Dicing with Death

Dicing with Death gambling with death
Dicing with Death

In my recent look at superstitions, gamblers are often described as the “most superstitious” of folk.  The papers of the past took much pleasure in interviewing card-sharps and casino habitués about their pet hoodoos, which might involve, for example, a lucky elephant watch fob or a gambler’s horror of an onlooker’s foot on his chair. But, realistically, what are the odds that I would give you a post on such penny-ante gambling superstitions when there are charms and omens involving death or body parts to be had?

Omitting the well-known “Dead Man’s Hand” and the “death futures” insurance taken out on the lives of famous people like Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, we find that trinkets associated with execution or suicide were cherished by gamblers.


Russian variant of the superstition. Reported March 27th, 1880

The hangman is permitted to trade upon the superstition still current in Russian society, respecting the luck conferred upon gamesters by the possession of a morsel of the rope with which a human being has been strangled, either by the hand of justice or by his own. Immediately after young M’Cadetzky had been hanged, only the other day, Froloff was surrounded by members of the Russian jeunesse dorée, eager to purchase scraps of the fatal noose; and he disposed of several dozen such talismans at from three to five roubles apiece, observing with cynical complacency that “he hoped the Nihilists would yet bring him in plenty of money.” The Warner Library, Vol. 17, 1917

The ladies were quite as avid as the men to acquire gruesome charms.

Some years ago Louise, Duchess of Devonshire and the late duke were walking on the seashore at Eastbourne when there was washed in at their feet the hand of a negro which apparently had been cut off at the wrist. On one of the fingers was a ring of Oriental workmanship. The duchess had this ring removed and has kept it as a talisman ever since. She has worn it at Monte Carlo when she has had on “a little bit” at the tables and also when she played bridge.

Hangmen from time to time receive letters from women of position offering them sums of money for locks of hair or buttons from the garments of their victims. They make the stipulation that these must not be removed until after the culprit is dead. It seems that in the lore of the superstitious the ghastly object has no significance if taken in life. Even more intensely appreciated is a coin which has been rubbed on the dead body of an executed. This, it is said, will bring almost fabulous wealth to the possessor. Those who gamble are ready with any price for such a memento. In England, at any rate, there are overwhelming difficulties in getting possession of such, indeed it is only the personal friends of the governors of the prisons where executions take place or the hangmen who can secure them. Columbus [GA] Daily Enquirer 27 November 1910: p. 7

One man who had a remarkable run of luck at Monte Carlo last year ascribed it all to a franc which he wore on his watch chain. This coin had a grim history, for it was the only piece of money found on the body of a gambler who committed suicide in the grounds of the Casino after losing his entire fortune at the gaming tables. The Chickasha [OK] Daily Express 14 August 1901: p. 3

It is interesting how the gamblers in the following story are shocked, shocked! that anyone would rob a grave for a lucky charm. I imagine them uneasily fingering their unsavory talismans in their pockets as they spoke to the reporter.


They Are Not Particularly Sought After by Gamblers.

According to a story that comes from Cincinnati, says the Chicago News, a woman’s grave there was lately desecrated by a gambler for the purpose of getting the forefinger of the woman as a guaranty of good luck.

“I never heard such a story before,” said a well-known gambler. “Gamblers are superstitious, but not in this way that I have ever heard of. They have a mortal fear of pennies, and will often throw them away, thinking that the copper brings them bad luck. In the game of faro bank coppers are generally used and pennies are considered as omens of evil if carried in the pockets.

“It is just the same with old pocket-knives or anything that may be thought unlucky. They would sooner fling half their possessions into the river than run the chance of losing a game. It is sometimes very amusing to see how these superstitious notions prevail, but I suppose they are so well established that they are taken quite seriously.

“Then gamblers make a great deal of how they take their seats at a table and whether they are accosted by anyone while they are playing. If you put our foot upon a gambler’s chair while he is playing he would call you a hoodoo and probably black your eye for your, a such a thing is counted unlucky.”…[S]aid another gambler, on reading the dispatch, “It was a pretty tough job to undertake, even for a gambler. I wonder how any man could do it. He was a tough character, I’ll bet.”

