Compelling novel by news journalist
It’s interesting… the difference in the writing style of a novel by a long-time news-journalist and that of someone who’s always been a fiction writer. Or at least I think there is.
Both can tell a compelling story, but somehow, there’s an element of fact inherent from the beginning in the way a journalist presents his/her plot. Whether or not this would be recognizable without pre-knowing that the author is/was a news-journalist, of course, I can’t tell you. To me it was the manner, the air, if you will, in the introduction and recording of the data in Batt Humphreys’ award-winning “Dead Weight” (2009, Joggling Board Press) that I found different and quite compelling.
The author began his career in television news in Charleston, S.C., the locale of this tragic, true story. He spent 15 years with CBS News in New York, writing for Dan Rather and other on-air anchors and was overnight/morning producer for “The Early Show” managing the coverage of many of the events that shaped our lives during that period — the early hours of 9/11, several wars, hurricanes, executions, and murders.
In the novel he recreates his journalist persona in Hal Hinson, a fictitious reporter for the New York Tribune. The year is 1910 and, in the Deep South, the racial divide between African Americans and white people is palpable.
Through Hinson’s narration we not only see the beauty of Charleston but the wide gulf of the racial divide that existed at that time; and we see how strongly presented circumstantial evidence — regardless of how far-fetched (even then) or even insane (in this day of Law & Order and CSI) — can be used to condemn an innocent man. We clearly see (as Batt Humphrey obviously did or he would not have written the book) that obvious inconsistencies, clues let go cold, and the ignoring of familiar terms like “beyond a reasonable doubt” factored into this travesty of justice.
The story is that of the State of S.C. vs. Daniel Cornelius Duncan — a young black man of respectable temperament and long-term employment as a baker — arrested on the eve of his wedding, tried, convicted and executed for the murder of a local merchant. Woven in and out of Hinson’s narration are transcripts of the court testimony (as well as a final letter Duncan wrote before he was hanged) that reenforce the list in the preceding paragraph to the point of making the reader cringe, even cry, 100 years after the fact.
The title, “Dead Weight,” refers to the method of hanging in use at the time — not the familiar gallows, but a set-up wherein the condemned man stood on the ground with one end of a one-inch thick rope in a noose around his neck. The other end was threaded through a pulley atop a 20-foot post and tied to a 500-pound counterweight located in a small shed above a four-foot deep hole. When the executioner pulls the lever, the weight drops, the prisoner is jerked up, then drops as his neck is broken. Foolproof, right? Not in Duncan’s case. He hung by the neck until he suffocated – a full 39 minutes.
History wrote the story’s ending. After the hanging, Charleston was hit by a major hurricane (probably a Category 3 or 4, in today’s definition) that dealt the city another harsh blow. The storm “became known in the community as ‘The Duncan Storm’ — a form of divine retribution for the death of an innocent man.”*
In May of 2009 a letter petitioning for the posthumous pardon of Daniel Cornelius “Nealy” Duncan was filed by the author with the Governor of South Carolina and South Carolina Department of Probation, Parole & Pardons. “The pardon is a chance to correct an injustice and to restore honor, even if it never connects to his immediate family. For those who believe in the continuity of souls, somewhere he will know and somehow we will have helped restore what was taken from him.”* Humphreys is inviting people to add their names to the effort at www.deadweight.us.