After the Beheading


Steven Millhauser

After the beheading, which took place at 11:14 AM on Saturday, June 1, in the middle of the town green, some of us remained seated in our folding chairs, trying to understand what we had just witnessed; others came forward to look more closely at the guillotine, mounted on its platform splattered with blood. Still others headed home to their families or set out on solitary walks or gathered at the Black Cat Tavern to talk or forget. Parents who had left their children at home tried to imagine what they might say about the morning’s event, while those who had made the decision to bring their children with them wondered whether they’d done the right thing. Whatever our response to the public execution, which for many months had been the subject of heated debate, we all recognized that a turn had taken place in our town, one that we did not yet fully grasp.

The idea had evolved gradually and gathered momentum over the past year and a half. A wave of break-ins and robberies, unusual in our quiet town, had made many of us feel unsafe in our tree-lined neighborhoods, and at every town meeting there was talk of strengthening our police presence, increasing the severity of punishment, enforcing the law more rigorously. The turning point had come a few months later, when Dennis Caldwell, thirty-six years old, who lived in a modest neighborhood out by the new mall, quarreled one night with his live-in girlfriend, whom he proceeded to hit in the face with both fists, rape, burn with cigarettes, and beat to death with a hammer. The jury, after a brief deliberation, found the defendant guilty, the judge imposed the death penalty, and within days a movement had arisen to make the death of Dennis Caldwell serve as a warning to our town that such acts would not be tolerated. The idea of a public execution was one among many, but it began to attract serious attention as petitioners went door to door soliciting signatures. At a crowded town meeting, the final vote was 39% in favor, 37% opposed, and 24% abstaining. In the weeks that followed, we debated the merits and shortcomings of death by hanging, death by lethal injection, death by electrocution, and death by firing squad, before settling on the guillotine for a number of reasons, chief among them its dramatic swiftness and its power of leaving a lasting impression. Members of our Town Board, acting with uncharacteristic decisiveness, gained permission from the governor and appointed a Special Projects Commission to oversee all arrangements.

The work of constructing a guillotine was awarded to a local carpentry firm, Stanford & Sons, noted for innovative designs in porch swings, octagonal gazebos, and backyard arbors with built-in benches and planters. The finished structure, with its fourteen-foot posts, its diagonal blade bolted into a steel weight, and its latched opening for the neck, was transported by truck to the edge of the town green, carried by eight workers across the grass, and set on top of a raised wooden platform with steps going up in front and back. Our green is bordered by a row of sycamores on Beach Street and is overlooked on one side by our town hall, which dates from the seventeenth century, and on another by our Historical Society, originally an eighteenth-century inn. For this occasion, rows of folding chairs were set up to face the front and sides of the guillotine, so that the audience could see the victim’s head clearly, but by dawn of execution day it was evident that the gathering crowd had exceeded all expectations. Additional folding chairs were brought over from the basement of the nearby Presbyterian church and hastily set up in rows that covered the entire green, so that many who attended were forced to sit behind the guillotine and could not directly witness the severing of the head. Some sat on the tops of cars in the two parking lots that bordered the green, some brought towels and blankets and tried to find empty spaces on the grass; others watched through binoculars from the porches of houses across the street. It was a sunny June morning, the kind of day when many of us drove past this very green on our way to the beach a half mile down the road, and in the air you could feel a mood not only of tense anticipation but of festivity, as if we had come out to celebrate the splendor of the blue spring day.

Shortly before eleven o’clock, three police cars and an ambulance drove into the town hall parking lot. From one of the cars emerged two officers and Dennis Caldwell, wearing an orange prison jumpsuit, his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles shackled. He was led across the lawn to the back steps of the platform, where he was handed over to two assistants who guided him up the steps to the rear of the guillotine. The condemned man’s face, which was difficult to see from my seat near the edge of the green, held no expression, or perhaps what it held was a stern refusal of expression. His eyes looked straight ahead. We watched as he was strapped face down onto a tilted board that was lowered toward the opening. A third assistant unlatched the top of the opening, set the condemned man’s neck in place, and closed the top. The executioner, wearing black pants and a long-sleeved black shirt, stood at the side of one post and silently raised his right hand to a lever. The blade dropped swiftly between the grooves of the posts, blood flew up, the head dropped into the basket with a sound everyone could hear, it was all over quickly. Two men covered the basket and carried it across the green to the ambulance. Two other men placed the headless body in a coffin-like box and carried it to the ambulance, which drove away.