“The man must have been crazy,” chimed in a third. “Some gamblers have their superstitions, but on the whole they are pretty much like other men. They don’t, as a rule, act in such an outrageous manner as this. I fancy the man was off the square a bit.” Salina [KS] Daily Republican 23 January 1892: p. 3

Enthusiastic amateurs aside, bereaved relatives seemed to regularly get permission to dig up graves in order to locate lottery tickets. Inspiration for the 1961 film Mr. Sardonicus…?

Corpse Exhumed to Obtain Prize Lottery Ticket

Brussel, Sept. 10. A romance has just been unfolded in connection with the recent Brussels lottery. For some time the chief prize of $40,000 was unclaimed, and the identity of the winner as just been established in a remarkable manner.

It appears that a young Belgian, aged 19, had purchased a ticket for the lottery, and shortly afterwards he was killed while at work through a stone falling on him. A few days before the result of the lottery was announced he was buried, according to custom, in his Sunday clothes. Some weeks passed and no claimant came forward for the first prize. Then the young man’s friends remember that he had a lottery ticket in the waistcoat pocket of his best suit, and an application was forwarded to the authorities for permission to have the body exhumed. After the usual official delay, the request was granted, and as was expected, the winning ticket was found in the dead man’s clothes. The relatives are now claiming the money. The Oregon Daily Journal [Portland, OR] 11 September 1910: p. 49

Did the newspapers delight in these stories merely as species of urban legend? A parallel  case was reported in 2014 when a woman dug up her father’s coffin in search of his “real will.” I’m betting that at least some of these gruesome exhumations actually occurred. They accurately reflect the very real wardrobe shortages of the poor and working classes. Let us have two more.



Madrid, January 4. A widow named Colila learned that her husband had bought a fifth share in a lottery ticket, which had won six thousand sterling. Failing to find the ticket, the widow obtained an exhumation order, and found it in the pocket of a waistcoat in which her husband was buried. Press, 6 January 1925: p. 7

Just as the undertaker’s men were about to a coffin at Paris in which lay the body of a man who, according to Continental custom, was dressed in his best clothes for burial, his widow noticed sticking out of his coat pocket a fractional lottery ticket. To her astonishment on examining the ticket she found that it had drawn the third prize in the Christmas lottery, entitling the holder to a very large sum. Auckland [NZ] Star, 10 March 1928: p. 3

Lotteries, particular those held at Christmas, were a tradition throughout Europe and many arcane methods were devised for picking the lucky numbers. In this case, the death of Emperor Napoleon III spurred wild plunges on the numbers of his life.

An English magazine not long since described some of the curious theories and superstitions which prevail among devotees of the lottery and the gaming-table, regarding “lucky numbers.” There are traditionally fortunate and unfortunate combinations, and there are also newer favorites, based very often on figures connected with the chronology of famous men. The career of Napoleon III. would seem to be considered by gamblers a specially successful one, for since his death they have been betting furiously on all numbers supposed to bear a relation to sundry pivotal events of his life. In Vienna, in Milan, in Rome, the newspapers notice this universal rage among regular patrons of the lottery for staking their fortunes on Napoleonic numbers; and, what is also curious, these numbers have in several instances turned out lucky. Thus, in a late Vienna paper we read that “the death of the Man of Sedan has brought good luck to the old women of this city who give themselves up with unquenchable passion to the lottery.” At the last drawing, as the paper goes on to say, the numbers most eagerly seized upon were 3, for Napoleon III.; 65, for his age; 20, for his birthday, it falling on the twentieth of the month; 90, as the highest number in the lottery, hence interpreted to signify “emperor;” and finally 52, the year of his accession to the throne. To the joy of all the old lottery-gossips, the luck fell on these numbers, 3, 20, and 90. At Rome the death of Napoleon III. has furnished new combinations for all the devotees of the lottery. At Milan the same infatuated class have “pointed a moral” of their own from the event—a moral quite different from the one extracted by sermonizers. They have been playing heavily on number 20 (a gold Napoleon being worth twenty francs), and on number 13, which latter, as the proverbially unlucky one, is interpreted to mean the ex-emperor’s death. On the first drawing after his death these two numbers proved to be the lucky ones of the lottery, and it was then found that there had been a great number of winners. Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, Volume 11, April 1873

In Sicily, lottery numbers were chosen by dream symbolism and prayers to dead relatives, saints, and executed criminals.

