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. The sentence could only be carried out at one of the officially designated gaols where execution by hanging carried out on a permanent or temporary gallows built 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 “C. of P.O.P. and to inform you that it is not proposed to make any alternations in the present procedure.”


Political Office


25th September, 1922


The Registrar of the High Court




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,


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 descirption of the condemned person with all his marks peculiarities are recorded in the “prisoners record sheet” which accompanies him on transfer to the lace 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]


Tanganyika Police and Prisons



[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.




Other postings in this series

Gallows File I

Gallows File II


How the Rich Educate Their Children: A Tale of a Swiss Hogwarts Academy


Schools primarily teach vocabulary and inflection, styles of dress, aesthetic tastes, values, and manners only 1 percent of American teenagers attend independent private high schools of an upper class nature. (G. William Domhoff Who Rules America? 1998, 80–81).


Schooling Childhood Cover

The schools for the “1 percent” of teenagers, in America or elsewhere, are isolated from the rest of us, and in these cocoons the ultra-rich cultivate norms and connections. In 2007, I had a peak inside one such institution in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Rosenberg Academy is a school for the ultra-rich—it is a cocoon where the children of the ultra-rich get to know each other, think alike, and re-create the elite which will dominate European business and government in the future.

A description of my brief encounter with the ultra-rich is found in my book Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child. The book is available at many university libraries—and you should check it out! On the other hand, if you are from the one percent, you can afford to buy a copy on, where there are new copies for $45, and new ones for $95. Chapter 1 is available on my site, which is here.



Upper-class institutions are what sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions” that isolate their members from the outside world and establish a set of routines, traditions, and “automatisms” that increase the levels of cohesiveness among people raised in this fashion. Ultimately, Domhoff writes, such separateness results in feelings of superiority and exclusivity for having somehow survived the rigors of an expensive and rigorous education (see Domhoff 1998, 82), a la Harry Potter’s fictional school at Hogwarts.


Less fictional is the elite private school I once visited, Rosenberg Academy in Switzerland, where my daughter was scheduled to take an SAT exam on a Saturday morning in November 2007. I read on the Internet that the recommended budget for a student attending there was $50,000–60,000 per student per year, including pocket money of $10,000—15,000.


We arrived early, and were asked to wait in a room outside the dining commons. As we sat there, the boys aged perhaps 12–16, but dressed in suit and tie, and the girls, in conservative pantsuits, arrived for the 7:30 a. m. meal. Despite the suits, the boys were squirrelly, just like other teenagers. Except . . . Before the meal started, they lined up behind their chair. They sat down when a hand-bell rang, and the younger students ate feverishly until the bell was rung again, and they were dismissed at 7:45. Only the older students were allowed to remain for a more leisurely Saturday morning breakfast. My wife and I sat in the anteroom watching this for the hours my daughter was taking the exam. We listened to uniformed teenagers chatting in four or five languages (French, Italian, English, German, and maybe Russian) as they passed through, ignoring our presence. I remember spending some time gazing at the school’s trophy cabinet, which had the standard trophies for tennis, golf, and so forth. But also one for the school’s race car team, even though under Switzerland’s laws, students the under 18 were too young to qualify for a driver’s license.


My daughter claimed that Rosenberg reminded her of Hogwarts School of the Harry Potter series and took particular amusement at the young man who asked if he could loosen his tie while taking the SAT. Hogwarts is particularly relevant, I think, as a literary metaphor for the isolated upper class. J. K. Rowling’s use of Hogwarts as a literary device, is an acknowledgment that the upper class think and act differently than we ordinary mortals do, even if their kids chafe at the discipline. But the point of such private schools is to create a habitus of privilege. Boys growing up in such a place feel uncomfortable without a suit and tie, even at Saturday breakfast, and will intuitively seek out others with similar feelings.


Such markers of caste are perhaps most obvious in a place like Rosenberg. But they are also found in culture created in American schools where bureaucratic “measurable standards” and culture are established to separate and track the natural-growth children of concerted cultivation, segregated inner-city children, and Hogwarts-bound children into their meritocratically correct slots.


Source: pp. 129-130, Schooling, Bureaucracy and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child, by Tony Waters. Palgrave MacMillan, 2012.

P.S. Even if you do not read my book, be sure to read Erving Goffman! Re-reading, I just noticed that I made an implicit comparison between mental hospitals and elite academies when I wrote this. Goffman’s main work about “total institutions” is derived from his participant observation as an orderly in a mental institution. His point, derived though from the 1950s era mental institution in Maryland, though, applies to Rosenberg Academy, too. Both institutions create a cohesive social group which confirms each others views.  And at Rosenberg, they do it during childhood, and away from alternative views. In this respect, both are the “1%”.

February Series: The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience

Today and for the following three Mondays, we offer you a series in five acts and four blog posts. “The Order of the Eternal Social Conscience” by guest writer Jerri Bedwell presents a tale of redemption and transformation and features some of our favorite sociologists plus a guest appearance by Charles Dickens.

So listen in dear readers, for in a world of decreasing social capital we are reminded by Ms. Bedwell that there is something to be learned from our ghosts.

And if you like that series, check out the “Gallows Tale” series that Tony started a couple of weeks ago. You can read the first installment here, and the second here. We’ll have another one for you at the end of the week.

Happy reading and keep coming back, we are on a mission to change the way the world thinks about the Social Sciences in general and ethnography, in particular.

