Category: execution

Gallows Lore

Gallows Lore

We examine the lore of the gallows, focusing on the British Isles, encountering hangmen as figures straddling history and myth, strange histories and folk-tales, as well as superstitions and magical practice associated with the hanged man’s rope and body.

We begin, of course, with a bit of gallows humor, provided in the sea shantey, “Hanging Johnny,” from a 2004 Smithsonian Folkways recording.

Then it’s on to meet Jack Ketch, the 17th-century hangman who so fascinated the British public that he was memorialized in various turns of phrase, i.e, “to dance Jack Ketch’s jig” (the death spasms at the end of the rope).  Emblematic of all who follow his trade, he was even adopted into the traditional Punch and Judy show.

Punch with Jack Ketch, early 1900s.

Much of his reputation is based on grim incidents reflecting poorly on his skill — not with the noose but with the sword with which he was less practiced. We hear of two particularly grisly incidents in this arena: the executions of William, Lord Russell, and the Duke of Monmouth.

The Irish song “The Night Before Larry Was Stretched” opens a further discussion of the language of execution by hanging. “Stretched,” here is borrowed from the underworld dialect known as “criminal cant,” and of course means “hanged.” “Stretched at Tyburn” is another usage referring to the gallows of Tyburn, where the London’s hangings took place from the 12th century up to 1782.  We hear a bit more about Tyburn’s strange configuration of scaffolding, (“The Tyburn Tree”) and of the “Execution Dock” on the Thames, reserved exclusively for pirates and smugglers.

Taking a quick side-trip to the technological side of things, we learn that throughout the Tyburn era, death by hanging occurred not through the long drop and broken neck, but a short drop and a dreadfully slow process of strangulation. This less decisive process occasionally resulsted in certain convicts being revived, such as the case of “Half Hanged Smith” in 1705.  Mrs. Karswell reads for us Smith’s unhappy remarks on being thus revived.

The Tyburn Tree by Wayne Haag from the Hyde Park Barracks Mural Project, Sydney, Australia.

Prisoners to be executed at Tyburn were housed in Newgate Prison on conveyed by cart to the gallows in riotous public processions. Carnivalesque details of these proceedings and the reason for moving executions to Newgate in 1782 are explored.  (And we stop at some pubs en route!)

One last topic before we move from history to folklore — the career of William Calcraft, another notorious London hangman serving from 1829 to 1874.  We hear some unkind words on his professional conduct from Charles Dickens and about Calcraft’s relationship with Madame Tussaud’s.

Our look at the folklore of the gallows begins with the magical properties assigned to segments of the hangman’s rope, something sought out for everything from luck at gambling to the cure of various physical afflictions.

The touch of the hanged man’s hand (dead but still warm) was an even more widely sought cure for warts, cysts, and occasionally other ailments like epilepsy or paralyzed limbs or digits.

In 1888, the English writer Thomas Hardy placed this superstition, or a version of it, at the center of one of his most popular short stories, “The Withered Arm,” from which we hear some passages.  A good BBC adaptation can be found here, btw.

The hand of a hanged convict needn’t be still warm and still attached to the wrist to offer magical protection. It can be severed and dried as is the case with the infamous hand of glory.   This preserved hand of a hanged convict was widely used by thieves in Britain and Ireland as a charm that would incapacitate the occupants of a home they would burglarize — usually by a deep sleep, but some other mechanisms are also discussed.   We hear some directions for creating and using the hand of glory from the 1706 French grimoire known as the Petit Albert.

Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert
Hand of Glory from the Petit Albert

Belief in the power of such charms seems to have arrived in the British Isles from the continent.  Particularly in German-speaking regions, there are a number of variations on the theme featuring the hands of unborn children, and other iterations discussed.

Two further hand of glory stories are recounted: one telling of a very strangely dressed visitor who might not be trusted from the  1883 volume About Yorkshire, and another from the delightfully comic 1837 collection of folk tales and ghost stories, The Ingolsby Legends by Richard Harris.

As for the actual use of this charm in a non-literary context, we hear a newspaper account from 1831 involving some Irish burglars unsuccessfully employing the talisman, and of an actual specimen recovered from inside a wall in 1935 and now preserved in the museum of the north English town of Whitby.

Whitby hand
Hand of glory in the Whitby Museum

The strange name for this talisman, btw, comes from the French word for mandrake “mandragora,” which was heard by Brits as “main de gloire” (“hand of glory”).

But there are other parallels contributing to this confusion.  As we noted in our “Bottled Spirits” episode in our discussion of Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s novel Galgenmännlein, or “little Gallows man,” the mandrake plant was believe to be seeded by bodily emissions (almost always semen) ejected from the hanged man at death.