The petitions of most lottery-players are addressed to the souls of executed criminals, a kind of devil-worship not easy to explain. A favourite soul is the Anima Pia (pious soul), who was executed in the seventeenth century. These souls in purgatory have need of the prayers of the living, who threaten to withhold them if no help is vouchsafed. The Anima Pia is propitiated by a lighted lamp placed on four evenings in the four different corners of a room. Lottery-numbers are then revealed in a dream, and strict secrecy imposed on the person who dreams them.

Witchcraft is also invoked by the gamblers as well as the saints. Persons believed to know of winning numbers are called subjects, and are possessed by a spirit. A certain priest and three monks, long since dead, are still famous for having made the fortunes of several individuals. The system of numbers used by the cabalists is very complicated and confusing, the figures being mixed intricately and one standing for another. A more simple way is to play the numbers attached to various events, objects, or personages. If some one plays in the lottery with the assistance of Saint Lucia, for instance, he plays twenty-four for her eyes and the date of the day on which he buys his ticket. On the Day of the Dead (November 2nd) fire is the figure of the tomb, thirteen of the wax candles, and twenty-five of the mass. There are special numbers for every saint’s day or other holiday; and there are numbers belonging to the special attributes of the saints, as for example, to Saint Anthony’s pig or Saint Joseph’s staff….Poor women pray to their dead relations before going to bed. Mommino, the writer of the articles from whom these facts are drawn, knew a woman who, only a year ago, refused to take flowers to the family tomb on All Souls’ Day, because none of her dead relations had ever revealed winning numbers to her in a dream. “They forget me,” she said, “so I will forget them.” Macmillan’s Magazine, Volume 75, 1897

Venetians had a really gruesome method for seeking lucky lottery numbers.

In Venice not long ago a lottery drawing gave rise to the opening of coffins, in order that the sign of a lucky number might be detected in the eye or on the lips of the corpse. Shrouds, dusty and covered with mould, were examined for traces of writing that might lead to the sought-for knowledge, and new-born infants were closely inspected for birthmarks that would reveal the secret, while it is said that ladies of birth and education wore their dresses with the insides turned out, in order to propitiate the god of the wheel. In Naples a begging monk was fallen on by two footpads, and, failing to tell them the lucky number, was beaten so severely that he afterwards died. Otago [NZ] Witness 14 October 1897: p. 43


There is a curious superstition in Venice that if a stranger dies in a hotel the number of his room will be lucky at the next lottery. Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 January 1898: p. 17

This next article is meant to reassure readers as to the prudent character of the future Sovereign of Great Britain, unlike those common gamblers who carried skeletal hand mascots to the gaming tables.

[Edward] The Prince of Wales is quite a frequenter of Monte Carlo and one of its luckiest players in a moderate way, for my bold prince is none of your plungers. His winnings at Monte Carlo and other gaming tables have assisted him in no small degree toward keeping the family pot boiling. Some two or three years ago he made a coup which enabled him to satisfy the demands of some of his most important creditors. He possesses the gambler’s disposition par excellence, being neither too timid nor too bold, too trusting nor too credulous, too pessimistic nor too optimistic He has none of the common gambler’s superstition, and does not believe in any signs, omens, or mascots. The latter is something that all the regular habitués of Monte Carlo religiously pin their faith to. And it is amusing to see the character of the mascots on which they rely. Some of them suggest very strongly the uncanny things which the witches in “Macbeth” drop into their cauldron. Any portion of a corpse is highly esteemed as a mascot, such, for instance, as a little finger bone, or a small piece of a toe joint. One Portuguese player recently aroused much envy by carrying about with him the skeleton hand of one of his countrymen who had been murdered in a quarrel at the card table. If the mascot comes from one who has committed suicide its mascotism is supposed to be doubly powerful. The last time Sarah Bernhardt was here she had for her mascot the head of one of her favorite parrots, who had strangled himself by getting that same head between the bars of his cage, though whether accidentally or with suicidal intent no coroner’s jury ever determined. The Deseret [UT] Weekly, Volume 46, 1893

I’ll fold with one of the more gruesome stories of gambling luck. This comes from an eerie tale of Monte Carlo superstition and synchronicity called “That’s funny. Not a grain of lead,” over at Mrs Daffodil’s blog.

