Gallows Tale I: The Hanging File of Tanganyika Territory 1920-1928 and the Extra “Whack”

Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.

Some years ago I was working on a project in the Tanzanian National Archives in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. While there, I saw a file listed in the catalog called “The Hanging File.” I was not quite sure what to expect, so asked to see it. It turned out to be the bureaucratic correspondence, mainly from the Tanganyika Police and Prisons, about the implementation of the new British government’s policies on hanging prisoners. Tanganyika had only in 1920 been transferred from German to British colonial rule, and this meant proper British methods of execution needed to be established.  And that meant wherever possible, the condemned were to face the hangman’s noose rather than a firing squad.

Much of the file was correspondence back and forth about the nuts and bolts of establishing procedures for executions in a fashion consistent with British colonial law. I had the whole file photocopied in 2004, with the vague idea that there is a great story in the file—though I was never quite sure what it was, so never wrote it up. Now is perhaps the time.  So I will be writing blogs about in coming months in the hope that someone somewhere can tell me what the point of this file is.

This first memo I am posting is dated October 6, 1922, and it is from the prison in Morogoro, central Tanganyika, and addressed to the Director of Public Works, who has been charged by the Governor with establishing facilities to hang prisoners. As you can tell from this memo, such a program is not that easy—proper well-designed facilities must be established so that “every precaution can be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.” Which in the case of the Morogoro gallows means a socket of some kind to catch the bar that is underneath the trap door. It seems there was some evidence that the bar was bouncing off the concrete wall of the pit as the prisoner dropped, and there was some chance he was getting whacked on the head before their neck was broken. Clearly a condition that suggested a degree of inhumanity incompatible with British colonial justice!

 

Office of the Commissioner of Police and Prisons

Dar Es Salaam, 6th. October, 1922

Registered Number H. Q. . 55/Gen/30

The Director of Public Works

DARESSALAAM

RE: GALLOWS – MOROGORO

I desire to bring to your notice the following unsatisfactory points in connection with the gallows at Morogoro, which were brought to notice during my recent Inspection of the Gaol at that station.

 

  1. In the first place it is absolutely essential that proper steps should be made leading to the pit, so that the body of the hanged man can be properly carried up for burial. At the present time, the entrance to the it is by an ordinary ladder and any one decending [sic] the pit, for instance the doctor, has to duck his head to clear the platform. It is quite impossible to remove a body with any decency by this exit.
  1. The present system is revolting to any decent ideas. The body is hauled up by the neck, through the trap doors, through which it has dropped, without undoing the noose. Last Monday a very heavy and big man was hanged, and his body had to be treated in this way, with unpleasent [sic] results to all who were present.
  1. At the time the gallows was made, the Superintendent of Police expostulated at the proposed plan, but for some reason or other, possible expense, it was decided to go on with the original design. At Lindi, Tanga and Mwanza Gaols, proper cement steps have been made, and are satisfactory. I desire to ask that the necessary improvements to remedy the existing state of affairs at Morogoro may be taken in hand at once.
  1. Another point requiring your attention in the cross bar which holds the trap door in position. When this is released and falls into its groove in the wall, it should be caught by a socket of some kind, to prevent its rebounding on contact with the stone. At present it is quite possible that, in the rebound, it hits the hanging man as he drops from above. True, if the hanging is properly done, the man is probably dead before he receives the blow from the iron bar: but you will agree every possible precaution should be taken against any suggestion of inhumanity.
  1. Finally the present chain supplied from your workshops is far from satisfactory. The other day it was necessary to take off some links to shorten the drop. At the first tap of a hammer, the link snapped. Surely this is not right. I have instructed the Assistant Superintendent of Prisons to send this chain to Daressalaam as soon as it can be spared for your inspection.
  1. I trust that you will be able to treat these matter as urgent, as they are of vital importance, if the executions are to be carried out without any regrettable incident.

Signature illegible

Source Tanzania National Archives, TNA AB 518

Hanging File 1 Morogoro

So how would you as a anthropologist or sociologist analyze a memo like this?  Would it be about colonialism, bureaucracy, or criminology?  Or the human condition?  I have been wondering about this during the ten years I’ve been sitting on the file, and hope to hear what Ethnography.com readers think in coming months.

The story continues here

Gallows File I

Gallows File II

Gallows File III

Gallows File IV

5 thoughts on “Gallows Tale I: The Hanging File of Tanganyika Territory 1920-1928 and the Extra “Whack”

Comments are closed.