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

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America’s Cemeteries are Filled with Good Folks

We lose students all too often at Chico State. Some die from accidents, some from overdose, some by their own hand. Not many die as Melinda Driggers did last Thursday, though, on campus, in the middle of the day, in the middle of our Student Services Center.

We got an email Monday from the University, telling us of Melinda’s death, and my breath caught in my throat as soon as I saw the subject of the email: Passing of student Melinda Driggers.

Melinda was a non-traditional student. She came to the university after she had raised her son and twin daughters, after she had married and then lost her husband suddenly. She was the one who found him, unresponsive, much like she was found on Thursday. She performed CPR on her husband, that day, hoping to save her husband, and I imagine, her own life. She donated her husband’s organs so that others may live, and that her husband may live on. In a paper she wrote for me last semester, she said that knowing she had done everything she could to save him, and then donating his organs, brought her peace.

Her first semester at Chico, she became a Social Work major, and enrolled in my class. She was quiet, but a guiding force in discussions in my class. When she spoke, it was deliberate. She listened critically, and made invaluable contributions to the class.

I tell stories about my kids and my husband a lot in my class and often; she would nod her head in empathy when I complained about late nights spent with sick kids, the trials of married life, and juggling work and school and family life. She had been there; she had done that.

Life had worn her down by the time I met her. She carried a bit of extra weight, her hair was always a bit disheveled, and she always looked tired. The death of her husband had left her heartbroken, and trying to go back to school and rebuild her life in her late 40s had been an overwhelming experience.

Melinda never complained about anything though. When I mentioned the expense of college, time management issues, difficulty with school schedules, she would watch me intently, smile in a knowing way, then would shake her head slightly, nod in agreement, and go back to writing her class notes. She had been there, done that before.

She was worried about money, and doing well in school, and trying to survive after the loss of her husband. She was still traumatized over finding her husband unresponsive, performing CPR until paramedics arrived to take over.

There are a lot of Melindas out there, worrying, stressed over finances, then suffering a catastrophic event. Most who die relatively young are impoverished, most are hard workers who have just had a bad turn of events. They die younger, because of what the stress of “just getting by” does to a person.

This is what stress does to people like Melinda, people who, despite working hard, being good people, doing the best they can with what they have, still can’t make ends meet. I emphasize to my students every day in class: learn how to manage your stress because life is hard, and it’ll kick you when you are down and some of us have more of a safety net than others, and if you don’t figure out a way to handle the stress, you won’t make your 50th birthday.

Cemeteries are filled with folks like Melinda, people whose only fault was they lived in a world without a safety net for blue collar workers.

Melinda’s husband didn’t make it to 50, and neither did Melinda.

I walked into class Monday afternoon, the same classroom and the same subject, Sociology of Stress, where Melinda sat 7 weeks ago. Last semester, we talked about the stressful lives we all live in this fast paced world, and we talked about the diseases and illnesses that are more likely when stress gets out of control. We watched videos about the stress of inequality and poverty and wrote critically about stress, and the students analyzed their own sources of stress. We meditated and practiced Qi gong, we learned breathing techniques and relaxation methods, and still, for Melinda, it was too late. The stress of trying to get by, the stress of losing her husband, the daily stress of juggling family life and school life and volunteering hours, became too much last Thursday.

From the report from the University, I suspect that Melinda had either a heart attack or a stroke while in the Student Services Center, but regardless of the acute cause, the death certificate won’t mention the underlying stress that was the major contributing factor in her death.

I thought I was going to be okay when I walked back into that classroom, but as I scanned the room full of students, the reality of Melinda not sitting in her seat, her books open, her pen ready, her shaggy brown hair framing her glasses as she organized her papers, hit me, and as I faced my students, I didn’t hide my tears. Instead, I told them about Melinda, and I showed them where she used to sit, and we talked about learning how to manage your stress better, and about taking time for yourself, and learning how to say no to too many obligations, because this life is harder for some people than others, but you never know that it could be you, until it’s too late.

I hope you find peace, Melinda, and that finally, you can stop worrying.