Crack! a sudden shot broke through the great room and everybody who was not watching a stake rushed into a corner, where some unknown plunger had just taken the last plunge into eternity by blowing out his brains. The attendants collected from every corner and formed a hedge round the dead man. Quickly and soundlessly they began moving him out by a side-door, while gamblers picking up their stakes ran to dip a finger in his blood for luck. In five minutes he had disappeared as though he had fallen off a liner into a boiling sea. Monte Carlo cannot afford to have scandals on the premises any more than any well-established and well-connected institution, and is generally more successful than others in concealing them. Blood is soon mopped up, especially if the passers believe that it is a charmed fluid. The roulette ball was soon spinning round again, and the only trace of the tragedy was the struggle of a dozen gamblers to sit where the suicide had been sitting all the afternoon. It was a superstition that the dead gambler’s spirit does not leave the rooms immediately with death, but remains to avenge his ill luck on the bank; and against the unknown forces of the underworld even the bank cannot win…. Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 72, Edward Livermore Burlingame, Robert Bridges, Harlan Logan, editors, 1922

It is an uncanny echo of crowds surging round the scaffold with their handkerchiefs to sop up the blood of martyrs, broken on the wheel.

Other corpse-related gambling superstitions? Roll them bones to Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com. And see “Hunches and Hearses at the Racetrack,” for a story relevant to this subject.

After this was published, Undine of Strange Company sent me this account of a lottery superstition from the Hull [UK] Packet, 19 August, 1828. She saw my lady fingers and raised me a decomposed, severed head. We have a winnah!

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.


Enough Rope – The Hangman’s Rope in the Press


 Enough Rope: The Hangman's Rope in the Press Double gallows for Jackson and Walling, convicted of the murder of Pearl Bryan.
Enough Rope: The Hangman’s Rope in the Press Double gallows for Jackson and Walling, convicted of the murder of Pearl Bryan.

What is it about hangings and hanged men that so fascinates the human race ? The Hanged Man is one of the Major Arcana cards in the Tarot deck. Hangmen’s ropes are believed to be a cure for sore eyes (Cornwall), fits and headaches (Pennsylvania), and ague (London). In Russia, a hangman’s rope brought luck to gamblers. A rope from a suicide was specified to treat epilepsy in Pennsylvania and India.

The hand of a hanged man could be used to make a thieves’ Hand of Glory or cure warts, goiter or cancer. The blood of the hanged had medicinal properties as we saw in a previous post.

As I was researching the notorious decapitation of Pearl Bryan at Fort Thomas, Kentucky and the subsequent trials and convictions of her murderers Scott Jackson and Alonzo Walling for The Headless Horror*, I ran across the following article reporting on the ropes for the murderers’ executions:



The ropes with which Jackson and Walling are to be hung have been completed and delivered over to Sheriff Plummer. Each rope is 23 feet in length, and they were made to order in about a week’s time from the giving of the order. They were made by Frank Vonderheide., the Main Street cordage dealer, and most of the work was done by Mr. Vonderheide himself. They are made of what is known as silver finish flax sewing twine, there being four strands of 110 threads each, or 440 threads in all. A peculiarity about the two ropes is that the one intended for Jackson has one red thread in all of the four strands, while that made for Walling has one black thread in all of the four strands. This thread was run in the ropes by the order of Sheriff Plummer, who desires to keep them separate and easily identified from each other. The four red threads in the one and black threads in the other give the ropes a peculiar appearance, and serve to intensify the realization of the direct preparation for the grewsome event. It brings out the uncanny aspects of the manufacture of a strong and pliable rope that is the best and most perfect product of a ropemaker, and yet that has but one brief use to serve in the world, that is to be accomplished in a second—the taking of a man’s life.

