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


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 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]


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

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