I was one of those who sat without moving, trying to take in the meaning of what I had just seen, trying, already, to recall exactly what had happened from the moment the blade struck the neck, while all around me people were standing up, gathering their things, pushing past knees. Had his eyes remained open the whole time? I had faithfully attended all the town meetings, I had argued forcefully against the idea of a public execution, and at the last moment I had voted yes. After a while I stood up and walked over to the platform. Town employees in dark green uniforms were scrubbing away stains of blood and spraying the sides of the platform with hoses. A revulsion came over me, or maybe it was less a revulsion than simply a desire to get away from it all, to breathe fresh air, though in fact I was breathing fresh air on the town green under a blue sky on a warm morning in June. Two acquaintances invited me to join them for lunch in town, but I was in no mood for company. I set off alone.

My walk took me along Beach Street to neighborhoods near the shore, where boys were playing basketball on the driveways of two-car garages as sprinklers sprayed arcs of water on green lawns. When I grew tired in the heat, I returned to my car and drove to the other side of town, where my house stands on a street of older houses and shady sidewalks. Since the death of my wife I have lived alone, and though I spend much of my free time with friends I was glad to be by myself on this afternoon, to sit without talking in the shade of my porch and to lean back with half-closed eyes, like someone who has been lifting heavy loads for many hours and is entitled to a long rest. I had seen the blade fall, I had watched it slice through the neck, but everything had happened so quickly that I found it difficult to recall things with any precision. Was it possible that for an instant I had shut my eyes? I remembered the head falling into the basket with a small, decisive thump, but my seat was so far from the guillotine that I’d had only a distant sense of the condemned man’s face. What stayed with me was something else. When Dennis Caldwell’s neck was fixed in the opening, one of the assistants on the platform took hold of Caldwell’s hair, evidently in order to steady the head in preparation for the descent of the blade. The assistant had put on a full-length rubber apron to protect his clothes from the burst of blood, and as the blade plunged toward the neck he drew back his own head and bent it to one side, as if to get out of the way of death.

In the middle of the night I woke and remembered the expression on Dennis Caldwell’s face. He lay strapped to the board with his neck in the opening and stared out at the crowd. I saw a look of ferocious judgment in his eyes. Even as I reminded myself that I could not possibly have seen the features of Dennis Caldwell’s face from where I sat, that I could see his brown hair falling over his forehead but not the shape or color of his eyes, I saw them now, as the blade dropped like the slash of a sword in an old movie that I had watched as a child.

On that first day I obeyed my sharp need to be alone, to hear no talk, to stay away from my phone and laptop and TV, but by Sunday morning I was seized by the desire to hear what people were saying. The phone kept ringing, text messages kept popping up, friends needed to talk, my brother-in-law’s family wanted to know every detail. What was it like? How did it feel to watch something like that? The town was alive with voices. Despite announcements forbidding the use of cameras, many in the audience had used concealed smartphones to capture bits and pieces of the execution and posted them online. Most were blurred or shaky images of people’s heads and shoulders, with a glimpse of the top of the guillotine high above, but one six-second sequence posted on YouTube had already been viewed eighty thousand times. It showed the blade, at a distance, clearly plunging down, but just as it was about to strike the neck, someone blocked the view, so that you saw the blade vanish behind a blurry shoulder, followed by a moment when something that might have been dust or pollen or spots of blood appeared in the air. Along with images of this kind, vigorous opinions poured forth freely. Many in our town deplored the beheading as a sickening return to the barbaric past, while others praised it as a long overdue response to the loss of respect for law. On the local radio, a mother with a shaky voice said that her daughter was now afraid to pass the town green on her way to the beach. An air-conditioner repairman said that people got what they deserved, a realtor expressed the fear that property values would fall, and a member of the town planning commission said that the execution was the greatest thing the town had accomplished in his thirty-four years of service. Local news reported that protesters had been gathering at the green since Saturday afternoon, carrying signs with messages like Day of Shame and Execution Is Murder. Several protesters had clashed with police and had been removed from the scene.

I suppose it was inevitable that rumors about the event should begin to circulate. At the office the next morning, where I work as an accounts manager for an insurance firm, I was startled by the wide discrepancy in eyewitness reports. One of my colleagues claimed that he’d seen the eyes blink twice, after the head had been severed but before it had dropped into the basket. Another said that she’d heard the sound of a word emerging from the severed head, a word that sounded like “crime” or “climb.” Someone started to explain to us that the brain remains alive for a short time after the head leaves the body; someone else declared that the brain dies but the facial muscles continue to twitch. There was disagreement about how much blood had been spilled, about the look on Dennis Caldwell’s face as the blade began to fall, as the blade struck, as his head separated from his body. I tried to hold on to what I’d seen, I clung to any detail I was able to remember, but already I felt things shifting, growing uncertain, like a landscape dissolving into dusk.