George W. Ward, of George W. Ward & Co., the cordage dealers, had a piece of the rope on ‘Change yesterday. Mr. Ward furnished the raw material from which the threads and ropes were made, and no little interest was aroused by his exhibition of the object.  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 16 March 1897: p. 12

Of course the executioner would want to know which rope was assigned to which prisoner—it was a point of professional pride to carefully calculate the weight of each prisoner and the drop so that the execution would go smoothly. Jackson and Walling were hung on a single gallows where a lever opened both traps simultaneously. However carefully the ropes were made, someone miscalculated: Instead of breaking their necks, Jackson and Walling strangled to death.

I began to find other notes on hangmen’s ropes in other sensational murder cases. The materials, quality, and pedigree of the ropes seemed to be a subject of absorbing interest to the public, judging from how often they appeared in the papers and the care with which these minute details were reported. For example, sheriffs might have strong opinions about the quality of their cordage or be superstitious about either using an entirely new rope to ensure a successful hanging or using an old rope that had previously hung a notorious criminal—perhaps to humiliate the person being executed.  Let us put on our black caps and examine some random yet representative notes on the specifications for hangmen’s ropes and the superstitions surrounding them. And may the Lord have Mercy upon our souls….

The geographical origins of a rope’s hemp seemed to be a way to further demean the prisoner.

The Worcester Spy mentions that “a hangman’s rope made two years ago of South Carolina hemp, to hang Jeff. Davis with, was forwarded from Worcester, Mass., to Washington, on Monday. It was made by Mrs. Parmenter, a daughter of Capt. Peter Slater, who, it will be remembered by our old residents, was the builder of the first rope walk out of Boston ever established in Massachusetts. The maker of the rope wishes to have it speedily used.” Janesville [WI] Daily Gazette 6 June 1865: p. 2

The rope for the execution of [Abolitionist John] Brown, says the Baltimore Patriot, was made in Kentucky by a Kentuckian, expressly for the purpose, and sent to Gov. Wise, who accepted it. Lowell [MA] Daily Citizen and News 5 December 1859: p. 2

A three-inch European-made Manila rope shall always be used for executions. The Punjab Record, Volume 24, 1890 [Was this a matter of trade protectionism, a jibe at the doomed prisoners, or an Imperialist insult to the rope-makers of India?]

Some law officials preferred a new rope so as to ensure a smooth hanging, while others treasured historic ropes.

 A Hangman’s Rope

The rope which was used to-day in the execution of John Henry Young is just an ordinary hemp rope, but a wonderful story of tragic interest would be revealed, could it but speak. Nineteen times has one end been knotted around the gallows beam, and nineteen times has the noose been placed around the neck of a condemned criminal.

This rope is the property of W.A.  Stewart of Cleburne, ex-sheriff of Johnson county. Mr. Stewart had the rope made in St. Louis in 1898, to be used in the execution of John B. Shaw, a white man. The rope was made by a German and was hand-twisted, the very best quality of hemp obtainable being utilized in its manufacture. The rope is eighteen feet long and cost Mr. Stewart $12.50. The noose made to go around the neck of Shaw has never been changed. – Houston Post. American Citizen [Kansas City, KS] 26 May 1905: p. 3

The rope for the execution was borrowed from Sheriff Julian, of Howan County, and has been used on several previous occasions for the purpose it performed today. [from an article entitled “Hammons and Moore Hang, Two Executions in One Day. J.W. Hammons Hanged at Winston-Salem for Murder of His Wife–/Ashton Moore, Sampson County Negro Rapist, is Hanged at Clinton”] Charlotte [NC] Observer 3 September 1905: p. 1

Double hangings were rare enough to elicit comment in the papers, like an article headed “Drew a Pair. That’s What the Hangman’s Rope Did in Pennsylvania,” which describes two men hung successively with the same rope. It was coupled with another article about a hanging of a double murderer where the rope broke on the first try, was mended, then successfully hanged the prisoner. Albuquerque [MN]Morning Democrat  21 February 1890: p. 1

Sheriffs could be a finicky lot about their hangman’s ropes.


