A Hanging – Intermediate Level

It was in Burma, a very wet morning of the rainy season. A sickly yellow light was shining over the high walls into the jail yard. We were waiting outside the cells of the men sentenced to death. They were a row of small rooms fronted with double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet by ten and was quite empty inside except for a wooden bed and a pot of drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the inner bars, with their blankets wrapped around them. These were the men due to be hanged within the next week or two.

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a small thin man, with a shaved head and watery eyes that showed no emotion. He had a wide, thick moustache, much too big for his body, which made him look rather like an actor in a comedy film. Six tall Indian guards were getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by with rifles and fixed bayonets. The others handcuffed him, passed a chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts. Then they tied his arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, holding him gently but carefully, as though all the while feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite calmly, allowing them to tie his arms as they wished, as though he hardly cared about what was happening.

Eight o’clock struck and a bugle call, sounding sad and thin in the wet air, floated from the distant army camp. The superintendent of the jail raised his head at the sound. He had been standing apart from the rest of us, looking very unhappy and drawing on the ground with his stick. He was an army doctor with a small, grey moustache and a low, rough voice. “For God’s sake hurry up, Francis,” he said angrily. “The man ought to have been dead by this time. Aren’t you ready yet?”

Francis, the head jailer, in a white cotton suit and gold reading glasses, waved his black hand. “Yes sir, yes sir,” he said excitedly. “All is satisfactorily prepared. The hangman is waiting. We shall proceed.”

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

We set out for the gallows. Two guards marched on either side of the prisoner, with their rifles resting on their shoulder. Two others marched close against him, holding him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing and supporting him. The rest of us, officers from the court and the like, followed behind. When we had gone ten yards, the guards in front suddenly stopped without any order or warning. A terrible thing had happened – a dog, from goodness knows where, had appeared in the yard. It came running up to us barking loudly, and jumped around us, wildly happy at finding so many human beings together. It was a large woolly dog. For a moment it danced among us. Then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a run for the prisoner, and jumping up, tried to lick his face. Everyone stood still, too surprised even to try to stop the dog.

“Who let that bloody animal in here?” said the superintendent angrily. “Catch it, someone!”

A guard left the group and charged clumsily after the dog. But it danced just out of his reach, taking everything as part of the game. A young jailer picked up a handful of small stones from the path and threw them at the dog. But it jumped away each time and came after us again. Its barks echoed from the jail walls. The prisoner, held tightly by the two guards, looked on as if nothing unusual was happening. He treated it as though this was a normal part of a hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and moved off once more, with the dog still trying to get free and crying as we walked.

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his arms tied the way they were. But he moved on as best he could, with that strange up and down movement of the Indian who never straightens his knees. At each step his muscles moved neatly into place. The lock of hair on top of his head danced up and down; his feet printed themselves on the wet path. And once, even though he was held by two men tightly by each shoulder, he stepped slightly to one side so as not to wet his feet in a puddle.

I don’t know why, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, thinking man. When I saw the prisoner step around the puddle, I saw how totally wrong it was to cut a life short. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the different parts of his body were foolishly working hard. His fingernails would still be growing as he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the path and the grey walls. His brain still remembered, looked ahead, reasoned – reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together. In minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone – one mind less, one world less.

The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the prison, and covered with tall prickly weeds. It was made of brick on three sides, with boards on top. Two thick wooden posts stood above the boards, with another smaller post across the top of them to which the rope was tied. The hangman, a grey-haired prisoner in the white uniform of the prison, was squatting beside his machine. At a word from Francis, the two guards took hold of the prisoner more closely than ever. They half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope around the prisoner’s neck.

We stood waiting, five yards away. The guards had formed in a rough circle around the gallows. And then, when the rope was fixed around the prisoner’s neck, he began crying out to his god. It was a high, repeated cry of “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”. It was not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for help. It was steady, with a regular beat, almost like the ringing of a bell. The dog answered the sound with a cry. The hangman, still standing on the gallows, produced a small cotton bag and pulled it down over the prisoner’s face. But the sound, though harder to hear under the cloth, continued, over and over again: “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the handle. Minutes seemed to pass. The steady, soft crying from the prisoner went on and on, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” never stopping for a moment. The superintendent, his head on his chest, was slowly touching the ground with his stick. Perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number – fifty, perhaps, or a hundred. Everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were shaking.

We looked up at the man standing on the gallows and listened to his cries – each cry another second of life. The same thought was in all our minds: please, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that terrible noise!

Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he made a fast cutting motion with his stick. “Now!” he shouted.

There was a sharp metallic sound, and then dead silence. The prisoner had disappeared. The rope was turning on itself. I let go of the dog and it ran immediately to the back of the gallows. But when it got there it suddenly stopped, barked, and then ran back into a corner of the yard. It stood there among the weeds, looking out at us in fear. We went round the gallows to check the prisoner’s body. He was hanging with his toes pointed straight downwards, turning very slowly with the rope, as dead as a stone.

The superintendent reached out with his stick and pushed the bare body. It moved away from him slightly. “He’s all right,” said the superintendent. He backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The unhappy look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He looked at his watch. “Eight minutes past eight. Well, that’s all for this morning, thank God.”

The guards unfixed their bayonets and marched away. The dog, no longer playful and knowing that it had done something wrong, quietly followed them. We walked out of the gallows yard, past the other men waiting to be hanged, into the big central yard of the prison. The prisoners, under the command of guards armed with wooden clubs, were already receiving their breakfast. They squatted in long rows, each man holding a tin bowl. Two guards with large cooking pots marched along giving them rice. It seemed quite a pleasant, happy scene, after the hanging. A great sense of relief had come upon us now that the job was done. One felt a sudden wish to sing, to break into a run, to quietly laugh about it all. All at once everyone began talking.

The young jailer walking beside me pointed towards the way we had come, with a knowing smile. “Do you know, sir, what our friend (he meant the dead man), did when he heard his appeal had been unsuccessful. He pissed on the floor of his cell. From fright. Kindly take one of my cigarettes, sir. Do you like my new silver case, sir? From a travelling salesman, only two and a half rupees. Modern European style.”

Several people laughed – at what, nobody seemed certain.

Francis was walking with the superintendent, talking continually. “Well, sir, all has passed off very satisfactorily. It was all finished – snap! Like that. It is not always so… no! I have known cases where the doctor was forced to go under the gallows and pull the prisoner’s legs to make sure he was dead. Most disagreeable!”

“Moving about, eh? That’s bad,” said the superintendent.

“Yes, sir. But it is worse when they don’t do what they are told! One man, I remember, held tightly to the bars of his cage when we went to take him out. Can you believe, sir, that it took six guards to make him let go, three pulling at each leg. We reasoned with him. ‘My dear man,’ we said, ‘think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!’ But no, he would not listen! Yes, he was very troublesome!”

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent smiled in an understanding way. “You’d better all come out and have a drink,” he said in a kind voice. “I’ve got a bottle of whisky in the car. We could do with it.”

We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. “Pulling at his legs!” exclaimed a Burmese judge suddenly, and started to laugh softly. We all began laughing again. At that moment Francis’s story seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink together, both native and European, quite friendly. The dead man was a hundred yards away.