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Replica of a two-barred gallows at Tombstone Courthouse State Historic Park, Arizona

A gallows (mhd. galge= gallows, cross; ahd. galgo= pole, stake) is an instrument of execution consisting of one or more posts and overlying crossbars, serving as a scaffold for hanging a person sentenced to death. Similarly, similar constructions that do not serve the act of killing are called such. Thus, the Duden also defines a “gallows-like device from which something can be hung” as a gallows.[1]


The term gallows denotes an instrument that became established, especially as a punitive device for killing. Because of similarities in shape, other tools also bear the name, such as the scooping mechanism in the drawing or scooping well. In 1796, Adelung gave further examples of devices for salt mining, wooden backrests on printing presses, and mouthpieces on horse bridles.[2]

The German Dictionary of the Brothers Grimm sees the original use of the term gallows for ‘branch’ or ‘tree’, as an instrument of execution documented in 14th century Low German, among other places, and concludes in comparison to the Roman sword punishment: “[…] afterwards hanging on the green gallows appears as an older, also lighter punishment. one simply took a tree or branch as gallows, as Tacitus already reports. […] Thus the galga may have been originally a branch in general, which was later given the name for this use alone, later transferred to the artificially produced gallows.”[3]

The Digitale Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache calls galgen a “scaffold consisting of a stake and crossbeam for the execution of the death sentence by hanging” transferred to similar racks on which to hang something, such as on a draw well or loom. The Common Germanic word was formed in Old High German in the 8th century from Old Saxon galgo and, with the cognate Armenian jatk branch’, ‘crop’, ‘stem’ or Lithuanian žalgà pole’, ‘lath’, goes back to ie. g̑halg (h)- ‘(flexible) branch’, ‘pole’. This refers to the earlier method of execution in which those condemned to death were tied to a bent-down tree and snapped up. With the beginning of Christianization, the Old High German galgo and its equivalents in the Germanic languages also stood for the cross of Christ, until the borrowings from Latin(crux = cross) prevailed.[4]


Death by hanging

A single-sided gallows for the punishment of slaves. One can see the Г-shaped basic construction with stabilizing stirrups.

In the penal system, gallows refers to the device for execution by hanging (death by hanging).

A noose is placed around the neck of the execution victim and then the ground is removed from under his feet so that his neck bears its entire own weight. It dies as a result of the pressure caused by the rope when the body falls. Unconsciousness and death of the victim are caused by

  • Cutting off the blood supply to the brain,
  • Injury to the (cervical) spine,
  • Neck fracture,
  • Obstruction of the airway (suffocation),
  • Decapitation due to excessive depth of fall.

The time of unconsciousness and the time of death depend on the knot used and the depth of the victim’s fall.


Gallows were also used for torturous methods of torture: for example, hanging by means of hooks in a part of the body (see picture gallows for punishing slaves) or hanging by the feet.


Cage on snap gallows

A special form was the snap, quick or see-saw gallows, in which the crossbeam was movably mounted as in a see-saw. Snap gallows were used both for drawing water from the bet, a watering trough or a pond, and for sanctioning offenders or dishonest bakers. Depending on the severity of the offence, these were bound or repeatedly immersed in water in a cage with the aid of the snapping gallows, sometimes even to the point of death.[5]

The snap gallows was originally a punishment instrument of the lower courts. As a “Schneller” it was used in the Middle Ages, among other things, for the punishment of blasphemy. Especially in the 16th and 17th centuries it was used by the military as a “Schnellgalgen” for the punishment of deserters. The latter were “quickly pulled upwards or sped upwards by their hands tied backwards, and quickly lowered again, thereby dislocating their arms”.[6]


Hanging on the tree

Hanging is one of the oldest forms of execution. In earlier times, the killing was usually carried out on trees, often oaks because of their stability. In many regions, corresponding executioner’s or court oaks or trees are still known today.

Gallows in the actual sense – i.e. wooden scaffolds erected for hanging with one (einschläfrig) or several posts (often three-legged) as well as stone gallows towers – have been found in Central Europe since the reign of Charlemagne. Old field names such as “Galgenberg” (gallows hill) or “Hochgericht” (high court) allow conclusions to be drawn about the earlier locations of gallows, which were often placed on the boundary of the court, and also on heavily frequented paths or roads as a deterrent. In this sense, the executed were often left hanging on the gallows long after their death. Since the Middle Ages, executions on the gallows have increasingly taken on the character of public spectacles, as they were usually carried out in front of many spectators. At that time, theft could already be punished with this type of execution.

Since the end of the 19th century, efforts have been made in Great Britain to accelerate the onset of unconsciousness and death during hanging. For this purpose, the ” long drop” was introduced: The death row inmate was bound and placed on a trap door with a noose around his neck. When the trap was opened, the rope abruptly stopped the subsequent fall into the depths, which was supposed to cause a fatal injury to the cervical spine (broken neck). The necessary height of fall was calculated beforehand depending on the weight of the victim. Executions are still carried out in this way in some countries today, including some former British colonies.