Sheriff Bogue places an Order for Rope for the Execution Here September 14.

Sheriff Bogue placed on order while in Chicago for the rope to be used in the execution of Ira O. Jenkins September 14. The quality of rope he wanted was not to be obtained in Chicago, but it was sent for and is expected to reach here in a day or two. It is the same kind that was used in the execution of J.W. Cole, and the best rope for the purpose that is manufactured. The sheriff still has on hand two pieces of the rope with which Cole was executed, one of them not having been used, but he wants a new rope for this execution, so that there may be no possibility for an unsuccessful execution. Bismarck [ND] Tribune 4 September 1900: p. 3

Phelps and Bailey executions

Sheriff Martin will select the rope for the execution within the next few days and have it well stretched before used. He has several samples of rope of different sizes in his office. Evening Post [Charleston, SC] 7 July 1899: p. 4

Drawing Near, William Eubanks Preparing to Meet His Death

The rope for the execution has been purchased by Sheriff McDougall, and it is now in process of preparation for use. It is unusually large five-eighths inch, because of the great weight of Eubanks, about 200 pounds. Evening News [San Jose, CA] 16 January 1891: p. 3

There seems to have been a certain hierarchy in rope-makers as evidenced by the comment in the article on the Cole hanging: “the best rope for the purpose that is manufactured.” And if you found yourself all thumbs when trying to knot the rope, you could even order a pre-tied noose for an extra fee.

 Manufacture Hangman’s Ropes.

There is in St. Louis a firm of rope makers and dealers, doing business on North Main street, that has a side line that it does not advertise. It is the manufacture of hangman’s ropes. The firm sells as many as 100 of these ropes annually.

The price of the rope, with the nooses ready for use, is $5. The ropes are hand made and of hemp, and one of the employees of the firm’s North St. Louis rope walk ties the knot. A few weeks since the sheriff of Madison county, Il., had a man to hang at Edwardsville. He bought a rope that he thought would answer the purpose.

The tying of the knot he found, however, to be a more difficult matter than he imagined, and he went to St. Louis to have the noose made. The ropemaker charged him $2.50 for tying the knot. Rural Collaborator.Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 17 April 1892: p. 13


For More Than Fifty Years, Godfrey Boger Supplied Nooses.

Philadelphia Telegraph.

Godfrey Boger, 2251 North Fairhill Street, who for over fifty years had been the maker of the hangmen’s ropes, was buried recently in American Mechanics’ cemetery. He died at his home, aged 75 years, disproving a superstition among cordage workers that a “necktie maker” enjoys a short life. [I haven’t found this bit of folklore anywhere else.]

Boger, who was employed at the Edwin H. Fitler company’s works, at Tacony, made all the ropes used in executions in this state and in various parts of the country. Boger never witnessed an execution, although he often had been invited to attend. Of all the gibbet ropes that Boger turned out but one broke and in that case the parting of the strands was caused by friction against a sharp-edged pulley above the scaffold.

No charge is ever made by the Fitler firm for the hangmen’s ropes, only the expressage being charged to the county ordering them. A member of the firm said today that there is no particular reason other than custom for not charging for the ropes. The hemp used is imported from Italy and great care is taken in twisting the strands.

Boger had been engaged in this grewsome occupation since he was 19 years old. He took great pride in his work. Beaumont [TX] Enterprise 18 July 1911: p. 6

Then we have the gibbet rope as talisman. Naturally something so valuable encouraged counterfeit cordage.

Hangman’s Rope as a Talisman.

The popular pocket piece just now in this city is a piece of hangman’s rope. If all the hangman’s rope were taken from the pockets of superstitious St. Louisians, they would form a rope of considerable length. The five hangings recently taking place in this city have brought out again the superstitious that hangman’s rope is a sure cure for rheumatism, consumption, heart disease, apoplexy, and everything else. The rope is a sure cure for all the ills that flesh is heir to, if properly applied and adjusted; but that is not the way that  great many St. Louis men and women look at it.

