It’s a hangin’ matter
Director Raoul Walsh had Clark Gable and Cameron Mitchell in the first reel of The Tall Men (1955) see as they ride in from the prairie a corpse, hanging from a tree. “Looks like we’re near civilization,” says Gable.
This wry and sardonic comment is not necessarily typical of the Western movie. More often death by hanging, either imposed by a proper judge or less ‘official’, was treated with either a certain amount of black humor, such as in Bandolero! (1968) and Goin’ South (1978), or indeed with something that comes close to approval. In a world (the West – the mythical one, anyway) where lawmen were few and courts were fewer, and often corrupt or incompetent at that, men were used to swift and expedient judgements. The noose was a quick and easy answer.
In the early and seminal Western novel The Virginian by Owen Wister, published in 1902, filmed five times and hugely influential on the Western movie in general, the centerpiece is the hanging by a party led by the Virginian, without trial, of rustlers, including the Virginian’s friend Steve. Even the local bigwig, Judge Henry, the Virginian’s employer, condones this act. The actual hanging takes place ‘off stage’, as it were: the book’s narrator remains in the stable and hears about it later. This, probably, was to soften the blow and make the grisly event slightly more palatable to Eastern readers. In the movie versions, such as, for example, the 1914 one, the hanging is done with grimacing reaction shots, then shadows of hanged men.
The rustlers are hanged - 1929 version
There is a definite Virginian tone to Tribute to a Bad Man (1956) – the Wyoming setting and even the young character’s name, Steve (Don Dubbins), attest to that. The hanging of the rustler they catch is suitably grim, and the same arguments are put forward – that there is no formal law enforcement anywhere around and the law of the rope is the only effective way to maintain order.
'Justice', Wyoming style
“We're livin' in the middle of nowhere. Two hundred miles from any kind of law and order. Except for what I built myself. Ever since I started - and this you don't know - I've been badgered, skunked, bitten out and bushwhacked by thieves from everywhere. And now, one of my men's been killed. I find my horses, I find the killer. If I find the killer, I hang him. I gotta' keep my own reckoning, Jo. It's the way I built my life and half the transportation of the West.”
Of course in The Virginian it is Steve who is hanged. Here, it is the young Steve who is offended by the lynching. It is said that the great cinematographer Robert Surtees delayed the grim hanging scene four days, waiting to get just the ominous lighting he wanted. And it worked.
Lynching a horse thief, 1900
And Stuart Whitman, as the simple-minded cowhand Tom Ping, comes to a Steve-like end in These Thousand Hills (1959), also set in Wyoming.
Hanging appeared in so many Westerns that I won’t (can’t) list them all here. I’ve just chosen some key ones or ones of interest.
Were there real hangings in the West? Yes, of course there were, like the one in 1864 of Henry Plummer, elected sheriff of Bannack County, Montana. He was accused of being leader of a gang of road agents and the local Vigilance Committee took matters into its own hands. The Texas Rangers were famous for stringing up all and sundry. Many Mexicans loathed the rinches with their shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach, using the ley de fuga (shooting down prisoners who were ‘trying to escape’) and especially for their propensity for hanging any Mexican, rustler or not, and their use of other atrocities.
In Lonesome Dove (1989) two ex-Texas Rangers, Call and Gus, carry on Ranger tradition by hanging their former friend Jake Spoon as a horse thief (even though they have been thieving horses as well; but that was across the Rio Grande so didn’t count).
And there were famous high-profile hangings which filled the newspapers. A noted historical hanging, that of Tom Horn in Cheyenne on November 20th, 1903 for the murder of farm boy Willie Nickell, was also represented on celluloid. Slim Pickens got the unwelcome job of hanging Steve McQueen in Tom Horn (1980).
Pickens reluctantly hangs McQueen
In the final days of the ‘Wild West’, in turn-of-the-century Arizona, Augustine Chacon was one of the last charismatic outlaws. No one knows exactly how many people Chacon killed but it was certainly a lot, probably around thirty, and he ended on the gallows in 1902.
