Choking with Mirth: Gallows Humor
Neck and Neck, Achy and Merrick Thus Swing into Eternity at Noon Yesterday.
[Headline about a double hanging. Indianapolis, IN Sentinel 30 January 1879]
You may have noticed a reprehensible penchant in this blog for light-hearted looks at topics such as self-decapitation, hangman’s ropes, cholera jokes, and unusual methods of execution. Today we sink even further into the mire of inappropriate mirth with a post about gallows humor: period jokes about execution by hanging.
Hanging was the standard method of capital punishment in many U.S. states (it is still an option in several states to this day) and it was only officially abolished in Britain in 1998. Public hangings as popular amusement were mobbed by spectators; folk-cures referenced hair, hands, and blood from hanged men as well as strands from the fatal noose. Many articles, ballads, and “eve-of-execution confessions” were written about hangings even as debate raged about their morality and decorum. One might say that hanging as a theme was “in the air,” so pervasive was it in the press.
Let us start with jokes about building gallows. This may be the earliest version of this particular old saw.
At another town there stood an old, over-worn despised pair of gallows, but yet not so old but they will last many a fair year with good usage, but the townsmen a little distance from them built another pair, in a more stately geometrical port and fashion, whereupon they were demanded why they would be at the charge to erect a new gallows, having so sufficient an old one. They answered, that those old gallows should serve to hang fugitives and strangers; but those new ones were built for them and their heirs forever. Early Prose and Poetical Works of John Taylor, the Water Poet: (1580-1653), John Taylor, 1888
Rough on His Lordship.
A carpenter in an English town having neglected to make a gibbet that had been ordered by the hangman on the ground that he had not been paid for the last one he had erected gave so much offense that the next time the judge came to the circuit he was sent for.
“Fellow,” said the judge in a stern tone, “how came you to neglect making the gibbet that was ordered on my account?”
“I humbly beg your pardon,” replied the carpenter. “Had I known it was for your lordship, it would have been it would have been done immediately.” Daily Illinois State Register [Springfield, IL] 12 February 1909: p. 3
There was a widespread and highly vocal anti-hanging movement, both in the US and in England, but even anti-gallows partisans had their weak spots.
HANGING IN NEW-HAMPSHIRE.
The question, gallows or no gallows, has been decided in the Granite State, all hollow in favor of the noose. In one of the anti-hanging districts there was a man, who, on being asked his notions of the matter, took time to consider the question, and gravely answered that he was opposed to its abolition until his neighbor Barnes (with whom he had a controversy) was hanged, and then he should be in favor of it. The Liberator [Boston, MA] 29 November 1844
Apparently no one thought to question the prospective jurors about their views on capital punishment in this case:
“Do you think I shall have justice done me?” said a culprit to his counsel, a shrewd Kentucky lawyer, of the best class in that “eloquent State.”
“I am a little afraid you won’t,” replied the other; “I see two men on the jury who are opposed to hanging!” Hot Stuff by Famous Men, Melville De Lancey Landon, 1901
The British seemed to appreciate the subtler forms of gallow humor.
A noted hangman in England [perhaps George “Throttler” Smith?], showing the gallows attached to Newgate, observed to the bystanders that he had hung twenty persons on it at one time. Some one suggested that it was too small. “Oh no, bless you, twenty-five people would swing very comfortable.” News of the Day [Vincennes, IN] 7 November 1855
The noose was around John Duncan’s neck; he was standing on the trap-door, but for some reason the lever refused to do its duty in spite of every effort. For fully a minute it had refused to work, when the doomed man, turning to the frantic and perspiring executioner said, “Please don’t hurry! I much prefer this form of suspense.”
An unknown murderer shouted, “I’ve had many a drop in my time. Now for the ‘longest drop’ of all!”
When Berry the hangman was about to pinion James Murphy, the condemned man said to him, “I won’t give you any trouble. I’m not afraid to die. A lot of people have been making a fuss over this business, but ‘I’m hanged’ if I can see what there is to make a fuss about.” When the joke he had unconsciously made dawned on him, he burst into laughter, in which, Berry says, “I could not help joining.”
