J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Hunting for “The Year of the Hangman”

Yesterday I responded to novelist Laurie Halse Anderson’s question about whether John Adams actually wrote about 1777 as “the year of the hangman.” I quoted Adams’s words from over a decade later indicating that unspecified, untraceable “Tories” had said that 1777 “had three gallowses in it, meaning the three sevens.”

However, Adams didn’t write “the year of the hangman,” and neither did anyone else I can find in the 1770s. The label doesn’t appear the Archive of Americana database of period newspapers and pamphlets. Nor is it in the Adams family letters, the George Washington Papers, and the other digital databases I usually check for period usage.

In fact, the earliest use of that phrase for 1777 that I found through Google Books is Lynn Montross’s The Reluctant Rebels: The Story of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, published in 1950. That book includes a chapter titled “Year of the Hangman,” and at one point says, “It was the year of the hangman, and the gallows jokes exchanged in the State House were not so humorous after the imprisonment of [Richard] Stockton...”

As far as I can tell, Montross coined that phrase; I haven’t uncovered an earlier usage. He didn’t say the words came from 1777, only that it reflected how the Patriots saw their situation that year. But then the same words appeared in other books, with the growing implication that it was a genuine period phrase:

  • The 1966 Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, edited by Mark Boatner, included an entry on “Hangman, year of the.”
  • One part of The River and the Rock: The History of Fortress West Point, 1775-1783, authored by Dave Richard Palmer in 1969, carried that title.
  • The phrase “year of the gallows” comes from a character’s mouth in Thomas Fleming’s 1976 novel Liberty Tavern.
  • John S. Pancake’s 1777: The Year of the Hangman (1977) quotes Adams’s original letter to explain its subtitle.
  • Gary Blackwood’s The Year of the Hangman (2002) is an alternate history marketed to teen-aged readers.
  • The strategy game shown above, designed by Ed Wimble, is “an operational study of the campaign for Philadelphia.”
  • Most recently, Glenn F. Williams’s award-winning military history Year of the Hangman: George Washington’s Campaign Against the Iroquois was published in 2005.
As its subtitle indicates, that last book isn’t really about hangings of American rebels or British convicts, but about the ruthless war on the U.S. of A.’s northwest frontier. It’s a long way from Adams’s original claim that Tories joked that 1777 would see a lot of rebels going to the gallows. I think the phrase’s appearance on that book shows the real appeal of “Year of the Hangman”—it just sounds like a cool title.


GreenmanTim said...

I could not be more delighted with this post. I once considered using this phrase as the title of a novel until I discovered more than one book already in print under that name. There is yet another to add to the list you mentioned: Year of the Hangman: George Washington's Campaign Against the Iroquois (2005) by Glenn F. Williams. 1779 has one less numerical gibbet than 1777, but as you say, it's a catchy title.

My nascent novel - taking place within an alternate history that turns on a very different outcome at Trenton - is now called "World Turned Upside Down", but I know enough not to have it played at Yorktown!

Cheers, Tim

J. L. Bell said...

I listed Glenn Williams’s book at the end, all the while wondering why it had a title alluding to 1777 when the Continental campaign in northwest New York came later. I’m glad you avoided title overuse.

GreenmanTim said...

Ah, so you did. Whew!

Larry Cebula said...

1950?!! A college textbook that we recently used at my school had a whole chapter titled "1777: Year of the Hangman," and repeated the old story. Thanks for setting the record straight.

J. L. Bell said...

I thought of something else: when hanging was the standard way to execute criminals, wasn’t every year a “year of the hangman”? That phrase might have acquired such resonance only after we stopped hanging people.