Chacon departs this world
Another real Western hanging, of some interest, was that of Milton Yarberry, the first marshal of Albuquerque, NM who was one of those peace officers who exercised on both sides of the law. He rode with Dirty Dave Rudabaugh and Mysterious Dave Mather, and Yarberry was wanted for murder. In Albuquerque he befriended County Sheriff Perfecto Armijo and this helped him get appointed Albuquerque town marshal in 1880. He turned out to be a very effective lawman. But he fatally shot a man in the chest over a woman, and then killed another man, named Campbell, in an alley. Yarberry was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang but he escaped from the Santa Fe jail (all this would make a great Western movie) but three days later was run down and recaptured by a posse under Santa Fe police chief Frank Chavez. Poor old Sheriff Armijo was deputed to pull the lever, and couldn’t get out of it. 1500 people attended the hanging, which was by the new ‘jerk’ method: that is, instead of dropping the victim through a hatch, a mechanism jerked the man upwards. It did not prove a success, and was not used again. It was too late for Milt, though. His name was misspelled on his tombstone, but it didn’t matter: it was an assumed name anyway.
The hanging of Texas murderer Bill Longley in October 1878 at Giddings, Texas also went very badly. Longley writhed and groaned for eleven minutes. Some spectators laughed.
The illustrated papers had a field day
Yet another was that of outlaw Black Jack Ketchum, in 1901. He was hanged for attempted train robbery, which seems a bit harsh. Sheriff Garcia was supposed to cut a rope with an axe, thus releasing the trap door, but he was drunk. He missed and buried the blade in the timber. It took several minutes to extract it and have another go. Then the force of the fall severed the head from the body, in the way that Saddam Hussein’s did in more recent times. A grisly end. A postcard of his headless body was made and proved very popular.
Yup, there were plenty of real hangings for the Western movie makers to use as material.
Not everyone was in favor of capital punishment, though. If I told you who, in an interview with the St Louis Republic on September 1, 1896, stated that he favored "the abolition of capital punishment", you might be surprised. It was Judge Isaac C Parker, he who was played by James Westerfield in True Grit (1969) and John McIntire in Rooster Cogburn (1975), who was the model for ‘Judge Fenton’ (Pat Hingle) in Hang ‘em High (1968), and who appeared in several other Westerns too. Parker was known in the genre as a “hanging judge”, and such a figure was popular in Westerns.
Most notorious of the hanging judges, on the screen anyway, was Judge Roy Bean, played in Westerns as an amusing rascal or as a more lethal and darker character, ready to hang a man on a whim. Think of Walter Brennan in The Westerner (1940) or Paul Newman in The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).
In historical reality, though, I’m sorry to tell you, Justice of the Peace Phantly Roy Bean Jr. was only involved in three hangings, and one of those was his own, when as a young man he was courting a young woman, who was subsequently kidnapped and forced to marry a Mexican officer. Bean challenged the officer to a duel and killed him. Six of the dead man's friends then put Bean on a horse, tied a noose around his neck, and left him to hang. The horse did not bolt, however, and after the men rode off, the bride, who had been hiding behind a tree, cut the rope. Bean was left with a rope burn and a permanent stiff neck. Of the other two hangings Bean was concerned with, they were men he sentenced to death, but one escaped. So actually, famous ‘hanging judge’ Bean only ever hanged one man.
The titles of Westerns often alluded to hanging, you feel almost to draw the ghoulish viewers in. The name of the Fred MacMurray Western Good Day for a Hanging (1959) is gruesomely jocund. There’s a trial of Robert Vaughn, who shot the sheriff (Emile Meyer) and Emile’s successor, Fred, is put in charge of the hanging. It doesn’t happen, though, because Vaughn’s outlaw accomplices break him out of jail (Denver Pyle is the deputy, so it’s quite easy) and it ends in a shoot-out instead. Therefore despite the title, it’s not really a hangin’ Western. But the title showed how hanging could draw in the audiences.
In Hang ‘em High (1968), Clint is hanged before the titles, which is a bit of a surprise. Ben Johnson cuts him down alive (just) but then tragically is written out. Just as, in a way, any war film is inevitably an anti-war film (it is enough to show war), so any film that shows a hanging in detail becomes an anti-capital punishment statement. The multiple hangings in Hang ‘em High, with their festive audience, beer vendors, children watching, and, worst of all, a clergyman officiating at the celebrations with hymns and prayers, are enough to turn the stomach of even a fan of the death penalty.
This scene was in fact better done in True Grit the year after, where it has an almost historical tinge as the public execution is enjoyed, rather like the eighteenth-century hanging of a highwayman at Tyburn in London or the tricoteuses enjoying the scene at the guillotine in Paris.
