Balladeer’s Blog’s month-long celebration of Halloween continues with this slice of pure Americana.
THE GALLOWS MAN – This is another neglected American horror legend which has been presented in many different versions over the years. Ralph Sutherland was born in 1702 in either New York City or a town near the Catskills, depending on the version.
Sutherland was born into the New York gentry but in his adult years his drinking and gambling eventually embarrassed the family enough that they stopped associating with him. After boozing, whoring and gambling away a large part of his money Ralph was left with just one reasonably-sized home surrounded by a stone wall. He had enough funds left to maintain that house and took in an indentured servant – a beautiful teen girl from Scotland.
Sutherland’s foul and obnoxious nature soon led the girl to flee. In a rage Ralph mounted a horse and tracked her down before she got far. The black-hearted man tied the terrified girl to his horse and rode back to his home, but was either so furious or so drunk that he inadvertently dragged the poor female to her death.
At the subsequent trial Sutherland was found guilty and sentenced to hang, prompting the relatives who had broken away from him to come forward. It just wouldn’t do to have a Sutherland of the New York Sutherlands dying on the gallows like some kind of low-life. The well-connected family pulled strings and got the Judge to cooperate in a miscarriage of justice by declaring that the sentence of hanging would not be carried out until the condemned man was 99 years of age.
Many citizens were so outraged at this travesty that – in a concession to the public temper – the Judge agreed to include in the court’s decision an order to Ralph Sutherland to forever wear a noose around his neck with a few inches of slack rope hanging down his chest. The sneering villain was content to play along with this to ensure he reached his home without incident.
Once he was safely inside and his Irish manservants had secured the entrance to the home’s protective wall Sutherland removed the noose from around his neck and tossed it away. He then began downing rum at a prodigious rate and fell into a drunken stupor. When he awoke the noose was around his neck again and, blaming his manservants for playing a trick on him thrashed them both.
Retiring to his locked bedroom for what remained of the night the Gallows Man went to sleep, tossing the noose into his burning fireplace. When he woke the next morning the noose was back around his neck. Chilled by this development he remained in his room, taking his meals there for the full day while struggling to be rid of the noose.
He threw it out the window but, later while reading a book he noticed with a start that it had somehow secured itself around his neck yet again. He cut it into pieces but whenever he least expected it he would feel its slight chokehold around him once more. That night the ghost of the gentle Scottish beauty he had slain paid Sutherland a visit and explained that there were forces punishing him for his misspent life and for his crimes.
The terrified Gallows Man begged for forgiveness but the ghost told him he deserved none. Each night she haunted Sutherland, shrieking at him at unexpected moments or reenacting her death with the aid of a spectral horse. Sometimes she appeared as a skeleton in a winding sheet or sat on the wall in her Earthly form keeping her killer awake by pelting his window with pebbles or scraping her fingernails along the glass. And always she chastised him for his evil ways.
Sutherland tried to dull the horror of it all by drinking tankard after tankard of rum, but could never drink enough that the ghost’s efforts wouldn’t chill him to the bone. By day he took to seeking out human companionship, wearing the noose around his neck as ordered. It was no use. Too many people remembered his villainous past. He was shunned. Children could bring tears to his eyes by asking him about his unusual “necktie.” Dogs and cats fled when he approached.
Some versions of the tale end like this, saying the Gallows Man, aka “Noose” Sutherland or “Gibbet” Ralph, spent every night being tormented until he turned 99 in 1801, when finally he was granted the release of death when his sentence was carried out.
Other versions say the nightly torture drove him to try to take his own life, but neither drowning nor poison nor shooting himself could kill him. After all, he was condemned to hang.
But not by his own hand, he learned to his despair when he tried carrying out the sentence himself (anything to escape his ghostly tormentor). He challenged men to duels with swords or pistols but always survived. He enlisted in any war that hit the Colonies but always came through unscathed. And always the noose was around his neck at all times.
Even more, it seemed the damnation he was under prevented even old age from affecting him. He remained youthfully fit with the only indication of his advancing age coming in the form of increasing whitening of his hair.
Still other versions get even more adventurous and claim that the Gallows Man dared to face any supernatural forces that afflicted the Colonies. He had nothing to lose. If he died battling those infernal agents then he would at least be out of his misery.
That misery changed over time, in some of the more romantic variations of the tale of the Gallows Man. Those versions state that eventually his nerves grew stable and immune to the nightly visits from the ghostly girl. The spirit, seeing after months (or years) that Sutherland was no longer frightened by anything she could do, took to spending some nights in conversation with the man.
The villain had been reformed by his suffering and the shade of the Scottish lass could tell that Sutherland was now truly contrite for his past actions. The two fell in love, turning the torture of a haunting into the sweeter torment of a love that could not be fulfilled since the Gallows Man and the girl he loved were trapped on opposite sides of the grave.
Time wore on, with the Colonies becoming the United States. The Gallows Man served in the Revolutionary War and in many of the campaigns against the Native Americans. He fought all the devils that Hell unleashed upon the land, with only the nightly visits from his tantalizingly close but achingly far away true love to keep him going.
Some versions of the story end on that bittersweet note, with a closing guarantee that in 1801 when the Gallows Man finally met his death he and the Scottish girl were at last together.
My favorite ending features Sutherland visiting President John Adams in the closing days of his administration. Adams was busy with the infamous Midnight Appointments of Judges to stock the Judiciary with Federalist-sympathizing figures.
The Gallows Man forced his way in to see Adams, asking him for a Presidential Pardon since the old forces of the law were no longer active, what with an all-new nation in place. Sutherland sought out the pardon in desperation since – now that he was so famous and beloved – no one was willing to carry out his sentence of hanging, even though he was now the correct age – 99.
This ending features Adams listening to Sutherland tell his tale and then, with amusement and a “why the Hell not?” attitude having a pardon printed up for the murder the Gallows Man had committed several decades earlier.
The document was brought into the office where Adams sat reminiscing – in a half-believing way – with the Gallows Man over the many changes on the American Continent during the last century. No sooner had the ink from Adams’ signature on the pardon dried than a grateful Ralph Sutherland shed a tear and died, with his body immediately reverting to the body of a 99 year old man.
Whether this convinced the notoriously skeptical John Adams about the truth of Sutherland’s tale is anybody’s guess. ++
FOR ISABELLA OF EGYPT, FEATURING A GOLEM, A MANDRAGORE, A LIVING DEAD MAN, A GYPSY WITCH AND A JEWISH SORCEROR CLICK HERE
FOR MORE HALLOWEEN ITEMS CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/category/halloween-season/
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