Hang ‘Em High

3 May

Here’s a weird topic; despite all the films to the contrary, legal public executions went out of fashion over a hundred fifty years ago. It’s much easier to kill someone in private. So a lot of the technical details behind them has been forgotten.

Why does my mind go to places like this? Well, I came across an article about Mary Ball, the last person to be publicly executed in Coventry, England. She had murdered her husband by poisoning him, because he had been sleeping around, and had confessed to it. It was August 9th, 1849, and more than 20,000 people showed up for her hanging… which kinda tells you that it was such a rare occurrence that people came from all around to see it.

In this case, they build a gallows for the event–usually it’s a temporary structure that is simply a platform with a sturdy place to hang the rope. It’s important to be high above the ground so that the trap door will open and snap the person’s neck… which is actually what kills them, not strangle them, which takes a lot longer and becomes “cruel and unusual.”

The picture I found for this gallows come from the historic site in Fort Smith, Arkansas and it’s a replica. In the Wild West, where there wasn’t as much law and order (and there was a “hanging judge” by the name of Parker), this was a quasi-permanent structure. However, even in this lawless area, it was considered an eyesore, and torn down in 1897.

Because I love local history, I always try to find out about the town I’m living in. In my hometown, they actually planted a “gallows tree.” Because it is the county seat, that’s where executions would be done. They only ever used it once; a man named Christian Riebling in Lyndon who got drunk on Christmas Eve 1883, had a shouting match with a younger man, and mortally wounded him. On May 6, 1884, Riebling was sentenced to death and got a crowd of 350 people who watched his execution. The tree was cut down the next year; apparently it was one of those things that sounded better than it actually was. In nearby Carroll County, they simply dug up their tree in 1878 and stored it in their courthouse, saying that it would grow again if you planted it.

It was there as of 1960; I’m very curious if it’s still there.

I found it interesting that there is a lot of tradition behind a gallows tree. In Scotland, they called them dule trees, and sycamores tended to be preferred, because they could hold the weight of a man being dropped from it. However, it could be any type of tree. However, gallows trees–or gallows in general–went out of fashion because of the “oogie” factor. People believed that nothing would grow where a gallows stood, So as people became more “civilized,” they didn’t want that constant reminder of their barbarity.

Okay–this was a rather dark subject, but I was curious. What do you think? Should we restore public executions? Is lethal injection more humane? Let me know in the comments below. I don’t execute characters in my books, so you’ll enjoy them. However, if $1.99 is too steep for your wallet, go ahead and download one of my stories for free.

One Response to “Hang ‘Em High”

  1. seankfletcher May 3, 2021 at 6:59 pm #

    This is one of those very interesting posts, Marcus. I did read an article/post the other day about the history of gallows in England and key locations. Of course, now that I wanted to track it down again, I can’t find it.

    A big no from me re restoring public executions (or undertaking any type of execution for that matter). In my view it is barbaric. However, we always need to understand what went before in an effort to better for today and tomorrow. I guess the Romans did such things in a different way and for a different purpose way back when.

    Anyway, Hang Em High was a good Clint Eastwood movie 😊

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