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Death, where is thy sting? Maybe in Berlin museum


BERLIN -- Dieter Paprotka, Berlin's connoisseur of capital punishment, prefers hanging.

"Hanging is the most interesting," Mr. Paprotka says.

The electric chair, the gas chamber and lethal injection are cold and mechanical. There's a personal touch to execution by hanging, he says, a kind of rapport between the hangman and the hanged.

"Someone actually does the work. He actually pulls the cord. I would say there is an art in doing it the right way. So that it goes clean and quick."

Mr. Paprotka is the proprietor of a private museum of capital punishment. And even in a city with a Hairdresser's Museum, a Washing Machine Museum and a Teddy Bear Museum, his collection stands out.

Mr. Paprotka has meticulously cataloged thousands of executions. He has acquired hundreds of photographs of executions, death chambers, electric chairs occupied and unoccupied, prisons and executioners.

Pictures of hangmen, gallows, guillotines and death chambers adorn his walls. A photo of the old Maryland Penitentiary gallows room anchors one corner of his display.

The Reichart family, which provided Bavaria with executioners for 200 years, occupies an honored place. Franz Xaver Reichart is pictured in top hat and frock coat next to his guillotine. His nephew Johann poses proudly with a gallows upon which a recently dispatched wife-murderer looks suitably forlorn and chastened.

Mr. Paprotka has constructed accurate, detailed models of his favorite hanging scenes. He makes miniature guillotines that actually work.

The centerpiece of his diorama collection is a triple hanging at Fort Smith, Ark., presided over by the famous hanging judge, Charles Isaac Parker, who reigned there from 1875 to 1890.

The Fort Smith miniature was Mr. Paprotka's first. But equally impressive is his depiction of the 1931 hanging of James E. Kingsley at Salem, Ore. The small figure representing Mr. Kingsley hangs below the trap, arms and legs bound, head hooded in black.

William E. Lamb officiated at Mr. Kingsley's departure, Mr. Paprotka says. Mr. Lamb had been hangman in Virginia, Louisiana and the Philippines during the Spanish-American War, before settling in Oregon.

"He must have been good," says Mr. Paprotka. "He did 700 executions."

The little gallows scenes are reproduced faithfully from photos in his collection.

The noose he displays with his models is the real thing. Joseph Chester Self wore it when he was hanged June 20, 1963, in Washington. With the noose is one of those ominous black hoods the condemned wear when they drop to the hereafter. This hood is unused.

Mr. Paprotka's museum is in at least one guidebook: "Berlin's Sinister Sights." But some visits to his house-museum become uneasy.

"Last week I had visitors who didn't know what my hobby is," he said. "After five minutes they had to leave. 'It's too eerie,' they said."

Such reactions bemuse Mr. Paprotka, who is afflicted with agoraphobia and rarely leaves his house.

He's 53 and a former postal worker who became interested in executions in his last year at school. He's not sure why anymore. But his interest hasn't diminished.

He maintains a lively correspondence with prison officials in the United States, a fertile ground for capital punishment memorabilia.

U.S. prison officials rarely refuse his requests for information or photos. Vernon Pepersack, onetime warden of the Maryland Penitentiary, wrote frequently in German. Only Delaware totally ignores his letters. He thinks Delaware might have something against Germany.

Nobody has been executed in Berlin or West Germany since 1949, Mr. Paprotka says. No European country has capital punishment, except Poland. But then, he doesn't consider the old Soviet Union part of Europe.

He supports the death sentence. And he says he could perform a hanging.

"With the electric chair or the gas chamber," he says, "I wouldn't do it.

"You have to have contact with the condemned person. You have to quiet their fears. Some people are very afraid."

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