Execution of four Lincoln assassination conspirators on the gallows, 1865

In the USA, the “long fall” was also used. Since the beginning of the 20th century, however, alternative methods of execution have been increasingly used there (see gas chamber and electric chair). Since 1976, the year the death penalty was reintroduced, three convicted murderers have been hanged there. In the United Kingdom, hangings were carried out until 1964, when the death penalty was suspended and later abolished.

In the newly founded German Empire, hanging on the gallows was replaced by beheading in 1871,[7] which had been reserved for noble delinquents since the Middle Ages. In the “Third Reich”, however, executions on the gallows were reintroduced in 1933 as another method of execution.[8] As a result, numerous convicts were hanged from 1942 to 1945, among them many resistance fighters against the Hitler dictatorship. However, no gallows with trap doors were used; the victims died by strangulation. A notorious prison where convicts also died on the gallows was the Plötzensee execution site.

In the final phase of the Second World War, there were numerous end-of-phase crimes on the German side: Stand courts imposed draconian punishments, often including the death penalty, for offences such as desertion or subversion of the armed forces. This was often carried out by hanging; the executors often had the murdered persons hanged in public places and hung signs around them with sentences such as “I deserted”. After the end of the Second World War, some war criminals from the National Socialist era ended up on the gallows, including convicts from the Nuremberg trials.

In Austria-Hungary, death by hanging on a strangulation gallows (strangulation) was the regular method of execution until the Republic of German Austria abolished the death penalty in ordinary court proceedings in 1919. The Austrian gallows had a special feature, it required three executioners to operate it. The delinquent was tied to the stake, the chief executioner put a cord around his neck, and the two other executioners pulled the executioner down while the chief executioner tightened the cord. According to contemporary reports, no one condemned to death suffered for more than a minute. However, in the period after 1933 and the seizure of power by the Austrofascists until the annexation to the German Reich in 1938 executions were again carried out on the gallows (see list). After the Second World War, criminals were hanged in this country under Austrian jurisdiction until 1950 (see Johann Trnka) and war criminals under Allied jurisdiction until 1955.

Even today, death on the gallows is a widespread method of execution, especially in African and Asian countries (including Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia and Singapore).

Closely connected with the gallows in the Middle Ages was the superstition that mandrakes in the form of gallowsmen grew under gallows and gallows trees from the urine and semen of hanged men; from the 16th/17th century onwards there were also numerous legends and fables about mandrakes.

See also: gallows hill, gallows bird, garrote, hangman’s knot, estrapade, strangle gallows

Selection of preserved or reconstructed historical gallows

The Beerfeld gallows in the Odenwald, which still exists today, is considered to be the best preserved in Germany. Another very well preserved gallows can be seen at the former execution site of the High Court of Steinheim (Hanau-Steinheim). The first documented mention was in 1579 and the last known execution took place in the 18th century. In Burglengenfeld in the Upper Palatinate, the entire stone round building of the gallows is still preserved. Only the (presumably) brick-built stone pillars and the connecting beams are missing. The gallows (Eilern) was located in Westphalia.

In Austria there are still several, partly very well preserved, former gallows like the gallows (Döllersheim) in Lower Austria. The best preserved is the one in Kirchberg am Walde.

Known people who died on the gallows

Chronologically listed:

  • Girolamo Savonarola – Italian Dominican friar and penitential preacher (1498)
  • John Felton – Murderer of the Duke of Buckingham (1628)
  • Jeronimus Cornelisz – leader of a terror regime after the shipwreck of the Batavia on the Houtman Abrolhos archipelago (1629)
  • Mary Dyer – Quaker; hanged in Massachusetts (1660)
  • Captain William Kidd – notorious pirate captain (1701)
  • Domenico Manuel Caetano – adventurer and alchemist; as a fraudulent goldsmith (1709)
  • Charles Vane – Pirate Captain, Mass Murderer (1720)
  • Jonathan Wild – English criminal; leader of a gang (1725)
  • La Buse – French pirate in the Indian Ocean (1730)
  • Joseph Süß Oppenheimer – justice victim, court factor of the Duke of Württemberg (1738)
  • Fra Diavolo – Brigand and fighter against French troops in Southern Italy (1806)
  • George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell, and Mary Surratt – participants in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln (1865)
  • George William Gordon – Jamaican politician; executed for his involvement in the Morant Bay Uprising (1865)
  • August Spies – victim of justice; American journalist (1877)
  • Charles J. Guiteau – assassin of the US president James A. Garfield (1882)
  • Alexander Ilyich Ulyanov – Russian revolutionary, Lenin’s elder brother (1887)
  • George Chapman – famous British poisoner (1903)
  • Hawley Crippen – US physician and convicted murderer (1910)
  • Cesare Battisti – Austrian citizen and member of parliament; executed in 1916 for fighting on the side of Italy in World War I
  • Carl Panzram – US serial killer (1930)
  • Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya – Soviet partisan in the Second World War (1941)
  • Julius Fučík – Czech writer and journalist, political opponent of National Socialism (1943)
  • Egbert Hayessen, Bernhard Klamroth, Hans Georg Klamroth, Hans Bernd von Haeften, Wolf-Heinrich von Helldorff and Adam von Trott zu Solz – executed for participation in the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 (1944)
  • Wilhelm Leuschner – Resistance fighter against National Socialism (1944)
  • Adolf Reichwein – Resistance fighter against National Socialism (1944)
  • Richard Sorge – Spy for the Soviet Union in Japan (1944)
  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Wilhelm Canaris, Alfred Delp, Hans von Dohnanyi, Ludwig Gehre, Fritz Goerdeler, Nikolaus Groß, Ernst von Harnack, Helmuth James Graf von Moltke, Hans Oster, Erwin Planck and Karl Sack – Resistance fighters against National Socialism (1945)
  • Hanne Mertens – actress, executed in Neuengamme concentration camp for criticizing the Nazi regime at a party (1945)
  • William Joyce – Nazi Propaganda Broadcaster (Lord Haw-Haw) (1946)
  • Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov – defected general of the Soviet Union in the Second World War (1946)
  • Amon Göth – Austrian National Socialist and murderer of Jews; commander of the Płaszów concentration camp (1946)
  • Karl Hermann Frank – National Socialist politician in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (1946)
  • the main war criminals Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Alfred Jodl, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, Wilhelm Keitel, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Alfred Rosenberg, Fritz Sauckel, Arthur Seyß-Inquart and Julius Streicher, who were convicted at the Nuremberg Trials (1946)
  • Rudolf Höß – Commandant of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp (1947)
  • Arthur Liebehenschel – German SS leader and concentration camp commander (1948)
  • Karl Brandt – SS officer and Adolf Hitler’s escort doctor (1948)
  • Tōjō Hideki – Japanese Prime Minister and Chief of General Staff during World War II (1948)
  • Fritz Suhren – Commandant of Ravensbrück Concentration Camp (1950)
  • Otto Ohlendorf – SS and police officer, head of office in the Reich Security Main Office (1951)
  • Rudolf Slánský – Czechoslovak politician, and ten other defendants in the Slánský trial, including Otto Katz alias André Simone (1952)
  • Imre Nagy – Hungarian politician, former head of government (1958)
  • Adnan Menderes – Prime Minister of Turkey overthrown by military coup (1961)
  • Adolf Eichmann – Organizer of the Expulsion and Deportation of Jews in the Holocaust (1962)
  • Sayyid Qutb – Egyptian journalist and political theorist (1966)
  • Ken Saro-Wiwa – Nigerian civil rights activist and writer (1995)
  • Saddam Hussein – former president and dictator of Iraq (2006)
  • Ruhollah Zam – Iranian journalist and opponent of the regime (2020)


  • Robert Leyh: Der Rosstaler Galgen. eine archäologische Untersuchung der ehemaligen Richtstätte. In: Louis Carlen (ed.): Forschungen zur Rechtsarchäologie und Rechtlichen Volkskunde 13, 1991, ZDB-ID 800035-9, pp. 133-140.
  • Richard J. Evans: Rituals of Retribution. Die Todesstrafe in der deutschen Geschichte 1532-1987. German by Holger Fliessbach. Kindler, Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-463-40400-1 (original title: Rituals of retribution).
  • Heiner Lück: Galgen. In: Albrecht Cordes, Heiner Lück, Dieter Werkmüller, Ruth Schmidt-Wiegand (eds.): Handwörterbuch zur deutschen Rechtsgeschichte. Volume 1: Aachen – Ecclesiastical Bank. 2.Completely revised and expanded edition. Erich Schmidt Verlag, Berlin 2008, ISBN 978-3-503-07912-4, sp. 1917-1926.
  • Jost Auler (ed.): Richtstättenarchäologie. archaeotopos-Verlag, Dormagen 2008, ISBN 978-3-938473-07-8.
  • Jost Auler (ed.): Richtstättenarchäologie 2. archaeotopos-Verlag, Dormagen 2010, ISBN 978-3-938473-12-2.
  • Jost Auler (ed.): Richtstättenarchäologie 3. archaeotopos-Verlag, Dormagen 2012, ISBN 978-3-938473-17-7.
  • Friedrich Kobler, Esther P. Wipfler Gallows. In: RDK Lab (2016).

Web links

Commons: Gallows– Collection of images, videos and audio files

Wiktionary: gallows– Explanation of meaning, word origin, synonyms, translations

Individual references

  1. Gallows, the in, retrieved on 16 March 2015
  2. Adelung, Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart, vol. 2. Leipzig 1796, pp. in, retrieved 17 April 2015
  3. German dictionary by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. 16 vols. in 32 part vols. Leipzig 1854-1961. list of sources Leipzig 1971. online
  4. Gallows in DWDS, retrieved 17 March 2015
  5. Reinhard Heydenreuter: Kriminalgeschichte Bayerns. Pustet, Regensburg 2003. p. 232.
  6. Quote from Oekonomische Encyklopädie by Johann Georg Krünitz (1773)
  7. § 13 Penal Code of 1871.
  8. German Reich Law on the Imposition and Execution of the Death Penalty – March 29, 1933(Memento of June 4, 2011 in the Internet Archive)