Randolph Scott was involved in hangings on more than one occasion. It became quite routine. In Gunfighters (1947), for example, it’s brushed off as insignificant. When Randy is saved from the rope, the sheriff laughs it off as all cleared up now and no one arrests the attempted murderer. Harmless horseplay, I suppose. In Hangman’s Knot (1952), another catchy hanging title, actually a top-notch Western, it is the excellent Frank Faylen who is captured by the bad guys and it is he who has the eponymous ligature placed around his neck. It looks like curtains for him, until bold and daring Maj. Randy rescues him by throwing sticks of dynamite at the bad guys.
Randy knew about hanging
A key person, obviously, was the hangman. Sometimes this was the local marshal but oftentimes a professional executioner was brought in. Paramount’s The Hangman (1959), Robert Taylor’s first post-MGM Western, doesn’t really count because Taylor isn’t really a hangman: he is nicknamed that (a soubriquet he does not care for) because those he arrests end on the gallows (he has been sent out to apprehend criminals by Lorne Greene as an Isaac Parkerish judge).
Jimmy Stewart is the hangman. Or is he?
James Stewart, no less, was the top-hatted circuit hangman in Bandolero! in 1968. He has rather usurped the position, though. He is there to save his brother Dean Martin from the rope (plausibility is not this Western’s strong suit). In fact the plot owes more than a little to The Bravados of ten years previously. James Stewart pulls the same false hangman trick that Gregory Peck did. The Bravados was a far superior film, however.
Delmer Daves and the rope
Hanging was a frequent theme of Delmer Daves Westerns, almost a recurring nightmare. In fact there's hardly a Daves Western without one. In Broken Arrow (1950) Tom Jeffords only just escapes being lynched as an Indian lover. Drum Beat (1954) was, as you know, the story of Captain Jack of the Modocs. The real Captain Jack, more properly Kintpuash, underwent a ‘trial’, though the Modocs had no legal counsel and could speak little or no English. The gallows was already being built as the trial went on, so there was no doubt as to the outcome. Captain Jack/Kintuash was hanged on October 3, 1873. His body was secretly disinterred afterwards and embalmed, and became a fairground attraction, admission ten cents. Pinky’s monstrous end in Jubal in 1956 (suggested, not shown, but no less awful for that) is another example of Daves’s horror of hanging. Sadly, some versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957) were censored and the scenes of poor Potter's hanging body were cut. This was a pity because these scenes underline the sacrifice of the town drunk, the only citizen to stand up to the bad men, and they enhance the farmer's courage. The shadow on the staircase wall of the hanging corpse, and the sight of his boots are also visually very striking.
Poor Alex Potter
Brian Donlevy hangs himself in Cowboy (1958). Most obviously, in The Hanging Tree (1958), Daves’s last Western, the eponymous arboreal gibbet looms over the town and the story, gruesome and sinister in its import and impact.
Coop at the hanging tree
And talking of hanging trees, another hanging tree looms large in what I consider the very best of all the late-50s Randolph Scott/Budd Boetticher Westerns, Ride Lonesome (1959). In this fine film, Scott is once again a scarred, hard man out for revenge for a murdered wife. This time the innocent woman has been kidnapped by Lee Van Cleef and brutally hanged from a cross-like hanging tree. But we only discover this towards the end (and translated film titles such as L’Albero della Vendetta did the movie no service). The final image of the movie is really powerful. There’s also a sinister hanging tree in Reprisal! (1956), from which Guy Madison only narrowly escapes being suspended. Sergio Leone had to have one too, and had one installed on the set in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
A fitting end
Leone wanted one too
In The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018), the second ‘episode’ or ‘verse’ is less comic than the first and contains a hanging and a sanguinary attack by Indians which interrupts it. The victim is left on his horse, his hands tied behind his back and the nag feeling like wandering off, which will leave him dangling. Judge Roy Bean would definitely have sympathized. A passing cattle drive saves him, but not for long. We end with a mass hanging, with nods to True Grit and Hang ‘em High.
All depends on the horse
In Raw Edge (1956) ex-Ranger Tex Kirby (Rory Calhoun) arrives - he’d been fighting for Sam Houston at San Jacinto - and finds only the hanging boots of his brother. Any viewer of Westerns knows that it’s going to be hard times for the townsfolk that hanged him. Actually, though, Rory does well as the thoughtful revenger.
The town better watch out
Revenge for a hanging was a common theme. 5 Card Stud (1968) starts with a hanging. While a professional dealer (Dean Martin) is briefly outside, ahem, otherwise engaged, five gamblers he had been playing cards with lynch the sixth, a tinhorn from out of town whom they accuse of cheating. Later, one by one the gambler-hangmen are found murdered. A preacher has arrived in town. It’s Robert Mitchum. I’m afraid you don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to put two and two together.