We hear a bit more of the strange folklore of the mandrake, and then have a look at how this theme was explored in the 1911 novel Alraune (another German word for “mandrake”),  a sort of early science-fiction story by Hanns Heinz Ewers describing the results of an experiment in which a prostitute is impregnated with the semen of a hanged man. The novel has been adopted several times in German cinema, including a 1952 version featuring Erich von Stroheim, which we hear in the background.

We close with a cheery hanging ballad: “MacPherson’s Lament,” supposedly composed by Scottish outlaw Jamie MacPherson on the eve of his execution in 1700.

Alraune
Poster for Alraune, 1930

 

 

 

 

Walled Up Alive

Walled Up Alive

Walling up a living victim, or immurement, has been used both as a punishment and for darker, magical purposes. In this episode, we detangle the history from the folklore of this grisly act.

We begin with an instance of immurement from Edgar Allan Poe’s 1846 story “The Cask of Amontillado” (including a clip from a dramatization in 1954 radio show, Hall of Fantasy) and also get a glimpse of director Roger Corman’s freewheeling use of this element from Poe his 1962 anthology film, Tales of Terror, as well as 1961’s The Pit and the Pendulum.

Tales of Terror still
Peter Lorre walls up Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror (1962)

Poe’s interest in immurement is typical of Gothic writers and their fascination with crypt-like spaces, often including the cells and catacombs within Catholic churches and monastic communities. Tales of immured nuns, abbots, and abbesses are particularly common, with the deed understood most typically as a punishment for unchastity but also occasionally for other outrageous deeds or teachings (including a case of dabbling in the black arts).  We have a look at some cases in which actual immured skeletons were said to have been discovered in religious communities and then consider the lore explaining their presence.  We also look at  ways in which writers like Sir Walter Scott and H. Rider Haggard blurred the line between historical and literary stories.

Walled up Nuns book
An 1895 booklet debating the topic of “Walled up Nuns & Nuns Walled In”

It’s likely that tales of nuns immured for unchastity were particularly prevalent as they echo the fate of Rome’s Vestal Virgins who failed to protect their virginity.  We hear some details of immurements, not only from ancient Rome, but also Greece as well as a particularly gruesome account read by Mrs. Karswell describing an ancient Assyrian revenge spree featuring immurement.

Cornelia the Vestal Virgin
“The Death of Cornelia, Vestal Virgin” by G. Mochetti.

Medieval accounts of immurement we look at include the Christian legend of The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and one recounted in Dante’s Divine Comedy, that of  Count Ugolino della Gherardesca of Pisa (and his children/grandchildren, who are involved in a particularly grisly way).

Our next segment looks at punitive immurement from a cluster of legends in Scandinavia and the Baltic states.  We begin with a story from the Swedish island of Gotland, that of the Jungfrutornet (“maiden’s tower”) in the town of Visby.  The tower’s name is taken from the story of a maiden, who falls in love with a spy from Denmark, who uses her to obtain keys to the city gate in preparation for a devastating invasion.  The maiden’s punishment for betraying her town is, as you would have guessed, immurement.

We hear a similar story from Finland, which serves as the basis of the song (from which we hear a clip) Balladi Olavinlinnasta  or the ballad of Olaf’s Castle, and also a tale from a castle in Haapsalu, Estonia, said to be haunted by the maiden immured there.  Then we look at a church in the Estonian town of Põlva, where a particularly devout maiden was said to have allowed herself to be interred in a position of kneeling devotion as a sort of religious talisman forever protecting the church.

Walled in Wife
Sculpture of the walled in wife Rozafa, an Albanian version of the stonemason legend.

This notion of self-sacrificing immurement in a Christian context figures into the bizarre legend recounted of the 6th-century Irish saint Columba and his companion Odran, who allowed himself to be entombed in the foundation of a church on the Scottish island of Iona.

Our last segment looks at further stories of living humans entombed in buildings and other structures in what’s called a “foundation sacrifice.”  A cluster of tragic legends and ballads from southeastern Europe tell similar stories of women immured in structures by their husbands who work as stonemasons.  We hear these tales illustrated by a clip from the Hungarian ballad Kőműves Kelemen (“Kelemen the Stonemason”) as well as a bit of the soundtrack from the 1985 film The Legend of Suram Fortress by Sergei Parajanov  —  it’s based on a Georgian folk tale, so geographically close, though not quite one of the stonemasons-who-wall-up-their-wives genre.  But it’s a lovely film I just wanted to include.

We then move west in Europe to hear some stories of foundation sacrifices collected largely in Germany.  These include ancient sacrifices of children to the security of city walls, castles, and bridges, including a panic around a child sacrifice presumed necessary to a railroad bridge constructed near the town of Halle as late as the 1840s.

We end with a look at “church grims,” protective spirits of animals buried in church foundations (or churchyards) in Scandinavia and England, with lambs being preferred in the former and dogs in the latter — providing a connection to England’s black dog mythology.

And there’s one last story, much more modern, a 2018 news story from Houston Texas.