I made a point of avoiding the town green that day, but dissatisfaction with my evasiveness and a kind of fury of curiosity drew me back the next afternoon. Had there really been a public beheading in our peaceful town? The green had changed. It was now blocked off by yellow-and-black tape attached to steel stanchions. Uniformed police stood guard all around, and on the sidewalk of Beach Street and in the parking lots of the town hall and the Historical Society, angry protesters shouted and pumped their arms. In the middle of the green, the guillotine stood high on its platform, its diagonal blade gleaming in the sun. Two birds sat on the top crossbar and suddenly flew away. A groundskeeper seated in a riding mower rode slowly across the grass, throwing up sprays of green. Across the street, a group of counter-protesters stood holding signs with messages like Death for Death and No Mercy for Murderers. Cars passed slowly, heading out to the beach.

A few nights later a troubling incident took place on the green. Shortly after three in the morning, the guillotine burst into flame. The fire department, located a few blocks away, extinguished the flames within minutes, no damage was done apart from minor charring of the platform and one post, the two teenage boys responsible for the act were quickly apprehended, but the attack made its impression and for a while strengthened the hand of the pro-guillotine faction, who argued in favor of broadening the death penalty to include crimes against property. Others insisted that the guillotine had itself been responsible for the incident by the sheer fact of its blood-soaked existence, which was nothing less than a continuous incitement to violence. The result of it all was a stricter patrolling of the green and an increased presence of night guards.

Toward the end of the first week, a story began to circulate that left many of us uneasy. Mary Lou Wharton was the eleven-year-old daughter of Charles and Helene Wharton, who lived in an old neighborhood within walking distance of the green. The Whartons had attended the beheading but had chosen to leave their daughter at home. Shaken by what they’d witnessed, they returned to their house before noon and were surprised not to find Mary Lou waiting on the front porch or playing in the yard or reading in her room. Only after a thorough search did they discover her in the basement playroom, sitting quietly on the couch. Before her on the rug stood the oval table around which, at the age of six, she had liked to arrange her dolls before serving them imaginary tea and cake. Six of the old dolls were seated neatly on six small chairs around the table. All the dolls were without heads. Some held an arm raised, others rested a hand on the edge of a teacup. Each head sat beside a teaspoon. On the end table beside the couch lay a kitchen knife.

The story of Mary Lou Wharton, passed on by a gossiping friend, spread quickly and led to new clashes of opinion. If even one of our daughters could behave in this way, who knew what emotional damage had been inflicted on the children of our town? The beheading had already caused many of us restless nights, but angry voices now urged us to take charge of our lives by voting to make public executions illegal and by removing and destroying the monstrous guillotine, visible reminder of our disastrous mistake. Defenders argued that Mary Lou Wharton’s parents were entirely to blame for their ill-considered decision to spare their daughter instead of taking her to the green. Left to her own devices, she had fallen prey to an imagination that would have been strengthened and disciplined by the experience of the event itself. Others, while acknowledging the unfortunate nature of May Lou Wharton’s behavior, begged to point out that the vicious and drawn-out assaults committed by Dennis Caldwell were in no way similar to the merciful swiftness of his own punishment, and they urged that the guillotine be proudly preserved as a symbol of justice.

Although the protests at the green continued, a tapering off was noticeable as June advanced toward summer. A faithful dozen or so, stand-ing about with signs, lingered outside the barrier tape at the edges of the green, mostly ignored by people strolling past on their way to the beach, glancing up for a moment at the guillotine, nodding to a groundskeeper or to one of the few remaining policemen. Now and then a young mother or father would point at the guillotine and say something to an upward-gazing child. Cardinals and sparrows sat in the overhanging branches. A smell of summer was in the air.

It was toward the end of June, not long after high school graduation, that we heard reports of a Guillotine Party, held one evening in the backyard of Ray Anderson, a popular senior who was captain of the swim team. Apparently he and a few friends had managed to cobble together a crude guillotine, composed of two upright posts fastened to the sides of a wooden crate and connected at the top by a board. On the crate stood an old tire, through which the victim’s head had to pass. A bucket of water was secured by straps to the top of the upper board. When the victim, who had lost a contest of some kind, was tied up and placed face-down on the platform, so that head and neck emerged from the tire, the executioner pulled a rope. The high board tipped forward, water from the bucket poured down onto the victim’s head, cheers and whistles erupted. The game was harmless enough, a way to pass time with friends in a backyard on a summer evening, but I wasn’t the only one disturbed by this travesty of our public execution, for not only did the game tame down the fierce act of beheading, infecting it with an air of playfulness and mockery, but even as it did so you could sense, beneath the shouts and the light-hearted laughter, the memory of a bloody blade drifting through the darkening air with its scent of hedge blossoms and cut grass.

