Sunday, February 03, 2008

A really wierd, macabre book

I got a book for Christmas. It's at the top of the list of the strangest Christmas gifts I've ever received, and that's a high standard. Some friends were traveling in Montana and found it at one of those tourist traps that crop up in the middle of nowhere. The book: Hanging Around the Big Sky ("The unofficial guide to lynching, strangling, and legal hangings of Montana"). I got volume one: legal hangings. I'm disturbed that one of my friends would see this book on a shelf and immediately think of me. I'm taking it as a sign that I'm hard to buy for.

As disturbing as the gift is, possibly worse is that I enjoyed reading it. It's as poorly written and edited as any other small-press local history book written primarily for the tourist trade, but once you get past that, it's a look at a chunk of history that people tend to forget about, in a part of the country that I really like. Narrow-slice history is generally fascinating; I've read books about the way Paris smelled in the 1800s, the legalization of divorce in sixteenth-century Geneva, and a host of others about topics as obscure, and I've tended to have fun with them. Reading about this section of the history of the justice system is good for perspective when I see abuses of the justice system today. We might screw things up occasionally, but we've come a long way from the days of mob rule and frontier justice. And some of the stories are good. My favorite was about a thug who got word that a posse was going after a no-good lowlife cattle rustler, so he gathered some people, brought the rope, and even found a suitable tree. When he met the posse, he figured out a bit too late that he was the no-good lowlife cattle rustler. He's listed as the only person in the history of the U.S. to have organized his own hanging.

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