There was always a tree handy.
In Noose for a Gunman (1960) Case Britton (Jim Davis) is the gunman the town wants to hang. They thoughtfully have a rope and a tree all ready for him.
It had his name on it
There are many other Westerns where townsfolk don’t bother with the time-wasting formality of a trial and reach immediately for the rope.
Joel McCrea’s 1952 picture The San Francisco Story concerns a vigilance committee headed by Onslow Stevens, the editor of a local paper but who seems to spend more time hanging people. His committee has a headquarters, signboard and everything. John Doucette has a bit part as the unfortunate ‘criminal’ hanged by the vigilantes from a beam protruding from their building. The hanging is well done by director Robert Parrish in a gruesome off-stage way: we see Joel’s foot on the beam and it slips off when the beam suddenly moves.
Dana Andrews is nearly hanged to death in Three Hours to Kill (1954). The poster shouts that he is THE MAN WITH THE ROPE SCAR ON HIS NECK, and reader Paul rightly pointed out that the scar was unlikely to be anywhere else. While we never condone lynching (nasty, sordid crime) we kinda get why the townsfolk thought he did it. The corpse has two derringer bullets in it and Dana is found standing over the body holding an empty derringer. But of course as so often in Westerns, they all jump to conclusions in a way that any passing Olympic pole-vaulter would envy. “String him up!” is the cry. The plot is that Dana survives and comes back for vengeance, being innocent and all.
Well, it would hardly be on his ankle
Even John Wayne is nearly hanged (such effrontery) in In Old California (1942). He is a druggist (actually, Duke’s pa was a druggist) and business is going well. His is the only drugstore in town and there’s no doc. But the villain spikes his famed tonic with poison. The townsfolk are furious. They could all have been killed. It being a Western, what is their first response? “Get a rope!” They will lynch the druggist. A hanging is the immediate knee-jerk response of all Western mobs, just as today a strike is the very first thought that comes into the minds of disgruntled French workers. But just as the wagon is about to be whisked away from under Duke’s feet, leaving him dangling from a tree branch, a rider gallops into town yelling “Gold!” (so I suppose we must be in 1848) and the townspeople suddenly are distracted. Phew.
It wasn’t always shown directly. In The Oklahoma Kid (1939) a Ward Bond-led lynch mob goes to work, but the actual hanging is discreetly not shown (they didn’t want to frighten the horses), only reaction shots as the goody characters look on, appalled.
Another 'light-hearted' hanging, if you can have such a thing, was when a young Andy Devine (he even looks thin - well, not fat anyway - but he's already got that trademark high-raspy voice) is hanged in the first Law and Order (1932). Andy plays Johnny ‘Behind the Deuce’ Kinsman. Hero Frame Johnson, the Wyatt Earp figure (Walter Huston) stands off a lynch mob on Johnny’s behalf but then has to hang him anyway when Judge Russell Simpson sentences him to death. Most unfortunate, but a lawman’s gotta do what a lawman’s gotta do. Johnny doesn’t seem to mind when he is told that he will be famous as “the first feller to be hung legal in Tombstone”.
The Hanged Man was a 1974 TV pilot that didn’t quite make it into a series. It opens with the hanging. The hero Devlin (Steve Forrest)’s defense attorney (Dean Jagger) thinks he was innocent but Devlin’s rep as a notorious gunfighter did for him with the jury, who sentenced him to death. The lawyer also represents a widow, Mrs. Gault (Sharon Acker) whose husband died in a mysterious accident at their mine. She expresses quite liberal anti-death penalty opinions, suggesting that there is some good in the worst of men and that dies with them on the scaffold. But the townsfolk - especially one gloating fat drunk - don’t agree and turn out in force to enjoy the public execution. Judge Ray Teal (in his very last Western) presides over the ceremony. Well, Devlin’s hanged alright, and pronounced dead by the doc (Bill Bryant), a death certificate is written, and the corpse is laid out in a room where the local priest prays for the soul of the departed. A bit premature, that, though, because he lives! How did he survive? Was it a miracle, as the priest believes, or the devil’s work maybe, or plain incompetence by the hangman (Bill Catching) – that’s what the judge reckons - or was the doc so drunk that he didn’t spot the fellow was still alive? It’s left open, with just the hint of the supernatural to tease us.
