Weird History What It Was Actually Like To Be Present At A Frontier Hanging  

Melissa Sartore
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What was a Wild West hanging like? Hangings on the American frontier could be legal or extralegal, depending on the location and the individual. Life in the Old West was harsh, and punishments were equally severe. Outlaws seen in Old West wanted posters could be hunted down by authorities or civilians determined to exercise frontier justice. 

The gallows also served as entertainment of sorts. It drew in crowds of onlookers from miles around who took photos of the aftermath. Spectating at an Old West hanging not only functioned as a reminder that law and order existed, but also offered an escape from daily life. The scaffold events were affirmations that following frontier rules - however loosely defined they may have been - was in the best interest of individuals in the crowd. Frontier hangings reminded spectators that their lives could be much worse.

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Photo: I. Fletcher Woodward/Library of Congress/Public Domain

Thousands Of People Attended Public Gatherings To Watch

Hangings often took place on the weekends so more people could attend. Families brought picnic baskets and blankets to sit and eat while awaiting the moment. In 1875, when six men met their ends at Fort Smith, AR, onlookers were able to buy concessions and souvenirs.

According to the Salida Mail columnist George Dixon, in 1905, these public events were so popular that local businesses closed, farmers drove "20 miles through the rain...[to] camp out on the road during the night to see some unfortunate son of Adam's misery kick at the end of a rope." Dixon also commented that he had "seen sacrilegious and consciousless villains laugh while the performance was going on."

When word got out, large numbers of people made a point of attending. Just like trials, also something that drew curious audiences, use of the scaffold was somewhat rare. When convicted slayer Charles Waller was terminated in Marshfield, MO, in 1867, around 8,000 intrigued people took part in the walk to the noose with the man.

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Photo: eVanNicole/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Hangings Were So Popular Authorities Gave Out Tickets To Keep The Crowds At Bay

When Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were sentenced to hang for co-conspiring to slay President Abraham Lincoln, their end was witnessed by a limited number of individuals who had received passes to the event. While thousands of people had applied to watch them perish on July 7, 1865, only some Union soldiers, court officials, and other dignitaries were allowed to attend.

This didn't stop people from gathering outside the gates of the Old Arsenal Penitentiary (now Fort McNair) where it took place. According to one reporter:

The streets were filled with restless, impotent people... willing to spend hundreds of dollars for the poor privilege. All day long, trains came in loaded with people from the North; all night long the country roads were lined with pedestrians, with parties hurrying on to the city, where they might at least participate in the excitement of the occasion.

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Photo: Robert Runyon/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

They Could Be Expensive And Technical

According to an invoice from the Santa Fe County District Court in New Mexico from 1849, the cost exceeded $110, a sum equivalent to more than $3,000 today. The territorial government usually absorbed the cost of lumber, labor, a coffin, rope, and other materials needed for the occasion. 

The ideal setting, or at least the set-up found in Arkansas in 1875, included a "sturdy platform... six feet above the ground" and a “12-by-12 inch overhead beam [supporting] the noose ropes [and] slanted roof... in case of rain." George Maledon, the "Prince of Hangmen," liked to have a rope that was an inch-and-a-half thick, soaked and air-dried before being tallowed or soaped to soften it. 

As more and more events took place, the process became increasingly refined. The desire for "clean" hangings led to a formula of sorts developing, with the knot of the noose placed on the left side of the prisoner's neck to knock the individual unconscious. Ideally, a broken neck and crushed spinal cord resulted in an immediate end.

According to Clinton Duffy, a warden at San Quentin prison, "dirty" hangings were always a risk. Instead of broken necks, prisoners would suffer for what felt like endless minutes, wheezing and thrashing until the end. 

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Photo: Elijah Avey/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Prisoners Were Accompanied By An Entourage Or An Angry Group

As condemned prisoners spent their final days and moments preparing for the end, they often turned to God. On September 24, 1896, Perfecto Padilla and Rosario Ring gave a final confession to Reverend Antonio Jouvenceau, who then performed last rites moments before they perished. Theodore Baker, convicted for slaying someone in 1887 in New Mexico, stood on the platform with Reverend Boone Keeton by his side. 

In addition to ministers, priests, or reverends, prisoners were surrounded by guards and other law authorities as they walked to the platform. Crowd excitement and the threat of interference often necessitated gates, fences, and other protective measures. The tension and emotion that went along with these public happenings couldn't always be mitigated, however. 

When Dave Brown was sentenced in 1855 in Los Angeles, CA, thousands of men gathered outside the jail, angrily demanding justice be served. Instead of waiting for the executioner to dispose of Brown, the mob took him to a nearby corral.

When legal hangings were conducted, there was always a doctor present to confirm the result. Two physicians attended Tom Horn's hanging, George P. Johnston and John H. Conway. While there was a doctor on site at Black Jack Ketchum's offing in 1901, he wasn't needed to determine Ketchum had expired since his head had been separated from his body.