Why the Super Bowl Matters, Especially to Sociologists

I think I’ve mentioned before, but I really don’t understand the lure of watching sports on TV. Or in person. Or from a skybox in a stadium with 50,000 other people. Generally, I don’t understand watching sports. So when I moved to Manhattan, Kansas, home of the Kansas State Wildcats with a Big 12 football team, I didn’t quite understand what I was getting myself into. When I rented an apartment directly across the street from the university’s football stadium, my friends couldn’t believe my good fortune. I couldn’t understand why that would be exciting; I was happy just to get housing close to my classes.

If you’ve never been to a Midwestern United States college football game, you don’t know American football. People in places like Manhattan, and Norman Oklahoma, and Lincoln Nebraska put the “fan” in fanatic.

The first Saturday of the new football season came as a shock to me.

It began on Thursday, with a few dozen people parking their recreational vehicles in the stadium’s parking lot, getting ready for the big game. They tailgated for two full days.

On the morning of the first game, the street outside my apartment became a parking lot, and driving anywhere from my apartment became impossible. I know, I tried. The wave of purple (Bleed Purple!) clad, ordinary looking people walking toward the stadium just before the game overwhelmed my car, and I feared I would be lost in a never-ending sea of purple.

I shook my head at all of those fanatics, and couldn’t figure out why they were making such a big deal about a football game.

But a few months later, as I walked through the student union toward a late night-dollar movie, I began to understand what the fuss was about. There, across the foyer of the union, stood a young woman clad in what people from my adopted home town of Chico, California, substitute for football fanaticism: a Sierra Nevada Brewery t-shirt. I had never seen the young woman before, but as my feet sped toward her, I didn’t care: the shirt, and the young woman, were a welcome reminder of home.

I nearly accosted the young woman in the Sierra Nevada t-shirt, and asked her how she came across the shirt. To my surprise, she was a native of Chico, and, more amazingly, the daughter of one of my old Sociology professors at Chico State. I nearly fainted with joy. We spent 5 or 10 minutes talking about Chico, then I let her go, although somewhat reluctantly.

I never saw the young woman again, but the connection I wanted to make with her because she wore that Sierra Nevada shirt made me start thinking about the reason I needed that connection. I never approached people in my home town when they wore the same shirt, but when I was 1800 miles from home, I couldn’t stop myself from approaching her.

As humans, we seek out connections with people, since we are social creatures. We crave bonding, thrive with positive reinforcement from others, and actually heal ourselves in times of stress when we seek out others for comfort. In traditional societies, connections with people are easier to make and maintain, since few people move great distances.

In modern societies, social ties are more difficult to make and maintain.

When I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada in the early 2000s, it was the fastest growing city in the nation, with 6,000 people moving to the city, and 2,000 people moving out every month. It was a city in flux, and a city where no one made lasting connections. It was especially hard hit after 9/11 happened. It was a tough city to make friends in. It was also the city with the highest rate of teen suicide in the nation.

Emile Durkheim argued that it was the connection to others, the strength of a community’s ties, that is related most significantly to long term suicide rates in a culture. When I think of Las Vegas, I don’t doubt his theory. When I lived there, I thought the break down in social ties was an anomaly, but in the dozen years or since I’ve left Las Vegas, I’ve felt the social ties in the U.S. break down at a faster rate. As a result of these weakening community ties, we are seeking other ways to recreate these ties more and more.

Have you ever asked yourself why Facebook is so popular? It’s because we have largely lost the social ties we had in traditional communities, and Facebook allows us to recreate those ties.

Today, the average person will move more than 11 times throughout his or her lifetime. Most of those moves will be before they reach 45 years old. Most children live in households where both parents work, and we are raising our children to not be home and connected to their neighborhood as much as in previous generations. Children and adults today spend more time working or in school, participating in sporting events, and traveling than they do in their homes and neighborhoods, and with extended family. In essence, we have broken the traditional social ties that Durkheim found to be a fundamental necessity in stable societies. We used to come together around our families, our neighborhoods, and our churches, but in modern society, today, those ties are broken over and over again throughout our lifetimes.

But there is one constant that many people, Americans especially, can cling to and identify with wherever their lives take them: national sports teams.

In a time when we feel the least connected with others, even our closest family members, sharing a connection with millions of other fans of football or baseball or basketball, and especially sharing a connection with other people who support your team, is invaluable.

Sports team affiliation transcends religion, gender, age, time, place, race, and socioeconomic status. Sure, it can create rivalries, but taken in a positive light, team pride can, and does, create closer social bonds and community ties. Hanging out with people on Super Bowl Sunday creates and recreates community, and from a sociological perspective, makes a more stable and predictable society, and that is good for all, even if you only watch for the commercials, and show up for the food.

So if anyone complains or asks you today about why you watch the game, don’t feel guilty. Tell them you are contributing to social cohesion and saving lives by recreating community ties.

In the meantime, I’ll be on a plane, headed for Kansas, maybe wearing a Sierra Nevada t-shirt. If you see me, give a shout out for Chico, but don’t ask me the score of the game; I don’t even know who’s playing.

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.”



DAR-ES-SALAAM, 26th February, 1921

Registered Number: H.Q. 40/36

The Hon’ble

The Chief Secretary of the Government



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)


Tanganyika Police & Prisons

Gallows File II Songea Gallows

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

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.

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



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 readers think in coming months.

The story continues here

Gallows File I

Gallows File II

Gallows File III

Gallows File IV