Monday, December 06, 2010
When I was in grade school, I became intrigued with the hangman's noose. It was easy to get the attention of fellow classmates presenting such a macabre artifact. It is extremely simple to tie but its very nature would keep most from even trying. Who would learn to make such a thing and why?
The entire subject of hanging is fascinating to some and its lure perplexing to others. The facts of hanging, its history, tools, technology and the anatomical and biological aspects of the condemned are all mired in speculation, exaggeration, mystery, misinformation and urban myths. The acquaintance I wrote about in my story Power, once claimed he had the hangman's formula - a supposed equation for calculation of rope length based on a person's body weight. In fact, such a thing does exist as the British Table of drops. The original table of the "Long Drop" or measured drop was worked out by William Marwood in 1872. A revised table was issued in 1913. In is still in use by a few countries to this day. You can read more and see the tables here.
The best case in point regarding the interest in hanging in New York City is the Hangman's Elm located in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park which stands 110 feet tall. In 1989, the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation determined that this massive English Elm dates back to 1679, making it over 330 years old and the oldest known tree in Manhattan.
It is still unclear how many, if any, individuals were hung from this elm in public executions which did occur in a nearby gallows - the only recorded execution was of Rose Butler, in 1820, for arson. An article in the New York Times sees some hangings there as likely but other sources cite it all as urban mythology. But the fascination with hanging still exists and the belief that this elm was used for hanging persists. It all makes for a great sound bite or tour factoid, giving the neighborhood just that much more historical color.
I have the privilege of seeing this tree from my home daily and much like the cat who brings home the dead mouse as a macabre gift for its owner, I offer my fellow readers this story and photo of the Hangman's Elm. Whether it's a tree, a noose or the Long Drop table, the fascination with this style of execution just keeps hanging around...