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Letter from Wild West - June 2008

Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: May 01, 2008 
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It Wasn't All Gunfights and Massacres;
The Old West Had Some Hangings, Too
Featuring 'Judge Lynch,' cottonwoods, hemp and even a wooden leg,

I confess that sometimes while hanging around my office I think about Old West hangings, and I don't just mean O.K. Corral gunfight wall hangings, Battle of Little Bighorn tapestries, Remington imitations or Calamity Jane pinup calendars. Maybe these aren't the healthiest thoughts, but it sure beats thinking about all the hangings still going on in today's world. Hangings are the second most common method of suicide in the United States (you guessed it, firearms are first) and among women in Great Britain (the more ladylike poison method is tops), while killing oneself by rope swing is No.1 in Canada (where there are plenty of long, dark days and lots of trees). Terrorists sometimes execute their captives by hanging (when not slicing off the heads), and hanging is still the traditional method of capital punishment in places like Jordan, Singapore and Malaysia. Murder by illegal hangings, the traditional form of "lynching," has not totally died out in the United States anymore than the bubonic plague has. All right, enough about modern civilization! I'll just loosen my collar a bit and return to the 19th-century West, when men were men, hemp was hemp and cottonwoods were good hanging trees.

Hanging, let alone lynching, is nasty business in any century, but sometimes hanging in the Old West can sound as unthreatening and entertaining as hanging out with some old friends. After all, men (and occasionally women) did not always hang by their neck until dead. Instead they got strung up; performed a mid-air dance, a Texas cakewalk or a strangulation jig; gurgled on a rope; decorated a cottonwood, rode under a cottonwood limb or became a cottonwood blossom; stretched hemp or got hemp fever; died with throat trouble; or were the guest of honor at a necktie party.

Having been associated with Wild West Magazine for nearly 20 years (hey, that's even longer than John Wesley Hardin spent in prison, and almost as long as Buffalo Bill operated his Wild West extravaganza), I have naturally dealt with my share of frontier hangings. A few of the things I've learned: you could lose your head at a hanging (see Thomas E. Ketchum), even botched hangings were usually fatal (unless your name was Clint Eastwood); in Wyoming Territory you by law had a right to invite a half-dozen of your closest friends to your own hanging and could send out formal invitations (no R.S.V.P. necessary); celebrity hangings were big news (see Tom Horn in Cheyenne and Sheriff Henry Plummer in Bannack); even "hanging judges" rarely hanged horse thieves in the real West; "Judge Lynch" usually referred to severe vigilance committees rather than a strict judge; some vigilante hangmen have been hailed as brave pioneers and public benefactors (see the Montana Vigilantes) and other vigilante hangmen have been scorned (see The Oxbow Incident); and there is a right way to handle "hang, hanged, hung," according to The Associated Press Stylebook ("One hangs a picture, a criminal or oneself. For past tense or the passive, use hanged when referring to executions or suicides, hung for other actions"). Those wild and crazy AP guys have been attending hangings since 1848. No doubt Ketchum appreciated being hanged rather than hung.

Don't get the wrong impression. It's not as if I'm thinking of Old West hangings all the time; in fact, I'm certain I spend more time thinking of Old West gunfights, Old West massacres, Old West Indian wars, the 1862 Homestead Act and Annie Oakley (once every 10 seconds). In fact, there are actual Western history aficionados who spend more time thinking of hangings than me, but I won't mention any names, R. Michael Wilson and Larry K. Brown (see "Reviews" in this issue). In fact the only reason I'm thinking of hangings now is because this issue features a story about the first man to be legally executed in what would become the state of Iowa (yes, that is west of the Mississippi River; see a map of the U.S.A.). Frankly, what I found most interesting about this true tale of early justice was that the condemned, Patrick O'Connor, had only one real leg and that his wooden leg was removed prior to his necktie party. Fortunately, a grave had been dug at the foot of the gallows, and the body was reunited with its wooden leg in the coffin. And that was the West.

Gregory Lalire



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