their day had come.

In the street, the Punch and Judy man whipped his hook-nosed puppets side to side on their stage above his head, his movements furious and precise. Punch was not Punch on this day, and Judy was not Judy. “How can they string us up Abe, oh how?” she sobbed, her little wooden hands against her red-circled cheeks. “Don’t you know by now Goldie,” the puppet man answered, “Old Scratch is in Rutherford’s skin.” And with that, they dropped behind the striped curtain, and in their place the red devil appeared. He was not sanded smooth like them. His jawbones were jagged, his paint job ragged. From each dull horn hung a kite-string noose. His head swiveled slow, surveying the crowd. They waited. They were quiet. The red devil bowed and the nooses swung like earrings. He straightened and said, “Let em dangle.”

Some in the crowd clapped their hands and whistled. Others moved on repulsed.

Inside, Officer Reed walked into the hall with his arms full. He toted two covered pans balanced atop a stack of pressed clothes. Abe and Goldie had ordered the same last meal—fried chicken, cornbread, and pinto beans. In Reed’s pockets, their morning whiskey ration chimed, pint bottle clacking shot glasses. He carried triple portions on account of the unique circumstances.

They’d quit their music-making.

There was a sheen on the stone hallway floor. Reed watched the pans tremble on the stack he hefted. He stopped in front of cell one and excused the tall officer who’d been on watch there for three hours. The man was tired, but he said he’d just as soon stay. “I’ve got used to the hummin and singin,” he said, “and I can watch him with one eye shut.” He popped a glass eye from its socket and held it out while shutting his other one tight.

When Reed saw that Abe was naked, he turned his back and set down gingerly his stack.

When he slid the suitclothes through the bars, he kept his eyes on his boots.

Abe said not a word, but took his pressed goods and retreated to the corner. He put on his fresh underclothes. He watched Reed pour a swallow of whiskey and set it on the food ledge where his uncovered chicken steamed. “Thank you,” he said. “And maybe a boiled egg if they’re ready?”

Reed looked him in the eyes and nodded his head. Then he turned away and bent to regather Goldie’s stack. He started down the hall and then stopped. “Preachers is here,” he said. “I can bring them to you.”

Abe had stepped to the food ledge. He breathed the air of his chicken and said, “By all means.”

Reed was clenched tight as he came upon Goldie’s cell. When he saw that she too was naked, he did not turn his back to set down the stack. And when he slid her dress through the bars, he did not look at his boots.

She stood with her arms crossed under her breasts. She was still-balanced on one foot. “Morning sunshine,” she said.

From down the hall, the tall officer called, “Reed, don’t you look too long. She always up to somethin.”

At half past ten, chief Rutherford again stood out front of the jail, this time atop a stack of upturned tomato crates. Such a stack was necessary for a man of short stature. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he hollered. The crowd didn’t listen. “Ladies—” The thin wood split beneath him and he broke through all three crates, clear to the porch boards, so that he was boxed in to the waist. The short drop had caused him to lose his stomach, and for a moment, he considered the long drop awaiting the condemned. What must it be like, he wondered, to free-fall through a door such as that.

The Punch and Judy man ate an apple on break between shows. He was next to the chief as he fell. He stifled a laugh and helped the man to his feet, lifting him at the waist until Rutherford slapped at his hands. A little girl had seen too, and she didn’t stifle her own laugh, and she pointed at the lawman where he stood, his face having lost its color. The chief kicked at the splintered wood, regained his composure, and called out: “Ladies and gentlemen, this here hangin is about to come off. We’ll start over to the site shortly, and if you want a place to see from, you had better go now.” He pointed downriver toward Cinder Bottom, where the hasty gallows stood high. He was nervous. A man had told him that word could go as wide as the governor that very morning.

At eleven, Rutherford walked past the condemned without looking at them. He threw open the door at the end of the jail’s hall and stepped into the embalming room. “I’m liable to faint if I don’t get them eggs,” he said. Taffy Reed sat on an iron stool and read the newspaper. He pointed to the big steel table, where he’d laid out a soup-plate of a hardboiled dozen.

