Gallows Tale III: The Hanging Files of Tanganyika, and Are We Hanging the Right Man?

Quick capital trials were undertaken in the remote corners of Tanganyika Territory, even those places that did not have their own gallows. But  the sentence could only be carried out at one of the officially designated gaols where execution by hanging was carried out on a permanent or temporary gallows built and conducted to official specifications.  A willing European officer also needed to be available to release the trap door. As you will read in this series, transport of prisoners along the rough roads, trails, rails, and ships of Tanganyika could be slow and complicated—it might involve a five week walk, a trip on a third-class boat trip accompanied by four officers of the court, or presumably other similar arrangements. This raises the question, could a switch be made of the prisoners en route, and the wrong man hanged?

In any event in the days before routine photography was available in the remote corners of the colony, how could you be sure that the person sentenced to hang was the same on who was presented at the gaol? This is apparently the question that occurred to A. W. M. Griffith, the Administrative Officer in Charge of Morogoro District. He asserts that the possibility of such a switch while remote, is possible, and proposes that fingerprints be taken of the condemned man be made, and checked by the Finger Print Bureau.  The Commissioner of Police and Prisons mulls over this possibility in a response, and concludes that pulling off a switch is difficult enough, and finger prints are not necessary.  Griffith was informed of this decision in another memo which concluded: the  “to inform you that it is not proposed to make any alternations in the present procedure.”

 

Political Office

Morogoro

25th September, 1922

 

The Registrar of the High Court

Dar-Es-Salaam

 

Sir,

I have the honour to request you to bring before my mind-the present system by which the identification of a person executed at Morogoro, with the person sentenced to suffer death at Tabora or elsewhere, leaves room for the possibility of error.

 

I venture to suggest to His Honour that when a person of native status is sent to Morogoro for Execution his finger prints should be taken at Morogoro Gaol and forwarded to the Finger Print Bureau for identification and that the execution of a sentence of death should not take place until such identification is established.

 

Theoretically a mistake of this nature should hardly occur. To my mind in practice it is a distinct though remote possibility.

 

 

I have the honour to be,

Sir,

Your obedient Servant

A. W. M. Griffith

Administative Office in Charge

Morogoro District

 

 

[Handwritten Response 1]

Honorable Chief Secretary,

The Chances of the wrong person being executed are negligible, unless, of course, there was a pre-arranged plan between the escort and the condemned man to substitute an innocent party,  which is ultimately unlikely as the innocent person would …make himself heard.

A full description of the condemned person with all his marks peculiarities are recorded in the “prisoners record sheet” which accompanies him on transfer to the place of execution.

It wold be quite easy to introduce the further check of finger prints as [recommended] by the A. O. Morogoro, but honestly I cannot see any necessity.

 

[illegible signature]

Commissioner

Tanganyika Police and Prisons

7.11.22

 

[no date]

[Handwritten Response 2]

 

Officer i/c Morogoro District

 

W[ith] R[egard] T[o]  your letter no l/4/2 of the 25th of Sept. Addressed to the Registrar of the High Court, on the subject of the identification of persons executed at Morogoro. I am dir’d to forward for yr. inf’n. a copy of a minute on this subject by the [Chief of Police and Prisons]. and to inform you that it is not proposed to make any alternations in the present procedure.

 

C.S.

 

Other postings in this series

Gallows File I

Gallows File II

Gallows Tale II: The Hanging File of Tanganyika 1920-1928 and the Risk of Escape!

  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot [of 230 miles] to the place of execution must be considerable

Britain had took control of German East Africa and renamed it Tanganyika Territory in 1920. This meant that the German justice system, which had been found throughout the territory would be replaced with a British system. Among other things, this meant that death by firing squad would be replaced by hanging. But to do this required the installation of proper gallows (with sheds) to be erected at the gaols where death sentences would be carried out. Or alternatively, mobile gallows could be installed.

As specified in Gallows Tale I, for Morogoro in central Tanganyika, this meant that a proper pit needed to be constructed. And as specified in Gallows Tale I, one of the big problems there was the problem of a socket, which would catch the bar underneath the trap door. It seems that the bar was ricocheting off the concrete wall of the pit, hitting the condemned during or shortly after the drop where the neck was broken—clearly an inhumane situation not befitting of British justice.

Songea which is in the southwest corner of the country had another problem. It seems that the nearest place for the court to hang someone was 230 miles away in Tukuyu to the east. Tanganyika Territory at that time had few roads, and even fewer vehicles—which meant that the condemned man would need to walk for five weeks through a tsetse infested bush before he could be executed. Such a walk would presumably have involved several local police officers, and of course one European officer. It is not clear how they would have been fed, whether they would have carried their own food, or whether there were stations where they would be fed.

Irrespective of the organizational difficulties for such a trip, there was also the chance that somewhere along the way the condemned man just might try to escape—and have plenty of opportunities to do so. Thus Songeia’s request for that special execution apparatus, “the mobile gallows.”

 

OFFICE OF THE COMMISSIONER OF POLICE AND PRISONS,

DAR-ES-SALAAM, 26th February, 1921

Registered Number: H.Q. 40/36

The Hon’ble

The Chief Secretary of the Government

Dar-es-Salaam

 

With reference to your file No. 3093 and further to my H.Q.40/18 of the 2nd of November last, I have the hour to recommend on the following grounds that a portable gallows be issued to Songea to serve the requirements of that district:-

  • The distance from Songea to Tukuyu is 230 miles
  • The risk of escape of a condemned prisoner who is required to undergo a long journey on foot to the place of execution must be considerable
  • The journey from Songea to Tukuyu occupies at least 5 weeks.
  • The District Political Officer is of the opinion that in many cases it will be desirable for executions to take place locally as an example to the population, in order to convince the native mind that the murderer has been duly punished for his crime.

The District Political Officer concurs with my recommendation.

(Signature illegible)

Commissioner,

Tanganyika Police & Prisons

Gallows File II Songea Gallows

The story of the colonial gallows continues here with Gallows File III….

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