1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gallows

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GALLOWS[1] (a common Teutonic word—cf. Goth. galga, O. H. Ger. galgo, Mod. Ger. Galgen, A.S. galzan, &c.—of uncertain origin), the apparatus for executing the sentence of death by hanging. It usually consists of two upright posts and a cross-beam, but sometimes of a single upright with a beam projecting from the top. The Roman gallows was the cross, and in the older translations of the Bible “gallows” was used for the cross on which Christ suffered (so galga in Ulfilas’s Gothic Testament).[2] Another form of gallows in the middle ages was that of which the famous example at Montfaucon near Paris was the type. This was a square structure formed of columns of masonry connected in each tier with cross-pieces of wood, and with pits beneath, into which the bodies fell after disarticulation by exposure to the weather.

According to actual usage the condemned man stands on a platform or drop (introduced in England in 1760), the rope hangs from the cross-beam, and the noose at its end is placed round his neck. He is hanged by the falling of the drop, the knot in the noose being so adjusted that the spinal cord is broken by the fall and death instantaneous. In old times the process was far less merciful; sometimes the condemned man stood in a cart, which was drawn away from under him; sometimes he had to mount a ladder, from which he was thrust by the hangman. Until 1832 malefactors in England were sometimes hanged by being drawn up from the platform by a heavy weight at the other end of the rope. Death in these cases was by strangulation. At the present time executions in the United Kingdom are private, the gallows being erected in a chamber or enclosed space set apart for the purpose inside the gaol.

The word “gibbet,” the Fr. gibet, gallows, which appears in the first instance to have meant a crooked stick,[3] was originally used in English synonymously with gallows, as it sometimes still is. Its later and more special application, however, was to the upright posts with a projecting arm on which the bodies of criminals were suspended after their execution. These gibbets were erected in conspicuous spots, on the tops of hills (Gallows Hill is still a common name) or near frequented roads. The bodies, smeared with pitch to prevent too rapid decomposition, hung in chains as a warning to evildoers. From the gruesome custom comes the common use of the word “to gibbet” for any holding up to public infamy or contempt.

  1. The word “gallows” is the plural of a word (galwe, galowe, gallow) which, according to the New English Dictionary, was occasionally used as late as the 17th century, though from the 13th century onwards the plural form was more usual. Caxton speaks both of “a gallows,” and, in the older form, of “a pair of gallows,” this referring probably to the two upright posts. From the 16th century onwards “gallows” has been consistently treated as a singular form, a new plural, “gallowses,” having come into use. “The latter, though not strictly obsolete, is now seldom used; the formation is felt to be somewhat uncouth, so that the use of the word in the plural in commonly evaded” (New Eng. Dict. s.v. “Gallows”).
  2. In Med. Lat. “gallows” was translated by furia and patibulum, both words applied in classical Latin to a fork-shaped instrument of punishment fastened on the neck of slaves and criminals. Furia, in feudal law, was the right granted to tenants having major jurisdiction to erect a gallows within the limits of their fief.
  3. Cf. Wace, Roman de Rou, iii. 8349:
    Et il a le gibet saisi
    Qui a son destre braz pendi.”