At a quarter to noon, lawmen toting repeating rifles cleared a path, and two open box wagons rode up to the jail’s side door, a black coffin centered on each. Behind them was a long-top surrey. Most of the crowd had started for the gallows, but some remained. They watched the big door swing open, and there stood Abe Baach beside chief Rutherford. The lawman’s full height, upon first sight, marked him a boy next to the condemned, though Rutherford was nearly twice his age. Abe was bolt straight in shined shoes and three-piece suit. He wore a high collar and a fine silk necktie. No expression on his face.

“My Lord that fellow is handsome,” one woman said.

His hands were shackled in the front, and his steps into the wagon were short and measured for the ankle cuffs. He sat down on the coffin with the chief on one side and a portly preacher on the other. The driver nudged the big bay forward, and the second wagon fell in.

Officer Reed appeared in the doorway, Goldie Toothman’s elbow gripped loose in his hand. She’d gotten her plaid dress in line and her hair tidied. The wrist shackles rode tight against purple velvet cuffs. Her eyes were shut. She sang in a whisper.

Reed and the skinny preacher guided her to the coffin bench. She sat down slow. Men astride horses regarded her movements, her magnificent shape, the fine hue of high-cheek skin. The big, beautiful assemblage of her up-tied hair. They looked on with lust in their eyes despite their wives, who rode behind them in the same saddle, pressed uncomfortable against stiff belts and gun grips.

The second driver lashed the haunches of the big black horse, and the wheels spit mud as they pulled away from the jailhouse. The surrey fell in behind. It picked up four lawmen, two reporters, and the court stenographer.

The wind shifted, and thick ash from the coke ovens on the hill began to fall. Light rain started and stopped. The procession was relatively quiet, save for the street peddler calls and the barkers beckoning folks to the three shell tables. In an alley, men were shooting dice. One called, “Come you seven, come eleven!”

Abe Baach smiled where he sat.

Next to him, the portly preacher started up. He shouted, “The Savior comes and walks with me, and sweet communion here have we.” The skinny preacher in the wagon behind raised his face to the heavens, and they God-called in unison. When Abe could take it no more, he lifted his shackled hands from his lap, sprung his elbows, and swiveled at the hips, knocking the preacher from the coffin and the wagon too. It was a mighty blow that sent him circling, his backside to the sky before he landed on his belly in the mud. It took his wind from him. Some gasped. Others had a laugh. Two onlookers came to his aid, and when they rolled him to his side, a muddy crater he’d left behind.

The driver held up the horses, but Rutherford said move on. He’d stood from the coffin and put his colossal revolver to Abe’s head. “This road is full a ruts,” he told him, “and my finger’s inside the guard.”

Abe shouted at him: “Well go on Admiral Dot and squeeze it!”

Goldie had opened her eyes long enough to see the gun at Abe’s head, and when she shut them again, she gathered her air and coiled herself and let out a war cry so full as to ring the ears of the dead. It set the skinny preacher’s arm hair on end. It panicked the breath of officer Reed, and it ceased the barking of those hawking corn salve and silver and fixed games of chance.

Rutherford grit his teeth and told the driver to see to his buggy whip.

Abe sat on his coffin and swayed in time with the rusted wagon springs. His head knocked the barrel of the long short gun, but he did not much feel it. His ears caught the echo of his woman’s din, but he did not much hear it. His eyes looked ahead to the waiting gallows, but he did not much see it.

The people had amassed there, four thousand strong. Most had traveled from Mingo or from Mercer. They’d caught wind the day before and made haste to see the show. They stood upon a plot northeast of Elkhorn Creek, a flat patch where a house of ill fame had once held sway as the unofficial boundary to Cinder Bottom, Keystone’s red-light district. Now the land had been carved and leveled by seventeen mule teams in preparation for a new switchout and tipple. The people filled it up and stood on their wagons. They covered the surrounding hillsides, slipping and lending one another a hand. They waited fifty deep in line for hot roasted peanuts at five cents a bag, and they pressed against the barbed wire fence that circled the scaffold stage.

