“Richard Priestly,” began the gaoler, “You have been accused of the crimes of fornication, sodomy, and for unlawful carnal knowledge to which the punishment is death by hanging. After trial by a selection of your peers, you have been convicted of these crimes and found guilty for which the punishment is death by hanging.”

There was not a hush following this statement but an awful ruckus of chatter flittering between the dark clad bodies gathered around the gallows. An October wind gusted, pushing the skirts and shirttails sideways with a rippling and cracking of stiff cambric and calico.

“Any last words?” the gaoler boomed, shocking the crowd into silence. The man looked down one last time into the crowd and hummed. “She’s not here,” he whispered. But the crowd remained silent and staring. A woman shifted from her left to right foot.

Though he searched for a while yet, he did not seem to find what he was looking for. He shook and lowered his head. The gaoler signaled to the executioner to bring the hood forward. The rough black fabric was soon blowing in the wind as well and pressed against the outline of his nose and chin. There was an attempt by many in the crowd to look away from the stage where the noose was lowered onto Richard Priestley’s neck. Hair blew in their faces until they were forced to turn their head back. In this the women had the upper hand, for their bonnets kept their hair in place and allowed them to obscure the scene with the slightest turn of their head without much being noticed as doing so.

They were not forced, here in Prudence, Pennsylvania to see the fallen body. By a design of the mayor’s, the platform was surrounded on three sides by a wooden covering so as to hide the gruesomeness of death. Neither the terrible limpness of limbs nor the jerking dance of muscular struggle was displayed to the citizens. As the platform dropped, the crowd looked up as one to see the man disappeared. Only the rope, tensed with a weight, was visible. Many towns were beginning to outlaw, or had already, the practice of public execution. But not here, promised Mayor Gendarm.

Richard Priestly, now recently deceased, was correct. She was not there. The woman, Miss Elizabeth Priestly and her sister, Miss Isabella Mandrake were at home. The front room, which offered the best view through the trees to the road leading into town, was clacking with the knitting needles of one sister and the heel of the other sister’s shoe as she tapped her foot up and down upon the floor.


Story inspired by the Coco Rosie song “The Gallows” chosen by Dylan Hughes for this week’s music challenge. You can read Hughes story here.


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