After Daniel Holmes’s appeal for a postponement of his execution had failed, he said to the Governor who brought him the news, “Ah, well, I suppose I must resign myself since they won’t give me any more rope.”
A few minutes before Charles Peace, the notorious burglar and murderer, left his cell for the scaffold he was seized with a violent paroxysm of coughing. When at last it subsided, he turned to the chaplain and said whimsically, “I wonder if Marwood (the executioner) can cure this cough of mine?” Auckland [NZ] Star, 26 November 1921: p. 19
Berry was James Berry, who worked to perfect the “long drop” technique.
Hanging jokes were often also ethnic jokes, with the Irish a prime target.
“Well, Pat, Jim didn’t quite kill you with the brickbat, did he?”
“No, but I wished he had.”
“So I could have seen him hung, the villain.”
San Antonio [TX] Express 9 July 1873: p. 1
Two Irishmen about to be hanged during the rebellion of 1798, the gallows was erected over the margin of a river. When the first man was drawn up, the rope gave way, he fell into the stream, and escaped by swimming. The remaining culprit, looking up to the executioner, said, with genuine native simplicity, and an earnestness that evinced his sincerity, “Do, good Mr. Ketch, if you please, tie me up tight, for, if the rope breaks, I’m sure to be drowned, for I can’t swim a stroke.” Beeton’s book of anecdote, wit, and humour, Samuel Orchart Beeton, 1864
“Jack Ketch” was a euphemism for any executioner, called after the famously inept 17th-century headsman John Ketch.
An Irishman, a Scotchman and an Englishman were found guilty of murder and sentenced to be hung.
“Now,” said the Judge, “how would you like to be hung?”
“I will be hung to an ash tree,” said the Englishman.
“And I will choose an oak,” said the Scotchman.
“Well, Pat, what will you hang on?” asked the judge.
“If it plaze your honor, I’d rather be hung on a gooseberry bush.”
“Oh,” said the judge, “that’s not big enough.”
“Begorry thin,” replied Pat, brightening up, “I’ll wait till it grows.”
Hot stuff, by famous funny men, Melville De Lancey Landon, 1901
Two sons of the Green Isle, traveling, came in sight of a gibbet or gallows; and as it seems to be a standing joke among the Irish to rally each other on the subject of hemp and gallows and hanging, one of them said to the other, “Pat, where would you be if that gallows had its due?”
“Oh,” he replied, “”I would be walking alone.” The Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, 1866
The French were also pilloried.
A Frenchman having lately been condemned to be hanged, when the rope was putting about his neck, exclaimed piteously, “Misericorde! Misericorde!
On which the hangman cried out, ‘Measure the cord, you thief! It’s long enough to hang a dozen such rogues as you.’ The budget of wit and amusement, 1812
There was always a joker who tried to talk his way out of the noose. Sometimes it worked.
It was customary with Marshal Bassompierre, when any of his soldiers were brought before him for heinous offences, to say to them, “By G—, brother, you or I will certainly be hanged!” which was a sufficient denunciation of their fate. A spy being discovered in his camp, was addressed in this language; and next day, as the provost was carrying the culprit to the gallows, he pressed earnestly to speak with the marshal, alleging that he had something of importance to communicated
The Marshal, being made acquainted with his request, exclaimed in his rough and hasty manner, “It is the way of all these rascals; when ordered for execution, they pretend some frivolous story, merely to reprieve themselves for a few moments ; however, bring the dog hither.” Being introduced, the Marshal asked him what he had to say.
“Why, my Lord,” said the culprit, “when I first had the honour of your conversation, ” you were obliging enough to say, that either you or I should be hanged; now I come to know, whether it is your pleasure to be so; because, if you won’t, I must; that’s all.” The Marshal was so much pleased with this address, that he pardoned him. The budget of wit and amusement, 1812
And sometimes it didn’t.