The gallows platform was wide and high, its ladder bearing thirteen steps and its side-by-side traps triggered by a singular lever. It had been built by a stranger. An Italian master carpenter with the straight-ahead eyes of a clergyman who called himself Signore Buonostirpe. He’d walked into Judge Beavers’ office early Thursday morning and proclaimed, “I make catafalco. I make for nothing.” He had a letter from George Maledon at Fort Smith Arkansas which read: This man has a gift from God, and it is to build, completely gratis, the most beautiful killing mechanisms you’re likely to see. Buonostirpe said he believed the guilty should pay with their lives. He wanted only to have his choice of timber and to work in solitude. He was granted both, and in two days’ time, he’d built the custom long-drop scaffold. The beams were spruce. The encased bottom, sweetgum. It was costly to panel the high pillars, but encased bottoms were customary since 1901 when Black Jack Tom Ketchum had been decapitated by a long-drop gallows in New Mexico.

Four policemen hopped from the surrey and cleared an entrance at the fence gate. It took some time. The people were thick, and when they parted, they pressed against one another in a ripple. The wagons rolled inside, and the gate was latched behind. Abe and Goldie stood from their coffin tops and waited.

The officers toted stepladders to the rear of each wagon. Rutherford and the skinny preacher descended like the rest. Reed did not. He unhitched a key ring from his belt and bent at Goldie’s side.

“What are you doing?” Rutherford called up.

Reed said, “We undo their ankles now. Less you want to carry Baach up that pitch.”

Rutherford looked at the stairs awaiting. He mumbled for Reed to hurry on and do it.

A procession toward death commenced as a new vendor began to call out, “Abe and Goldie’s picture, twenty cent! Last chance!”

Folks patted their pockets and fished for coins.

“They’ll never have another one took,” the man called.

They ascended the stairs single file.

The rain picked up again and the beaten ground troughed under the feet of the people. They listened to the rain against their shoulders. They were quiet and uncertain. Those who knew about rain and ground asked how in God’s name the earth could be so wet after having been so long dry.

On the platform, the players took their places. Chief Rutherford, officer Reed, news reporter, preacher. The court stenographer was given a straight-back chair too small for her frame, but she took her seat and produced a leather-bound book and fountain pen. She held them at the ready, her fat hand trembling.

Rutherford moved Abe to his spot on the drop door. Reed followed suit, escorting Goldie to her own square. The two ropes dangled behind them, nooses nearly touching the platform floor.

The preacher took his place in front of the condemned and spoke. “These two, convicted of the worst crime, are standing on the line of eternity and time.”

A loose conglomerate of horses began to whinny, and babies cried as their mothers held them high to witness.

The preacher preached on. “Their immortal souls are about to enter the unseen world, where the years are as the sands of the sea, as the leaves on the tree.”

His hands were crossed over his Bible when he stepped to the back of the platform.

Rutherford nodded to Reed, who in turn nodded to Goldie that she could make her speech.

Rutherford had proclaimed the night before that when it came to hangings, speeches were customary and that ladies spoke before gentlemen.

The people waited for Queen Bee to speak.

It had been said of Goldie that you could ask her what time it was and she’d tell you how to build a clock. She could dress a man down in two sentences. But on this day, upon being asked to speak, she said nothing. She looked at Abe, who looked at the square beneath his polished shoes. She looked to the sky above. The dark gallows crossbeam split the dirty clouds. She looked back at the people, whose numbers and expanse took her breath. She’d not seen so many together, and when she let her eyes blear, it was as if the people were a wide gray skin on the land. She took note of the mothers in the crowd, the ones holding their fat babies aloft, and how those little ones shut their eyes against the rain and opened them again, looking askance on the world before them, and she said, too quiet to be heard by any but those on the stage, “Children ought not be out in this choke damp rain.”

Rutherford told Abe to make his speech.

The stenographer kept a good pace. Tiny impels condemned to speak, she wrote.

Abe cleared his throat. “My name is Abe Baach,” he said. “I was born right here in Keystone on the ninth of January in the year 1880.” The people listened. “Up to April, I had not stepped foot in this place for seven years.” He looked at them. “Most of you people know me, even if you act like you don’t.” His voice carried clear to those in the trees. “My mother is Sallie Hood of the Burke Mountain Hoods. My daddy is Al Baach.” Men from outlying counties yawned and checked their pocket watches. “Maybe you drank something once upon a time in his saloon on Wyoming Street,” Abe said. “I served plenty of you, and so did my brothers Jake and Sam.”