Influenced perhaps by their older brothers and sisters, younger children were beginning to behave in odd ways. One afternoon a mother bearing a tray of cookies and lemonade entered the room of her eight-year-old son, only to discover that he and his friends had painted bright red circles of lipstick around their necks and were staggering around in the throes of pretended death. One boy with a splash of red on the back of his neck lay face down on the bed with his head hanging over the side and his arms dangling. In another part of town, a babysitter, checking up on the children, found the five-year-old girl trapped in a window with her neck held down by the bottom pane, while her brother stood next to her wearing a black mask. It was about this time that Angelina’s, the toyshop on Main Street, began selling little guillotines in two sizes, the six-inch and the twelve-inch, supplied with safe plastic blades and gel-necked victim figurines. Sometimes I had the sense that the guillotine on the green was multiplying itself in grotesque forms, in order to demonstrate its power.

And yet, for all that, as the hot days of summer settled in, it was clear to most of us that the sway of the guillotine was gradually diminish-ing. Yes, there were incidents here and there – a red swastika painted one night on the front of a guillotine post and removed by a groundskeeper the next morning, a headless cat nailed to the trunk of a tree beside its severed head – but on the whole, we could feel our world returning to its familiar ways. We went to work, strolled in town, spread out our towels on the beach, mowed our lawns, argued about the proposed meters for Main Street parking. A guillotine stood in the middle of our green, but it had grown less visible, obscured by familiarity. It was like the front of the town library, with windows topped by elegant designs of brick and stone that most of us could not visualize with any precision. The day itself, though hardly forgotten, seemed to have taken place long ago, like a childhood visit to a museum.

We were shaken out of our apathy by an incident that erupted one day in late July. Richard Penniman, a semi-retired handyman who had worked in many of our homes, was rushed to the hospital in critical condition. A neighbor had discovered him in his backyard at dawn. The story, which emerged gradually, was this. For two months Richard Penniman had spent long hours in his basement workshop, constructing a guillotine. Penniman’s skill as a craftsman was well known to us – he had once built a dollhouse village for a neighbor’s daughter, including a gas station, a grocery store, an elementary school, and three streets of houses – and the construction of a secret guillotine would have seemed less ominous in retrospect if his intention had simply been to display it as an object worthy of our admiration. Whether he had planned from the outset to demonstrate its perfection is unknown. As always, he traveled in his pickup to lumberyards and hardware stores in nearby towns, choosing material carefully. At least part of what compelled him, in my view, was the desire to build a guillotine superior in every way to the one on the town green. Only afterward did a neighbor realize that the shrill whining sound emerging from Penniman’s workshop at night must have been the sharpening of the steel blade. Late one night, Richard Penniman carried up the separate parts – the polished posts with their grooves, the latched opening that allowed the head to pass through, the diagonal blade, the supporting base, the basket lined with oilcloth – and laid them out on his back lawn, which was enclosed by a high wooden fence. In the darkness before dawn he began assembling his masterpiece. It rose sixteen feet into the air. In the pre-dawn light, Penniman stepped onto the base, lay down on his stomach, and opened the top half of the neck-hole. He inserted his head over the bottom half-circle and closed the top over the back of his neck. A lever near his right hand enabled him to release the blade into the grooves of the posts.

The operation proved flawless except for one thing: the blade, dropping swiftly and smoothly between the posts, failed to cut all the way through the neck. Cries of pain alerted the same neighbor who had heard sounds from the workshop at night and who now rushed outside and made his way through Penniman’s front yard into the back. There he found Richard Penniman’s body thrashing on the platform and the blade sunk into his bloody neck. At the hospital Penniman remained in intensive care for two weeks before beginning his imperfect recovery. But what haunted us was the vision of the guillotine at dawn, maiming but not killing its victim.

Even activists most violently opposed to the presence of a guillotine in our town had never imagined its failure. It was the successful beheading itself that was the focus of moral revulsion. The wounded neck, the thrashing body, the face twisted in anguish, seemed far more sinister than the cleanly beheaded body of Dennis Caldwell, as if the guillotine had at last revealed itself to be an instrument of torture, or a creature from outer space whose mission it was to mangle earthlings. Crowds of protesters gathered again at the town green, chanting and raising their fists. Parents took away toy guillotines and threw them in the trash.

