I asked Kelley what it feels like to be hanged | From William S. Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night

An excerpt from

Cities of the Red Night


William S. Burroughs

Kelley told me his story. He started his career as a merchant seaman. In the course of an argument he killed the quartermaster, for which he was tried and sentenced to hang. His ship at that time was in the harbor of Tangier. The sentence was carried out in the marketplace, but some pirates who were present cut him down, carried him to their ship, and revived him. It was thought that a man who had been hanged and brought back to life would not only bring luck to their venture but also ensure protection against the fate from which he had been rescued. While he was still insensible the pirates rubbed red ink into the hemp marks, so that he seemed to have a red rope always around his neck.

The pirate ship was commanded by Skipper Nordenholz, a renegade from the Dutch Navy who was still able to pass his ship as an honest merchant vessel flying the Dutch flag. Strobe was second in command. Barely had they left Tangier headed for the Red Sea via the Cape of Good Hope when a mutiny broke out. The crew was in disagreement as to the destination, being minded to head for the West Indies. They had also conceived a contempt for Strobe as an effeminate dandy. After he had killed five of the ringleaders they were forced to revise this opinion. The mutinous crew was then put ashore and a crew of acrobats and dancing boys taken on, since Nordenholz had already devised a way in which they could be put to use.

Kelley claims to have learned the secrets of death on the gallows, which gives him invincible skill as a swordsman and such sexual prowess that no man or woman can resist him, with the exception of Captain Strobe, whom he regards as more than human. “Voici ma lettre de marque,” he says, running his fingers along the rope mark. (A letter of marque was issued to privateers by their government, authorizing them to prey on enemy vessels in the capacity of accredited combatants, and thus distinguishing them from common pirates. Such a letter often, but by no means always, saved the bearer from the gallows.) Kelley tells me that the mere sight of his hemp marks instills in adversaries a weakness and terror equal to the apparition of Death Himself.

I asked Kelley what it feels like to be hanged.

“At first I was sensible of very great pain due to the weight of my body and felt my spirits in a strange commotion violently pressed upwards. After they reached my head, I saw a bright blaze of light which seemed to go out at my eyes with a flash. Then I lost all sense of pain. But after I was cut down, I felt such intolerable pain from the prickings and shootings as my blood and spirits returned that I wished those who cut me down could have been hanged.”

Your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.