Hangman & Its Origins

Hangman is a simple spelling game in which participants try to build a scaffold and execute an evil villain. Not exactly politically correct these days, but the game remains as popular as ever.

Forget reality TV: this must have been gripping to witness.

Dating back to Victorian times, it makes sense that a game such as this would have developed out of a society where executions were a public spectacle. No more violent than The Itchy & Scratchy Show, yet somehow equally compelling in its appeal to our voyeuristic tendencies.

The game is a relic of the 19th century, when criminals received the ultimate penalty for committing the ultimate crime. It’s used nowadays to make learning words fun and to help people get to grips with a new language.

Hangman can be played in a variety of different ways. The purpose of the game is to guess a word by inserting letters into a series of blanks. With each incorrect guess, a new piece of the ‘hangman’ picture is drawn. The game is over when either the word has been guessed or the drawing is complete.

In some versions of the game the gallows is built first, while in others the drawing doesn’t start until the first guess has been made. This latter variety is particularly useful with longer or more difficult words. Once the platform is erected, the next phase includes drawing the hanging man, including the head, torso, and each of the arms and legs.

The precise origins of the game are unclear, although it is mentioned in the 1894 book by Alice Bertha Gomme entitled Birds, Beasts and Fishes.

Being a hangman was not a job for the faint-hearted. Nor was it a particularly popular way to make a living. Often hangmen or their assistants were refused entry into public buildings on grounds of taste and decency. Yet the same people who denied them access would be the first in the queue to watch them carry out their despicable but indispensable deeds.

But before you jump on your high horse and revel in the fact that things are so much more civilised these days, remember this. The last executions in Britain took place on August 13, 1964 at exactly 8 am local time. So have we really come very far?

The writer Charles Dickens was among many Victorians who petitioned to have hanging abolished. It took time for the practice to disappear, thanks in no small part to the entertainment value it provided. In an era when there were no televisions or iPods it must have been a relief to have something to do, and something free, at that.

And you can imagine the more infamous murderers drawing enormous crowds. One such occasion helped to bring the phrase ‘money for old rope’ into the English language.

It was the execution of the notorious British surgeon William Palmer, accused of murdering his younger betting companion, John Parsons Cook. His rope was made an extra 30 yards longer than normal, and for many years after the executioner George Smith was still selling off pieces of the ‘rope that hanged Palmer’.