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Execution at Sea: Hanging at the yardarm

PortandTerminal.com, February 13, 2020

HALIFAX NOVA SCOTIA – In the Royal Navy, hanging was the ultimate punishment for desertion, mutiny against the fleet as well other high crimes and it was a brutal affair.

Being a capital punishment, sailors could not be sentenced to hanging without an official Court Martial. Here, they were given an opportunity to plead their case in front of a panel of high-ranking officers. If found guilty, their punishment was gruesome – hanging at the yardarm of the ship.

Drawing of an American navy ship with 2 prisoners with nooses tied around their necks hanging from the back of the ship.
The English weren’t the only ones to hang by the yardarm, this American ship, the Somerset, is shown with two offenders hanging off of her mainmast in 1842. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/public domain

The convicted’s hands and feet would be bound, to prevent any possibility of escape. Then a noose would be placed around their neck.

That line would run through a tackle, or pulley, hanging from the yard-arm (a large pole going across the mast). In one account of a hanging we have printed below they talk about tying a 32-pound weight to the victim’s feet to speed up the process.

Once all was ready a team of sailors would then solemnly and slowly haul on that line until the sailor’s body was hanging right below the yard-arm. Death was by no means instantaneous.

The following is an original source description of the hanging of William Berry, a 22-year old first lieutenant on a Royal Navy Ship in 1807. Berry was convicted of a “horrid and abominable crime which delicacy forbids us to name” (sodomy) and sentenced to hang.

Drawing of a prisoner having a noose tied around his neck as he is about to be hanged from the yardarm of a navy ship
Preparing for an execution aboard a ship

 At nine o’clock he appeared, and mounted the scaffold with the greatest fortitude. He then requested to speak with the Rev. Mr Birdwood on the scaffold; he said a few words to him, but in so low a tone of voice they could not be distinctly heard. The blue cap being put over his face, the fatal bow gun was fired, and he was run up to the starboard fore-yard-arm, with a thirty-two pound shot tied to his feet. Unfortunately, the knot had got round under his chin, which caused great convulsions for a quarter of an hour. After being suspended the usual time, he was lowered into his coffin.

Courtesy of Age of Sail Resources.

Executions conducted in this way were done as a powerful deterrent and the entire crew was made to watch, and understand what was happening.

The last hanging performed by the Royal Navy was in 1860 during the Second Chinese War.

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