Despite the revival of outrage and dismay, most of us continued to go about our usual business. Gradually the new protesters drifted back to their customary lives, leaving only a handful of stubborn loyalists, who stood for an hour or two talking quietly among themselves in the warm shade and opening backpacks to remove bottles of water that glistened in the sun. A few sat on the curb, with their signs against their knees, and looked at passersby or glanced at their watches. The possibility of new occasions for protest hung in the air, but we understood that we were in the last weeks of summer and had only a short time in which to savor the lazy peaceful days of backyard barbecues and trips to the beach before being swept up into the rhythms of autumn. A passion for the everyday came over us, as if we’d been confined to bed for months with a debilitating illness and were eager at last to get up and greet the new morning.

This embrace of the normal was itself cause for concern, since at its heart lay an acceptance of the guillotine as part of ordinary life. The post office, the library, the high school, the beach club, the guillotine, the bank, the movie theater, the Historical Society, the Presbyterian church, the new stop sign out by the hardware store – it was the town we all knew, the town most of us had grown up in, with its familiar monuments, its careful preservation of the past, its openness to reasonable change. A guillotine on the town green was beginning to seem no more remarkable than the new crosswalk between Vincenzo’s Drugstore and the Downtown Diner or the new post-office branch out by the renovated junior high. What really occupied our attention wasn’t the blade and the bloody neck but the new parking meters installed on two downtown blocks and the road repair project that closed off half a dozen streets and produced traffic jams causing ten-minute delays.

On the last day of August, the annual end-of-season craft fair opened at 6 AM on the town green. The barrier tapes had been removed, and booths appeared all across the lawn. Soon families were strolling from booth to booth, examining wine bottles decorated with yarn and sea shells, oil paintings of local scenes, hand-made coasters shaped like apples and pears. The three protesters laid their signs against the trunks of sycamores and entered the green, stopping at tables, chatting with friends. The guillotine was surrounded by an orange mesh fence and watched over by a single guard in a dark blue uniform, who sat on the steps of the platform and answered questions put to him by adults and children about how guillotines work. High above, the diagonal blade hung in the morning sun. A woman pushing a stroller bent over and adjusted her daughter’s baseball hat.

Scarcely had the fair ended when the town became caught up in Labor Day get-togethers and preparations for the new school year. One afternoon toward the middle of September, when the air was still warm but the first leaves were beginning to turn, I parked near the library and took a walk up Beach Street, as I liked to do at this time of year. I passed the Presbyterian church with its well-kept lawn, strolled past the Historical Society, and came to the town green, which remained free of yellow-and-black tape. I paused on the sidewalk to look across the green at the guillotine. It was cordoned off on all sides by a single rope, attached to black corner posts. A woman in jeans was standing outside the rope, gesturing at the guillotine as she spoke to a man with a jacket slung over his shoulder. Piles of tarpaulin lay on the platform, perhaps in preparation for repairs or bad weather. An aluminum ladder leaned against one of the posts. I looked up at the top of the guillotine, where a bright red water bottle sat on the crossbar.

I continued on my walk, past the town hall at the other end of the green, past the Revolutionary War graveyard, past the cluster of historic mansions and the newer blocks of ranch houses and split levels down by the beach. I walked through the open gate and up the short path that led to the top of the sand, which stretched away in both directions and sloped down to the water. A few people in bathing suits sat on towels in the mid-September sun, though the lifeguard stands were empty at this time of year. At the water’s edge, low waves breaking, I tried to make sense of it all. We had executed a man in public. We had spilled his blood. Was our town safer than before? I had argued against public execution and voted for it in the end, for reasons I could no longer remember clearly. I tried to recall our green without the guillotine, but the memory was penetrated by a sense of distortion, as if I were deliberately rearranging the actual world in order to escape into a dream of innocence. I had seen a bloody head fall into a basket. I had watched men in dark green uniforms cleaning up the blood. Had we prevented future Dennis Caldwells from committing torture and murder? Had we harmed our children? Would the guillotine be used again? Or was it destined to become a well-preserved artifact visited by sixth-grade classes, like the pillory in the basement of the Historical Society? All I knew was that we were a peaceful town, with a guillotine on the green.

After a while I turned back along the sand and walked down Beach Street toward my car. As I passed the green, I glanced over at the guillotine. A squirrel sat on one corner of the platform, scampered in the direction of another corner, and abruptly stopped. Two boys on skateboards came clattering up behind me and swept out of my way. I had two more hours of work to do before picking up a few shirts from the cleaners and meeting a friend in town for dinner. A slight pressure in my sinuses made me wonder whether I had time to stop off at CVS and pick up a packet of decongestant tablets. I watched the skateboards rush into the distance and continued on my way.