In Ride in the Whirlwind (1966) there’s a scene not dissimilar to that one I opened with in The Tall Men. Three honest cowboys, riding home to Texas, Wes (Jack Nicholson) Vern (Cameron Mitchell again – he must have remembered the earlier scene; perhaps he was the one that suggested it) and Otis (Tom Giler) pass a hanging corpse of a man and it darkens their mood, understandably.
It darkens the mood
Sometimes the gallows is burned down (good). It doesn’t save Richard Boone in the slightly Tom Hornish story Star in the Dust (1956), for an oak tree stands handy. It helps in Silverado (1985) though. Sheriff John Cleese is very annoyed as his gallows burns and Kevin Costner escapes.
And talking of escapes from hanging, in the, ahem, historically slightly dubious George Montgomery picture Jack McCall, Desperado (1953) McCall escapes from jail by making a newspaper cutout of a hanging man and projecting the image onto the wall with a candle. Nifty, huh.
String ‘er up
Women could get the rope too. As Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye musically told us in Cat Ballou (1965), it was hanging day in Wolf City, Wyoming. Cat (Jane Fonda) shot Sir Harry (Reginald Denny) with a derringer (no more than he deserved), and that’s what led her to the gallows in Wolf City, WY in 1894. Hanging women didn’t happen very often, but of course they almost suspended Joan Leslie in Woman They Almost Lynched (1953). I feel that almost in the title did rather give the game away as to the ending. And remember Vienna (Joan Crawford) was to be strung up by the poisonous Emma (Mercedes McCambridge) and her henchpersons in Johnny Guitar. Woman-hanging – or nearly - was evidently a popular thing in Westerns.
"The finale of the 2015 film The Hateful Eight set in post Civil War America is a detailed and close focused depiction of the lynching of a white woman, prompting some debate about whether it is a political commentary on racism and hate in America or if it was simply created for entertainment value." (Wikipedia)
In Hannah Lee: An American Primitive (1953) In Joanne Dru’s saloon a cheery trio sing
High, high, high are the gallows
Long is the rope that waits for me
which kinda sets the tone.
In Goin’ South (1978) Jack Nicholson (in his last Western) is a ne’er-do-well who says he rode with Quantrill’s Raiders (actually he was their cook) but was turned down as member of the Younger gang. The posse catch him, take him back to town and prepare to string him up for horse stealing. As one does. But there’s a town ordinance which declares that if any property-holding woman claims such a felon he may marry her and be spared the rope. This plot device had actually been used before, in the Guy Madison Western Bullwhip in 1958. Guy too tied the knot to avoid the other kind of knot being tied round his neck. In Goin’ South someone says that the ancient Romans had this custom. I don’t know if that’s true, or if any communities in the post-Civil War US adopted it. But it makes a colorful beginning to a movie.
Sometimes a hanging turns out to be the key moment of the movie. In Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) we finally find out the reason for all that tiresome film-long harmonica-blowing by Charles Bronson. As a boy, he had to shoulder a certain burden.
That explains it
Many Jesse James stories – such as Young Jesse James (1960) - give us the old chestnut of brutal Union troops hanging Jesse’s father, to give some justification for the boy’s crimes. It never happened, of course, at least it was not a fatal hanging in reality and it was Jesse’s step-father. But we’ll let that pass. Jesse is always distraught and justifiably rides off to join brother Frank with Quantrill’s guerrillas.
The most powerful of all
The story is of a lynching, in 1885 Nevada, when some townspeople take it into their head to hang three men they believe guilty of rustling and murder. In the only 75 minutes of its length, it succeeds, thanks to the fine original book by Walter van Tilburg Clark and the Lamar Trotti screenplay, as well as the excellent Wellman direction, in delineating and developing the characters. In 1943 the message of how easily justice and right may be perverted was one that struck home.
Of course the film has Henry Fonda in it and is therefore strong, tough and moving. His stand for justice is all the more effective because he is just an ordinary cowpoke, apt to drink and fight. Nebraska-born Fonda was fourteen years old when he observed a lynching. He watched a mob from the second floor window of his father's print shop. "It was the most horrendous sight I'd ever seen… We locked the plant, went downstairs, and drove home in silence. My hands were wet and there were tears in my eyes. All I could think of was that young black man dangling at the end of a rope." Fonda made several films condemning the evil of lynching and questioning capital punishment in general.
Well, that’s enough of this grisly topic. Hanging, ugh. Lynching, worse. The whole business turns the stomach. Still, there’s no denying: Westerns went for them.
Another kind of hanging. That's the trouble with these Comanchero camps. They keep you hanging around for so long.