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Horrendous History of Hanging

By Edited May 13, 2014 0 0

To ride a horse foaled by an acorn


Tyburn Tree 

The expression, 'To ride a horse foaled by an acorn', was one of the euphemisms used in England in the 18th century, to describe  hanging from the gallows. Other popular expressions to describe this event were: 'to swing', 'sheriff's ball', 'collar day' and 'to dance upon nothing'. There were of course many, many more.

Map of Tyburn gallows and immediate surroundings, from John Rocque's map 1746

Public hanging, was designed to be a deterrent against crime, but men who left Newgate prison and were led to the gallows at Tyburn, often had quite a crowd following them and the boisterous group, would stop for a chat and a pint of ale at the public houses along the way. The village of Tyburn, had a permanent gallows set up from 1571, named the 'Tyburn tree'.

Many famous and infamous people met their fate there, such as Oliver Cromwell, who was hanged from the gallows despite already being dead -a case of overkill, if ever there was one! Other, notable people to hang at Tyburn were: a nun, Elizabeth Barton, executed for making prophesies about King Henry VIII, bigamist Mary Carleton who claimed to be a German Princess  and Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers, the last peer to be hanged.

Horse and Carriage

Earl Ferrers, by most accounts seemed to be a violent and eccentric fellow, who had inherited his title from an insane uncle in 1745. Ferras, who had previously kicked his young wife senseless and stabbed his servant for refusing to perjure himself over some oysters, was sentenced to death for murdering his steward in a paranoid rage. This great popinjay, was taken from the Tower of London, to the gallows in a landau drawn by six horses, wearing a suit embroidered with silver. He was also granted the extra consideration of a silk rope instead of the usual hemp for the hanging.

Up until the 1890s, hanging was the sole form of execution permitted by the constitution of America. The first man to hang in the new colony, was Daniel Frank in 1622 for cattle stealing. In 1630, John Billington, who had journeyed to the new world on the Mayflower, hanged for murdering another settler. Women were also condemned to the giblet, with Jane Champion the first women executed this way in 1632. The youngest, was Hannah Ocuish, a 12-year-old half Indian girl, who had beaten to death a 6 year old girl.

One of the most infamous cases of hanging however, is Tom Ketchum, a Texas cowboy and notorious outlaw, whose nick name was Black Jack. The executioner in Black Jack's case, used a rope that was too long, resulting in his decapitation.  Photos showing his decapitated body soon became popular postcards.  Black Jack is admired however, for his display of bravado before the hanging, proclaiming:

'I’ll be in hell before you start breakfast, boys. Let her rip!'

A Popular Postcard?


History of Horror

Legal Punishment

While Britain can look back at a horrific history of hanging, that has included a child as young as eight, hanged for petty theft in 1814; other countries still actively include hanging as as part of their legal punishments. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein, for his 'crimes against humanity', was condemned to death, with the inhumane act of hanging? A mobile phone video also surfaced showing Saddam being taunted as he stood at the gallows. In Japan, Shoko Asahara was hanged in 2004, for his nerve gas attack, on the Tokyo Subway System, resulting in multiple deaths and in 2006 serial killer Hiroshi Hidaka hanged. Some countries still regard hanging as a common form of punishment like Pakistan, Malaysia and Iran; places that I never intend to visit.


Some people, have become legendary for surviving hanging, such as  Joseph Samuel, an Englishman, transported to Australia after being convicted of robbery in 1795. After he landed in Sydney Cove, Samuel and a group of men robbed a woman of wealth and a police officer was murdered in the process. Samuel, was recognised by the woman and sentenced to hang with another man on the same day. As the other man strung up died, Samuel's rope snapped and he fell to the ground. The executioner, then got another rope and made Samuel stand on a cart and drove the cart away. Samuel fell again and the noose slipped from his neck. At this point, the crowd were chanting, demanding Samuel be set free. On the next attempt, the rope snapped and the crowd were in an uproar. Deciding it was a sign from god, the  governor was summoned and Samuel granted a reprieve. 

Another, more gruesome case involved 16 year old William Duell in 1740, who was convicted of raping and murdering a girl in a village of London. He was hanged with four others and taken for the use of medical students. After being stripped of his clothes and placed on a board however, he began to breathe. Two hours later he sat up and it was decided to transport him to Australia instead.

Hanging, as a form of capital punishment is definitely evidence of 'man's inhumanity to man' and while it is far from the most horrific methods of execution that has been employed, it is nether the less, good to see that as a practice, it is generally dying out (pun intended).



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