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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

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Why we Make Stuff Up at Ethnography.com, and by the way, the American Anthropological Association Decided to Dissolve Itself  

Two weeks ago, we posted a really great essay by David Van Huff “A Tale Within a Tale: The Dual Nature of Ebenezer Scrooge.” David wrote this story for my class, and it helped me see Durkheim concept of the “Dual Nature” of humanity in a new way, which is why I wanted to post it.  Anyway, in coming days we will post more such stories. What they will have all in common is that they are all fiction. So spoiler alert: Good social science can be made up. David’s story is in fact just an extreme version of this genre of social “science,” since not only did David make up the story, he also wrote the story about Charles Dickens character Ebenezer Scrooge who is also completely fictional—Dickens made him up too!

For that matter the all-time downloaded article from the American Anthropologist, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” is also fictional. It was made up by the sociologist Horace Miner who at one-time was a Lt. Colonel in the United States Army. Despite all this blasphemous conduct (sociologist, militarist, fiction writer), the article continues to be a staple of anthropology textbooks because it highlights so well how arbitrary cultural practices are always relative, and always taken-for granted.  People learn from it–the article enjoys its high status for good reason.

Oh yeah, and a couple of weeks ago, we republished Franz Kafka’s brief piece of doggerel Gemeinschaft/Fellowship.  That too, come to think about it was complete fiction, written by someone who was known for the oddity of his imagination.  And of course the “five friends” Kafka wrote about, as well as the sixth, are really quite made up!

Then there is sociologist Michael Young who in 1958 wrote a book The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1880-2033. The book invented the word “meritocracy” to describe the dysphemistic world where everyone is evaluated for merit by testing, and those who are successful create an isolated world in places like Cambridge (Massachusetts and England), where alone they rule over the masses who do not do so well on standardized tests. As a result of this relatively unknown novel (i.e. fiction), the word “meritocracy” entered the English language as being something very desirable—in fact it has become a political staple when politicians whine about favoritism and nepotism. Oddly, this was not Young’s point—he though the meritocracy was actually a bad thing because it leads to oligarchy, and the book explains why in ways that are chillingly real over 60 years after it was published.

And just recently I read A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka, which is a fantastic novel about modern England, World War II in Ukraine, migration, gender, and aging. Read it—it is great sociology (the main protagonist even teaches sociology at a British University).

And by the way, the classical sociologist W. E. B. DuBois wrote a great short story “Of the Coming of John” about two boys, one black, and one white, who grew up on a Georgia plantation at the turn of the century. The story is a tragic one which illustrates well DuBois’ main point about “Double Consciousness” and “The Color Line” in race. DuBois made it up.

But isn’t this blog then really about literature, and not sociology or anthropology? Shouldn’t such works be sent over to the Literature Department—why should serious social scientists even consider such work?  Bottom line, if you want the truth, and nothing but the truth check out your home town newspaper (mine is the Nevada County Scooper which you can read here).  Otherwise do not be afraid of too much fiction.

And by the way, did you hear that the American Anthropological Association finally decided to dissolve itself?

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Remembering Martin Luther King Jr – Letter from Birmingham Jail

I remember the first time I had the horror and pleasure of reading Martin Luther King Jr’s, Letter from Birmingham Jail. I was somewhere in graduate school, buried in the depth’s of Taylor Branch’s epic Parting the Waters, when a passage that Branch mentioned drove me to find the letter King wrote in the margins of a newspaper while he was jailed for participating in non-violent protest in Birmingham in 1963.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like for King to read the statement from eight local clergy members that called for locals to withdraw support from King, to stop their demonstrations, and rely on negotiation to end segregation in their community, when negotiation had not worked before. I cannot imagine the fury, sense of injustice, and resolve that the statement must have provoked.

But in a rational response, King set out to answer the clergy who would seek to undermine him, men he considered much like himself, men of God, who were supposed to stand up for those who could not stand up for themselves. Instead of subjugating himself to the clergymen, as many people might have done while sitting in jail, King attacked the clergymen’s own religiosity, since they were condoning and supporting the status quo of inequality and oppression.

King’s message in the letter was this: all men are God’s children, and thus, equal in their value, and should be treated equally. Condoning anything else was ungodly, in King’s eyes.

He expected religious leaders to be the seekers of justice, which is what drew him to the public spotlight.

…I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth century prophets left their little villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greaco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular home town.

…I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere…

 

King was most revered for his ability to stay calm in the face of injustice, to march without violence, to preach love and unity and hope, and to inspire with his eloquent messages. But for me, he seems most real when he was the most incensed, when he wasn’t as scripted. Something about his raw emotion speaks to me at a much deeper level than speeches like I Have a Dream.

