I admit, I have a penchant for Gallow's Humor. I suppose it was inevitable for one raised on Twilight Zones ("It's a Cookbook!"), Vincent Price ("The Conqueror Worm"), Lon Chaney ("I simply jitter to go to Java"), or perhaps more appropriately as we enter Swine Flu Season, Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death".
This type of humor goes way back, for throughout history, the condemned have found ways to deal with their impending death. This post will be confined to only a few examples.
In the 1700-1800's, many criminals in England were punished for even the most minor crimes with death by hanging. As the hangings grew ever more frequent, hanging events became occasions for spirited public displays of Gallow's Humor. The condemned were often treated as a celebrities, complete with adoring cheering crowds throwing rose petals at their feet!
Here are a few of the hanging euphemisms popularized at that time:
To die upon the wooden gallows was "to ride a horse foaled by an acorn".
Being a construction of 3 posts linked by a crossbar, the gallows itself was "the wooden 3-legged mare".
Another reference to gallows wood is "the deadly nevergreen that bears fruit year 'round".
To ascend the gallows was "to go up the ladder to bed".
To hang from it was "to be in deadly suspense".
The hanging itself was referred to as "the short drop", "the long sleep", "dancing with a stranger" or "to dance upon nothing".
And here's another fun fact from hangings of that era: the legs of women who were condemned to hang were bound "for decency", but men's legs were left free to dangle and twitch. Apparently the possible glimpse of a woman's legs in an unseemly pose could not be tolerated by the crowds who gleefully cheered as they watched and listened to snapping necks!
You'll sometimes see this type of humor in american pioneer period museums, such as these signs reproduced from 1851 in our local "Iron Mission" (click images to enlarge).
Shakespeare often used deadly humor, never more effectively (in my opinion) than in Romeo & Juliet, when Mercutio, after being mortally wounded in a sword fight with Tybalt (Prince of Cats) tells Romeo, "call on me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man"!
With so many bad things happening in the world, I think our collective sense of Gallow's Humor has been "stretched" but not yet "snapped" ... it is alive and well at this time of year when the living and the dead seem so close ... if you don't believe me, just go look at your neighbor's gruesome yard displays of Halloween zombies tonight.
I apologize if this post offends you, but I hope I am always able to look death in the eye and laugh.
If you care to share any Gallow's Humor, leave comments. I read them all, even though I've been very bad in responding lately.
And remember, Tuesday is Soylent Green Day!