Two dogs got into it at the foot of a hillside birch tree. Their throated snarls turned the heads of most in the crowd until a girl kicked their snouts apart and the smaller one ran for cover under a tall horse.

Abe pointed his shackled hands at an old man who stood at the fence with his knotty fingers intwined. “Right down here is ole Warts Wickline,” Abe shouted. “When I wasn’t but knee-high, I’d set up on the bartop and play dishrag peek-a-boo with this gentleman right here in front of me.”

“Handsome baby,” Warts Wickline said. His neck was covered in skin tags of varying size and shade. “He done a dance up there, stuck out his little hand for a cent piece.” None could hear him but those in proximity, and the crowd along the edges murmured and moved. The old man kept on. “Stuffed your britches with them pennies didn’t you,” he called up to Abe. “We called you Pretty Boy Baach back then.”

Abe nodded his head. “I remember,” he said.

The whistle of the westbound noon train came faint on the air. It was nine minutes behind schedule. The rain slowed.

“There’s a good many of you that want me to take out my cards and show you a trick or two,” Abe called out. “There’s a good many more wants to know the truth of who does the killin around here and who fires their gun in defense.” He held up his wrists. “It’s hard when you’re shackled, but I’ll oblige.” And he opened his clasped hands, and in them he held a fresh deck.

Rutherford’s stomach made a watery sound. He didn’t know whether to shit or go blind.

Abe split the deck’s seal with his thumbnail and said, “At the end of it, if the law is still standing behind me, he can by God yank the handle.”

There was a rumble among them then. Some had had enough of this talk from a convicted criminal. “Go on and stretch his neck,” somebody called. One woman yelled that Goldie was a whore. Another man advised not to listen to a half-Jew swindler such as Abe. Others leaned to the ones in front and asked what it was that ole Warts Wickline had said, and when told, they passed it on to another who’d inquired, and so it spread, and there were those then uncertain about the hanging of such a beautiful young woman and a handsome man who’d once been a boy who peek-a-booed and danced for a britches penny. Those uncertain knew themselves to be good then, and they leered at those about who were drouthy for spilt blood.

Reed leaned to Rutherford and whispered, “I best put them ankle irons back on.” Rutherford nodded, and Reed knelt before Abe and set to work.

“Yank the handle!” a skinny boy said.

An old woman said no. She said the condemned ought to be able to say his piece.

The people were stirring, talking loud over the slacking rain.

Rutherford had seen enough. He bent to the nooses where they hung and gathered their lengths in his fist, and as he did, a tingling commenced in his fingers and toes, and thereupon Abe let loose a booming invocation which carried to the scant trees on the ridge and beyond. “I’ll tell the truth before I die,” he roared, “or I’ll walk out of hell in kerosene drawers and set the world on fire!”

Rutherford was still bent at the waist when he let go the rope lengths. He wobbled, then dropped to his knees. When his face hit the boards, there came from his backside a mighty gust. It escaped him in a long and steady rush, a flatulence known only to the leprous gut, a ragged slap of wind that carried forth without cease for a full fourteen seconds.

When it was finished, Abe said, “Amen.”

So short was Rutherford’s height that those up close had not seen him go down, for the gallows was a steep-pitched endeavor. But they had heard the call of his marsh gas, and they were confused. Those farther away thought maybe he was fiddling with the shackles, or praying.

The stenographer’s hand had ceased to tremble. She wrote in her bound book with furious tranquility: Tiny falls on face, farts in carefree fashion. Condemned remarks ‘Amen.’

The rain quit and the people were again quiet.

Abe tossed the deck to Goldie. They played shackled catch as if it were a common game. She winked at him and pulled back the flaps and dropped the wrapper to the boards. The cards wore heavy varnish.

The sun came free of the clouds then, and the people looked skyward, and there was only the north-born sound of the tardy noon train’s wheeze. The engine was not yet fully stopped at the station when men began to jump from inside the empty coal hoppers. They hit the hard dirt beside the railbed and rolled and got to their feet quick. They ran on wrenched ankles, headlong into the people staring dumb at the heavens.

Glenn Taylor is the author of the novels The Marrowbone Marble Company and The Ballad of Trenchmouth Taggart, a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He was born and raised in Huntington, West Virginia, and he now lives with his wife and three sons in Morgantown, where he teaches at West Virginia University.