When I discuss King with my students, I rarely discuss I Have a Dream as the most influential or charismatic example of King’s work. Instead, I give them a snippet, just two minutes and thirty-eight seconds of King’s last speech, and for me, the most important one. It was the end of a scripted speech given at a rally for striking sanitation workers, but King finished the speech in what some would say a prophetic way, since he was assassinated the following day. The last two minutes of the speech were a response to the bomb threat that had delayed King’s plane before flying to Memphis for the rally. Again, King could have hidden in fear, he could have bowed down to the threats, but instead, he flew to Memphis, he rose up, and ended the speech with thunderous words of hope, and faith, and a directive for his followers to continue the fight for equality, even if he wasn’t there to see it through.

Today, as we celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday as a national holiday, I hope you’ll take a few minutes to seek out the full text of some of King’s work, and remember what he fought for, because the fight is ongoing. It may not be happening in your town, but’s it’s happening somewhere, and King would call upon us all to stand up for injustice and to fight for those who cannot defend themselves.

Check out more about Martin Luther King Jr., and the modern African American Freedom Struggle, with dozens of primary documents available for viewing, at The Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute at Stanford University

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Are Police “God’s Representatives on Earth?”

Max Weber writing in the early twentieth century marveled about the advantages that modern societies have over the earlier societies. One of the things Weber remarked about was the “stable peacefulness” that are found in large areas of the country protected by the police. No longer when you, your brother, or your sister were assaulted did you need, or want, to take matters into your own hands and seek your own revenge on behalf of your clan and its gods to whom you were tied to by blood oaths of loyalty.

In modern society, few of us take such oaths. Instead we go through our day not worrying about assault, trusting in the power of the police to pacify society, and maintain the “absolute and stable peacefulness.” This is why I can walk and ride my bike all over town, and not really worry about being robbed, assaulted, or murdered. But behind this order is the fact that some people, the police, do take oaths, and are willing to intervene even violently in order to preserve the peace. In Weber’s words, the police have the monopoly over the use of legitimated force in a given jurisdiction. Or as Weber wrote using some complicated words:

 But of all the purely political factors [that are important], particularly enduring is the growing need for order and protection (“police”) in societies that increasingly become accustomed to absolute and stable peacefulness. The growing need for order and protection was a continuous process, moving from the solely sacral or conciliatory influences, to the blood feud where rights and security for the individual members of the clan were tied to oaths and responsibility for seeking revenge, to today’s situation when police officials become “God’s representatives on earth.” (p,95 in Weber’s Rationalism, 2015, tr. by Dagmar Waters and Tony Waters)

It’s that last line “God’s representatives on earth” that cause me to pause. Weber is saying that in the modern world, the authority of the police becomes sacred, and is assumed to be the guarantor of an absolute and stable peacefulness; and that in fact many invest it with a religious-like authority. And to a large extent, this is what we have. But to have this happen, the police are given every benefit of the doubt in confrontations with civilians, such as the recent cases in the United States in places like Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, and elsewhere in recent months. In such a context, grand juries, police, prosecutors, and others search for reason why “God’s representatives on earth” are acting correctly, because to do otherwise, is to sub-consciously perceived as a threat to God, and therefore the peaceful order many of us take for granted.

Now, what would the police you know think of such a view?   The police I’ve known are a jaded lot, who have no pretensions to be anything close to God. But indeed, they are well-aware of the oath they have sworn on behalf of society, and desire very much that their presence and authority be respected.  Are such pseudo-religious rituals still important to the maintenance of modern society?  What would a society look like, in which the police were not asked to take such oaths, and assumed to be like the rest of us?

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Celebrating Martin Luther King Jr – I Have a Dream

As a writer, I have an obsession with words, speech, poetry, songs…really, anything written or spoken or sung. My dream class to teach would be one that would analyze great speeches in history, and analyze them given their context in time and place. We would analyze one speech a week, and try to understand why the speech was written, what was happening at the time and place to find meaning behind the speech. I’ll probably never get to teach that class, but I do bring elements of that idea of class into the classes I teach today. We talk about Ronald Reagan giving the Challenger speech, and Adolf Hitler, and Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr., among others. Often, students have never been exposed to the speeches, and most definitely have never heard the social history behind the speech.

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday this week, I bring to you the story behind his most famous speech, just in case, as the great Paul Harvey used to say, you don’t know the rest of the story.

I hope you enjoy.

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