In the police stations nearly every prisoner who is searched carries a bit of rope and a great number of private citizens treasure up the ghastly hempen mementoes. Every tramp carries one, and in the alleys frequented by the colored populace there are yards of rope with which Ellis and Ward were executed. The supply is not yet exhausted and half an inch of the execution rope sells for the phenomenally low sum of five cents. A gentleman with whom a reported had a conversation stated that a very nice lady had asked him for a piece of the rope. She was handsomely dressed, and pretty, too. With recklessness he promised to procure her a piece, not thinking she was in earnest. He met her again. She asked for a piece of rope. He straight-way proceeded around among his friends, but could not get any genuine. He had to have a piece for that lady, however, and the brilliant idea struck him that he could give her any piece of twisted hemp .She would never know the difference. He gave her a piece of the frayed and broken clothes-line, saying that it was a strand of the rope and she put it in her purse and went away happy. Several parties have been selling the rope about town and taking in the gullible people. St Louis Republican. Ackley [IA] Enterprise 4 March 1882: p. 2

Or the rope could be a hoodoo. Lynching ropes were particularly potent charms.

 A Veritable Hoodoo

Strange and Eventful History of a Piece of Hangman’s Rope.

             A couple of evenings ago a young man named Tollman, who lives near Ellenwood, dropped in at the police station and gave a reporter there about an inch of the white plow line with which the negro who poisoned the Burks family was lynched. Mr. Tollman was present at the inquest the preceding day and had there secured the relic.

The plow line was in three strands, and some hours later the reporter separated one of them and gave it to Call Officer Beavers. A negro who happened to be in the station at the time begged a strand for himself. He said a piece of plow line with which a man has been hanged makes a formidable hoodoo, and if the plow line is white the efficacy of the hoodoo is doubled. The reporter accordingly gave him one of the two remaining strands and wrapping the other in tissue paper put it in his pocket.

Now for chapter 2. As Officer Beavers was going home yesterday he thought to attach the string to his watch guard for safe keeping, and in so doing dropped the watch and broke it so badly that is its doubtful if it will ever run again. He put the bit of plow line in his pocket and inside of two hours barked his shin on a chair, got a cinder in his eye, spilled a bottle of ink on his pants, and had a counterfeit dollar passed on him. He then threw the hoodoo on the back of a negro who was splitting wood in the yard, and before the man struck a dozen more blows he cut his little toe off.

The reporter’s first misadventure was to break a pair of eyeglasses he prized highly and a little while later he tore up a lot of “copy” by mistake and had to write it all over again. This was Monday night. Yesterday he took the hoodoo string to the dining room of his hotel and quietly stuck it in the folds of the apron of the waiter who attended him. A few minutes later the darky fell down the kitchen stairs making an unearthly clatter. And dropping the fatal talisman. He picked it up and instantly suspecting witchcraft put it down the back of another waiter.

This victim, all unsuspicious, loaded a tray with meals for six and went up to the dining room. At the head of the stairs he caught his foot and fell sprawling, breaking every dish on the tray and scattering beefsteaks, potatoes and miscellaneous eatables all over the apartment. Somebody informed him of the hoodoo, and he put it in the stove.

The possessor of the third strand has not yet been heard from, but if he gets run over, falls out of a window, breaks a leg or meets with some kindred adventure, it will occasion no surprise. Atlanta Constitution. Daily Journal and Journal and Tribune [Knoxville, TN] 21 November 1893: p. 7

The notion of a used rope crops up in this ghost story about a suicide’s rope from Toledo, Ohio. You’ll find the entire true tale in The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. It’s the sort of thing you couldn’t sell as fiction—it would be too implausible.



Toledo, Ohio, December 27. One of the Cherry Street bridge-tenders said to me the other day:

“The Enquirer has caused an ‘l of a row around this bridge. Since it published an account of Meyers’ ghost haunting it, thousands of people have haunted me with questions about it. I do not know whether it is Meyers’ ghost or his son’s, but there is some mighty strange goings on around the west end of this bridge. I have seen it myself, but, Lord knows, I don’t know what it is. I never went near enough to find out.”