Two bushwhackers were captured, both of whom were very properly dealt with summarily by being hanged. One of them had received a shot in the shoulder, inflicting a painful wound, disabling him from making his escape. While the officer was arranging the hempen necklace about the wounded tory’s neck, it produced considerable pain in the wounded shoulder, which induced him to exclaim— “Oh! do please don’t! I don’t believe I can bear to be hung—my shoulder is so sore!” The American Joe Miller: a collection of Yankee wit and humour, Joe Miller, 1865
A REASON FOR HANGING
Sir Nicholas Bacon being once on the point of passing sentence on a fellow found guilty of a robbery, the culprit earnestly importuned him to spare his life, alleging, among other things, that he had the honour of being one of his lordship’s relations. “How do you prove that?” asked the judge. “My lord,” replied the convict, “your name is Bacon, and mine is Hog, and hog and bacon have in all ages been reckoned akin.”
“True enough, my man,” answered Sir Nicholas, “but let me remind you, that hog is never bacon until it has been hung; and therefore till you are hung you can be no relation of mine.” Beeton’s book of anecdote, wit, and humour, Samuel Orchart Beeton, 1864
Of course there were always the notoriously tough “Hanging Judges.”
Henri Etienne speaks of a judge who was his contemporary, who had but one formula in dealing with persons charged with offences against the law. If the prisoner was old, the judge said, “Hang him, hang him; he has done many other things:” and if the prisoner was young, “Hang him, hang him; he will do many.” Beeton’s book of anecdote, wit, and humour, Samuel Orchart Beeton, 1864
And witnesses who were relieved to find that they were not involved in the proceedings.
A gentleman and his friend passing through the Old Bailey, soon after the institution of the new drop, were stopped by an immense crowd; and on enquiring into the cause, were told that in a few minutes one Vowel was to be hanged—‘I wonder what Vowel it can be,’ (cried one of them.) ‘It is neither U nor I, (replied the other) so let us pass on.’ The budget of wit and amusement, 1812
My very favorite category of hanging jokes is that of the euphemism joke. There are, of course, a variety of euphemisms for the act of hanging, such as “dancing the hempen jig.” But there is a subcategory of tall tales told to soften or disguise the story of a relative’s hanging.
UP IN THE WORLD
A fellow boasting in company of his family, declared even his own father died in an exalted situation. Some of the company looking incredulous, another observed, “I can bear testimony to the gentleman’s veracity, as my father was sheriff for the county when his was hanged for horse-stealing.” The jest book: the choicest anecdotes and sayings, Mark Lemon, 1866
CHANGING HIS LINE
A Gentleman, inquiring of Jack Bannister respecting a man who had been hanged, was told that he was dead.
‘And did he continue in the grocery line?” said the former.
“Oh no,” replied Jack; “he was quite in a different line when he died.” The jest book: the choicest anecdotes and sayings, Mark Lemon, 1866
A man out West, who had a brother hanged, informed his friends in the East that his “brother on a recent occasion addressed a large public meeting, and just as he finished, the platform on which he stood gave way, and he fell and broke his neck.” The American Joe Miller, Joe Miller, 1865
“My husband was a very high-strung person.”
“Yes. I’ve heard he was hung on Pike’s Peak.” — Harpers Weekly, 1910
This may be one of the best of the euphemism jokes:
At the Matrimonial Agency
“The young lady whom you propose as a suitable wife for Count X. has no stain on her character or that of her family?” “Not a shadow.” “But I think I remember having heard that her father died in Russia…” “He died of apoplexy. Quite right, signora. One morning at 5 o’clock. It appears some practical joker perpetrated the foolish trick of placing a running noose around his neck and suspending him to an apparatus in shape like an arm. He died very suddenly, poor man!” Osservatore Romano The Weekly Star [Wilmington, NC] 26 August 1904: p. 3
More tasteless gallows humor? String ’em up to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.