‘…Until You are Dead’ (Palestine, 1937), Alec Seath Kirkbride, A Crackle of Thorns: Experiences in the Middle East, John Murray Ltd, Great Britain, 1956.
When my wife awakened me earlier than usual and I looked out of the window on to the green and gold of a spring morning in Galilee, it seemed too fair a day on which, deliberately, to extinguish human life, whether by legal processes or otherwise. However, as District Commissioner of Galilee and Acre I was committed to playing a leading part in a triple killing by the fact that the Central Prison at Acre was in my district and no execution of a death sentence could take place there without my presence or that of a senior member of my staff. Executions in those troublous years of 1937 to 1939 were only too frequent in Palestine, and I had deputed members of my staff to attend them until my conscience had driven me to say that I would take the next turn myself. Now, the next turn had arrived and it meant seeing three unfortunates hanged in one morning.
The journey from my headquarters in Nazareth to the prison at Acre was through an attractive and flowering countryside for the most part, but I was in no mood of appreciation that day. As my car followed in the wake of the police armoured car, which was intended to protect me from ambushes, or, as was more likely to be the case, to avenge me after the event, I wondered what would happen if I did not go to Acre and so made the executions impossible that day. There was, however, no escape either for myself or for the condemned men. We arrived at the gate of the grim old Turkish fortress, now used as a prison, which emitted an aura of death and cruelty fifteen minutes before the first hanging was due at 8 a.m., and I stood for a few minutes on the bridge across the moat talking to the Governor of the prison and to the local Medical Officer who were there to receive me. As we spoke, the gate opened to let out a Moslem priest who had been to prepare the victims for death. The priest exchanged salutes with us and added a look of the blackest hatred. I, for one, felt guilty and mean; not that I, or anyone else in the group, bore any responsibility for the death sentences.
The execution chamber was a whitewashed vault in the interior part of the main wall of the keep and, with its loopholes as windows in the thick masonry, it looked medieval and horrible even without the wooden platform with its central trap door over which dangled already one of the three ropes which were attached to the heavy cross-beam above. I had hardly walked as far as a corner of the room when two warders led in the first victim, a young Arab in his twenties. The little group was followed by a single police officer who had been present at the man’s trial and who had now to identify him literally at the foot of the scaffold. Next, the Governor read out to the condemned man the text of the warrant of death. In this instance, the man protested at the delay and said, ‘I know that you are going to hang me. For God’s sake get it over quickly!’ He soon had his wish fulfilled. He came in with his hands handcuffed behind his back, then the warders pinioned his elbows and slipped over his head a hood of black cloth which not only blindfolded him but mercifully hid his face from us. They moved him on to the trap and, when his feet covered the right chalk marks, strapped his ankles together. As the warders stepped back, the Governor slammed over a lever and the man fell forward through the trap to be brought up short, when the rope ran out, with a shock that shook the whole platform.
People who are hanged may lose consciousness immediately, but their bodies live on, sometimes for about twenty minutes. So, we stood and watched this body twitch and the legs retract notwithstanding the bound ankles. A great gout of blood had come from beneath the hood and splashed on the whitewash of the wall. When I remarked on this fact, one of the warders said that the man had struck his face on the way down on the side of the trap. This statement was denied indignantly by the Governor, who said that the haemorrhage was caused by the bursting of a blood-vessel in the nasal cavity. After a while the Medical Officer ripped open the man’s shirt and listened to his heart, which, so he said, was beating still more rapidly than in normal life. Eventually, he pronounced life to be extinct and we were able to move out into the sunshine of the courtyard where the dank smells of humanity and disinfectant were not so overpowering. The next execution was not due until nine o’clock, so I accompanied the Governor to his quarters and found, to my surprise, that I could eat a breakfast.
The second hanging was a repetition of the first save that the victim nearly wrecked everything by fainting as they got him on to the trap. One of the warders managed, however, to hold him upright long enough to ensure that he fell through cleanly when the trap opened. This time we had to wait for nearly twenty minutes before the Medical Officer was satisfied that the man was dead; it seemed to be interminable.
Between the end of the second execution and the beginning or the last at ten o’clock, I filled in the time by carrying out an inspection of the prison. I do not like inspecting prisons at any time and on this occasion least of all, but anything was better than just waiting. As we passed the grille of one cell I saw an Arab youth in ordinary clothes pacing up and down restlessly. I stopped and asked who he was, only to find that he was our next victim who had no alternative to waiting. As we moved down the dismal corridors I was filled with an overwhelming feeling of pity mixed with the hope that I might be able to meet my end, whatever it might be, with the same courage and fortitude which was being shown by these men. The killing of men in battle was a familiar thing, but it never provoked the loathing with which I saw these men led like cattle to their deaths and hurled through a hole in the floor with their hands and feet trussed so that they could do nothing to save their necks from the cruel rope.
As we went into the large communal cell which housed both convicts and those awaiting trial, silence fell amongst the inmates and their eyes all turned in my direction. They knew why I was there, and the feeling that I was doing something shameful, which had bothered me the whole morning, grew more intense. In one of the large chambers leading on to the battlements were a score or so of Jews, segregated from the Arabs, who were accused of membership of a terrorist organization. They also glared their hatred but not because I was hanging some Arabs; the fact that I was British was enough. One only did not turn round; he was leaning out of an embrasure staring out to sea, and I felt vaguely grateful for his disinterest.
When the Medical Officer released us for the third and last time I had one more duty to perform before I could get away from the place. As a coroner, I had to hold an inquest on the three bodies. This was little more than a formality but, as I inspected the three corpses lying on a stone slab, with their swollen faces suffused with purple, I felt that death sentences did not really solve any problem or answer any question. I also felt that it might do the judges who imposed the sentences a lot of good to be present to see them carried out. Finally, I signed a statement finding that the men had met their deaths through judicial homicide. I drove away hoping, without much conviction, that I would not have to play the part again.
When I got back to my quarters at Nazareth my wife greeted me with the words ‘You look green.’ I felt green.