I hunted up Detective Louie Trotter, who gave me a more detailed account of the affair than I had been able to get elsewhere. He said: “I have heard the new bridge was haunted, and I know the old one was. It was like this: Some of the boys who live on the East Side were going home from duty one August morning in 1882. When we reached the first pier I was horrified to see the body of someone hanging there. It did not take us long to cut the corpse down and we found it was Pop Meyers, as he was familiarly called. His face was just as pleasant as if he were selling a pair of shoes to a customer. There was not the least sign of pain, and his wide-open eyes were looking rather expectantly up the river. He had evidently put on a new shirt, collar, and necktie, and was well dressed, except that he had no coat or shoes on. Well, we carried him home and found some letters which plainly indicated that his mind had left his body. His son, who had brought so much care on the old man’s mind by his dissipation, begged us to give him the rope with which his father had hanged himself. ‘I want it as a reminder,’ he said, ‘of my father.’ Well, some way he obtained the rope, and with it, shortly afterward, ended his life at the identical spot, with the same rope. It was not long after this that the report got around that Meyers was walking the bridge at night, carrying a rope and looking longingly up the river. I investigated the affair and found it was true something was haunting the bridge. The ghost was dressed just as Meyers was on the morning that I cut him down. The old bridge was carried away, and the story was forgotten. The first night the new bridge was opened late wayfarers were badly frightened by a phantom walking slowly along in his bare feet, making no noise as he softly trod the planks. That’s all I know about it. Officer Kruse states that many people have recently told me they had seen Meyers’ ghost patrolling the bridge, rope in hand, after midnight.”  Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 28 December 1884: p. 13

*The last chapter in The Headless Horror: Strange and Ghostly Ohio Tales covers the paranormal history of Pearl Bryan and her murderers. For an admirable account of this case see http://www.planetslade.com/pearl-bryan.html.

Recently I received some fascinating information from Kelley Wood-Davis:

I stumbled on your blog from 19 Jan 2013 while doing some research on my ancestor, Jacob Bupp.  He was also a rope-maker in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania and known for his hangman’s ropes… One thing I found amusing was a line that was stated in the obituary for Godfrey Boger:

“Boger, who was employed at the Edwin H. Fitler company’s works, at Tacony, made all the ropes used in executions in this state and in various parts of the country. ”

Boger died just 12 years after my ancestor, who also made ropes for executions in the state of Pennsylvania.

From the newspaper article “Making Nine Ropes,” Pittsburgh Dispatch (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)  31 March 1890: page 2

“Mr. Bupp had made all of the ropes used in Allegheny County during the last 20 years.”

The same article stated that my ancestor made over 88 hangman’s nooses in his lifetime.  I am currently working on documenting all of the hangings he has done, so I am not sure if that number was inflated, but I do have proof that he made several nooses.  So there is no way Boger could claim he made ALL the ropes in the state, so I wonder if it was more bragging rights on his part…. I know my illustrious ancestor was a bit of a braggart… wondering if Boger was as well.  After all, as your blog states, the ropes were used as talismans, so the creators could be looked at as sort of gods….. so why not brag about it.  My own ancestor bragged about being the creator of the rope that hung [James Garfield’s] assassin Charles Guiteau, but I can not either prove or disprove that fact…

Another quote from Jacob Bupp:

“Hemp is always used.  Flax will do, but hemp is both longer and stronger.  It is first beaten and hackled until it is soft and tender, and then it is twisted into strands.   A hangman’s rope is made of four parts, one of which is used as the heart and the other three are twisted around it.  When it is finished it is perfectly round and smooth and is about 9-16 of an inch in thickness. These ropes are usually made from 25 to 30 feet in length. It requires 21 feet to perform the execution properly, and the surplus is always in case of accident resulting in a break. The knot is tied by the man who makes the rope, so that the executioner has nothing to do but slip the loop over the culprit’s head.”

Many thanks, Kelley!

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window,

Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead.