The American West [was Re: BOOK: The Mystery of Capital]

From: Terry W. Colvin (
Date: Fri Oct 26 2001 - 10:48:19 MDT

"Peter C. McCluskey" wrote:

...< %>< >...
> De Soto's book has some interesting things to say about the history of
> the American west. He presents some good evidence that vigilante justice
> involved as much fairness and due process as the government's justice,
> and that much of the homesteading that the government takes credit for
> enabling happened before the government passed homesteading legislation.
> --
> ------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Peter McCluskey | Free Dmitry Sklyarov!
> |

The following excerpt is from a magazine article, "The Legacy of the
Middle Ages in the American West,":

Origin of log cabins, modern harness, Conestoga wagon, stagecoaches, revolvers,
barbed wire, windmills, stirrups and spurs, whiskey, playing cards, garters, and
hanging by a rope:

The American West
Spring, 1966, Volume III, Number 2, pp 72-79 and 95

The Legacy of the Middle Ages in the American Wild West

by Lynn White, Jr.

Men may be killed in many ways. In most societies, however, there are clear
rubrics for execution, a tradition of propriety as to the forms of killings
committed by the group, which the group feels deeply impelled to follow,
perhaps, because to follow them makes the past share the guilt of the
execution. To know the subliminal mind of a society, one must study the sources
of its liturgies of inflicting death.

Throughout the American Wild West the rubric for execution was single and
uniform: hanging by a rope. In Greco-Roman times hanging with a rope or
cincture was common as a means of suicide: one recalls Jocasta and Judas. But
it is important for understanding any society to distinguish the customs of
suicide from those of execution as well as from the rubrics of human sacrifice.

The dismal history of execution has seldom distinguished clearly the various
modes of "hanging"---impalement, crucifixion, suspension by the neck in the
crotch of a tree, or by a rope---and contemporary accounts are normally
ambiguous. All biblical references to hanging appear to indicate exposure of
the impaled corpse after execution, or else crucifixion.(34) Execution by
suspended strangulation was not practiced by Greeks or Romans in pagan times.
The suppression of crucifixion, presumably by Constantine, because of religious
sensibility, left a void in the Roman repertory of execution which still existed
at the promulgation of the Theodisian *Code* in 438, but which had been filled
by 533 when Justinian's *Digest* systematically substituted *furca* for

The *furca* was a post with the fork of two branches at the top. The culprit
was hoisted so that his neck was placed in the fork, a piece of wood (*vinculum
patibuli*) was nailed behind his head across the fork, and he was left to
strangle. Since there is no oriental or classical precedent for such a manner
of execution, and since *gabalus*, a synonym for *furca*, is derived (as is the
German *Gabel*) from Celtic,(36) the new rubric probably came from the north.
Tacitus tells us that the Germans hanged traitors and cowards

[...]"error in my laptop saving MS Word in Rich Text format" Terry...

that this destruction and slaughter was an offering to the gods. In later
centuries among the pagan Scandinavians, hanging with a rope was a highly
specialized rubric of human sacrifice to the god Odin. Bodies of hanged victims
have been found buried, according to Norse custom, in peat bogs with the noose
still around the neck.(40) That they were hanged and not simply strangled is
known from two pictures: first, a man hanged from a tree next to an altar, shown
on a stone from Hammars in Larbro (Gotland), *ca.* 700;(41) second, six men
hanging from a pair of sacred trees, shown on a tapestry of the ninth century
found in the Oseberg ship burial.(42) Even in the later eleventh century, Adam
of Bremen tells us that a Christian who visited the great shrine of Uppsala
counted seventy-two bodies of men, horses, and hounds hanged as sacrifices on
the trees of the temple grove.(43)

Although the suicide of Judas with a rope had been represented since the fifth
century,(44) there is no depiction in Christian art of an execution by hanging
with a rope until the first half of the eleventh century when two appear. One,
by a strange coincidencfe, is in the same manuscript of Aelfric in which we
found the rudiments of the coach.(45) The other is in the Roda Bible(46) from
Catalonia. Thereafter, such representations are common. Most fascinating is an
Italian miniature of *ca.* 1130-40: six men are hoisting a victim with a rope
around his neck, but the rope passes not over the beam of a gallows but over the
horizontal rod, already nailed in place, across the fork of a *furca*.(47)
Clearly, the artist knows in detail, perhaps from pictures, what a *furca* had
looked like, but he no longer knows how it was used: within his horizon the
transition to the new mode of public execution was complete.

Since the Viking age was a time of great flux in Scandinavia, it appears that by
the tenth century the old line dividing sacrifice from penal execution was
crumbling, at least among outlying Norse groups: in 922, Ibn Fadlan explicitly
mentions the rope hanging of thieves among the Swedes on the Volga.(48) As for
the West, the conversion of Danes, Norwegians, and Icelanders to Christianity
about the year 1000, at a moment when Norse influences were pervading much of
Europe, probably secularized the Viking technique of human sacrifice and made it
widely available as a rubric of execution. The persistent mediaeval conviction
that the oak was a good tree for hanging and that gallows should be built of oak
--- "Eichbaum gibt gut Galgen"(49) --- has nothing to do with the tensile
strength of wood. The oak was so widely regarded as numenous that we can
scarcely escape the conclusion that late mediaeval rope hanging was religious in
its origins. When, about 1060, the enraged Duke William of Normandy swore to
hang a recalcitrant abbot "ad altiorem quercum vicinae silvae,"(50) his pagan
Norse ancestors may have been speaking more loudly

Terry W. Colvin, Sierra Vista, Arizona (USA) < >
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