Skip to main content

The Hairless Hanging

July 2024
1min read

Among the photographs of outlaws alive or dead or about to be dead that were collected by telegrapher George Lawton in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (see “The Wilder West of George Lawton,” April/May, 1979) was one of the notorious Tom Horn, shown with a rope of hair woven with his own hands.

Relying on a notation by Lawton himself, we identified the rope as the one that was used to hang the convicted man in 1903.

Not likely, says Philip H. Reisman, Jr., of Larchmont, New York: “Most accounts of Horn’s two-year imprisonment … mention that he passed the time doing what he called his ‘hair work’—weaving horsehair into hat bands, hackamores, lariats, love knots, and other ‘cowboy jewelry’ which he sold or gave away to his admirers. Examination of your photograph … strongly suggests that what he is holding is a lariat, tastefully woven of spirals of light and dark horsehair.…

“Common sense suggests that it is unlikely that a condemned man would be permitted to make his own hanging rope, any more than he would be allowed to build his own electric chair if he were to be electrocuted.…

“Anyway, no self-respecting hangman of that place and period would work with equipment that he hadn’t provided and tested himself. Hobbycrafted rope, no matter how decorativeIy woven, would never have been considered suitable for the job.

“Hanging ropes were hand-made of Kentucky hemp, one and one-eighth inches thick, stretched for a year with two-hundred-pound sandbags until there was no elasticity and they were one inch in diameter. With no ‘give’ left in them, the drop was certain to end in instant death from a snapped neck.…”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.