Death's strange spell

SUSAN MOELLER is the director of the International Center for Media and the Public Agenda at the University of Maryland and the author of "Shooting War: Photography and the American Experience of Combat."

THE OFFICIAL VIDEO that aired on Iraqi state television of Saddam Hussein's execution and the surreptitiously taken cellphone images of the hanging have once again caused mainstream American media to publicly muse over whether their audiences can tolerate graphic images of violence and death.

But our own history shows rather clearly that people want to see photographic evidence of cataclysmic events, and although there certainly may be some who turn away from the most graphic renditions, many feel the need for an unvarnished documentation.

Almost a century and a half ago, at 1:26 p.m. on July 7, 1865, Lewis Paine, David Herold, George Atzerodt and Mary Surratt were hanged on the grounds of the Washington Arsenal — today the site of Ft. Lesley J. McNair. They had been sentenced to death by a military commission for conspiracy in the assassination of President Lincoln. (The assassin, John Wilkes Booth, had been killed by a Union soldier while trying to escape capture.)

Thousands wished to witness the execution. Tickets were issued to about 1,000 people who watched as two soldiers below the gallows knocked away the supports for the trap doors. The four, with hoods over their heads and nooses around their necks, dropped about five feet. Two struggled for a time. After 25 minutes, the bodies were cut down and examined by doctors, then buried in shallow graves next to the gallows using crude gun boxes as coffins. Outside the prison, a large crowd celebrated the news with lemonade and cake.

Photographer Alexander Gardner — already well-known for his images, made with Mathew Brady, of dead soldiers at the bloody battles at Antietam and Gettysburg — was the only photographer present at the execution. Limited by the slow cameras of the 1860s, with their large glass-plate negatives, Gardner carefully selected his vantage point. He took a series of pictures; the first shows the empty scaffold and the last shows the four lifeless bodies hanging in midair.

The many daily newspapers of the era hurried into print tales of the execution, but there were no images to accompany the accounts. The technology of the half-tone, which allowed photographic prints to be reproduced for publication, would not be invented until 1888, and there was not enough time for the daily press to create woodcuts from Gardner's photos, a standard form of periodical illustration at the time. Two weeks later, however, on July 22, Harper's Weekly did publish woodcuts of many of the shots, including one titled "Adjusting the Ropes," which showed soldiers fitting the nooses around the necks of the condemned.

But woodcuts, which have the look of black-and-white line drawings, didn't sate the demand to see what really happened. Photographic copies of Gardner's images were rushed into mass production. They appeared as cartes de visite, cards about 2 1/2 by 4 inches with a photograph mounted on them — more or less the iPods of their day. The photographs were also translated into glass slides that could be projected onto walls and into stereo cards that could be viewed through a binocular-type device that made them appear in 3-D.

Those technologies, cutting-edge in their time, could not, of course, reproduce color or create moving images of the action. The fidelity of the sepia-toned Civil War-era stills can't compare to digital videos, complete with audio, that are common today.

Yet the photographs of Civil War dead — and from the evidence of their popularity, those of the hanging — were utterly compelling. Wrote a New York Times reporter in 1862 of a gallery show of Brady's war images: "There is a terrible fascination … that draws one near these pictures, and makes him loth to leave them. You will see hushed, reverend groups standing around these weird copies of carnage, bending down to look in the pale faces of the dead, chained by the strange spell that dwells in dead men's eyes."

We share that fascination. It is not just an unwholesome prurience that makes us desire to see the photographic evidence of Hussein's death, it is the rightful interest in our own times.

Lincoln's 1865 assassination, coming five days after the surrender of Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ended an era — not just of the Civil War but of the belief that a reconciliation of the warring states could occur "with malice toward none." Who was responsible for it? What exactly was done to the guilty? Americans wanted to see for themselves.

So too do many the world over want to see photographic evidence of the hanging of Hussein. More than 1 million views of the Iraqi state video have been recorded on YouTube alone; the even more graphic cellphone video has logged more than 350,000 views.

Rightly or wrongly, many Americans consider Hussein the reason for the position the United States finds itself in today. We still want to see the guilty, just as we need to know — and see — what's happening in the war.

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
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