A Hanging by George Orwell

It was in Burma, a sodden morning of the rains. A sickly light, like 
yellow tinfoil, was slanting over the high walls into the jail yard. We 
were waiting outside the condemned cells, a row of sheds fronted with 
double bars, like small animal cages. Each cell measured about ten feet 
by ten and was quite bare within except for a plank bed and a pot of 
drinking water. In some of them brown silent men were squatting at the 
inner bars, with their blankets draped round them. These were the 
condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two. 

One prisoner had been brought out of his cell. He was a Hindu, a puny 
wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, 
sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the 
moustache of a comic man on the films. Six tall Indian warders were 
guarding him and getting him ready for the gallows. Two of them stood by 
with rifles and fixed bayonets, while the others handcuffed him, passed a 
chain through his handcuffs and fixed it to their belts, and lashed his 
arms tight to his sides. They crowded very close about him, with their 
hands always on him in a careful, caressing grip, as though all the while 
feeling him to make sure he was there. It was like men handling a fish 
which is still alive and may jump back into the water. But he stood quite 
unresisting, yielding his arms limply to the ropes, as though he hardly 
noticed what was happening. 

Eight o’clock struck and a bugle call, desolately thin in the wet air, 
floated from the distant barracks. The superintendent of the jail, who 
was standing apart from the rest of us, moodily prodding the gravel with 
his stick, raised his head at the sound. He was an army doctor, with a 
grey toothbrush moustache and a gruff voice. “For God’s sake hurry up, 
Francis,” he said irritably. “The man ought to have been dead by this 
time. Aren’t you ready yet?” 

Francis, the head jailer, a fat Dravidian in a white drill suit and gold 
spectacles, waved his black hand. “Yes sir, yes sir,” he bubbled. “All 
iss satisfactorily prepared. The hangman iss waiting. We shall proceed.” 

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till 
this job’s over.” 

We set out for the gallows. Two warders marched on either side of the 
prisoner, with their rifles at the slope; two others marched close 
against him, gripping him by arm and shoulder, as though at once pushing 
and supporting him. The rest of us, magistrates and the like, followed 
behind. Suddenly, when we had gone ten yards, the procession stopped 
short without any order or warning. A dreadful thing had happened–a 
dog, come goodness knows whence, had appeared in the yard. It came 
bounding among us with a loud volley of barks, and leapt round us wagging 
its whole body, wild with glee at finding so many human beings together. 
It was a large woolly dog, half Airedale, half pariah. For a moment it 
pranced round us, and then, before anyone could stop it, it had made a 
dash for the prisoner, and jumping up tried to lick his face. Everyone 
stood aghast, too taken aback even to grab at the dog. 

“Who let that bloody brute in here?” said the superintendent angrily. 
“Catch it, someone!” 

A warder, detached from the escort, charged clumsily after the dog, but 
it danced and gambolled just out of his reach, taking everything as part 
of the game. A young Eurasian jailer picked up a handful of gravel and 
tried to stone the dog away, but it dodged the stones and came after us 
again. Its yaps echoed from the jail wails. The prisoner, in the grasp of 
the two warders, looked on incuriously, as though this was another 
formality of the hanging. It was several minutes before someone managed 
to catch the dog. Then we put my handkerchief through its collar and 
moved off once more, with the dog still straining and whimpering. 

It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of 
the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound 
arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never 
straightens his knees. At each step his muscles slid neatly into place, 
the lock of hair on his scalp danced up and down, his feet printed 
themselves on the wet gravel. And once, in spite of the men who gripped 
him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the 

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to 
destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to 
avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of 
cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he 
was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working 
–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues 
forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be 
growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air 
with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the 
grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned 
even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, 
seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two 
minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one 
world less. 

The gallows stood in a small yard, separate from the main grounds of the 
prison, and overgrown with tall prickly weeds. It was a brick erection 
like three sides of a shed, with planking on top, and above that two 
beams and a crossbar with the rope dangling. The hangman, a grey-haired 
convict in the white uniform of the prison, was waiting beside his 
machine. He greeted us with a servile crouch as we entered. At a word 
from Francis the two warders, gripping the prisoner more closely than 
ever, half led, half pushed him to the gallows and helped him clumsily up 
the ladder. Then the hangman climbed up and fixed the rope round the 
prisoner’s neck. 

We stood waiting, five yards away. The warders had formed in a rough 
circle round the gallows. And then, when the noose was fixed, the 
prisoner began crying out on his god. It was a high, reiterated cry of 
“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or a cry for 
help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell. The dog 
answered the sound with a whine. The hangman, still standing on the 
gallows, produced a small cotton bag like a flour bag and drew it down 
over the prisoner’s face. But the sound, muffled by the cloth, still 
persisted, over and over again: “Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!” 

The hangman climbed down and stood ready, holding the lever. Minutes 
seemed to pass. The steady, muffled crying from the prisoner went on and 
on, “Ram! Ram! Ram!” never faltering for an instant. The superintendent, 
his head on his chest, was slowly poking the ground with his stick; 
perhaps he was counting the cries, allowing the prisoner a fixed number– 
fifty, perhaps, or a hundred. Everyone had changed colour. The Indians 
had gone grey like bad coffee, and one or two of the bayonets were 
wavering. We looked at the lashed, hooded man on the drop, and listened 
to his cries–each cry another second of life; the same thought was in 
all our minds: oh, kill him quickly, get it over, stop that abominable 

Suddenly the superintendent made up his mind. Throwing up his head he 
made a swift motion with his stick. “Chalo!” he shouted almost fiercely. 

There was a clanking noise, and then dead silence. The prisoner had 
vanished, and the rope was twisting on itself. I let go of the dog, and 
it galloped immediately to the back of the gallows; but when it got there 
it stopped short, barked, and then retreated into a corner of the yard, 
where it stood among the weeds, looking timorously out at us. We went 
round the gallows to inspect the prisoner’s body. He was dangling with 
his toes pointed straight downwards, very slowly revolving, as dead as a 

The superintendent reached out with his stick and poked the bare body; it 
oscillated, slightly. “HE’S all right,” said the superintendent. He 
backed out from under the gallows, and blew out a deep breath. The moody 
look had gone out of his face quite suddenly. He glanced at his 
wrist-watch. “Eight minutes past eight. Well, that’s all for this 
morning, thank God.” 

The warders unfixed bayonets and marched away. The dog, sobered and 
conscious of having misbehaved itself, slipped after them. We walked out 
of the gallows yard, past the condemned cells with their waiting 
prisoners, into the big central yard of the prison. The convicts, under 
the command of warders armed with lathis, were already receiving their 
breakfast. They squatted in long rows, each man holding a tin pannikin, 
while two warders with buckets marched round ladling out rice; it seemed 
quite a homely, jolly scene, after the hanging. An enormous relief had 
come upon us now that the job was done. One felt an impulse to sing, to 
break into a run, to snigger. All at once everyone began chattering 

The Eurasian boy walking beside me nodded towards the way we had come, 
with a knowing smile: “Do you know, sir, our friend (he meant the dead 
man), when he heard his appeal had been dismissed, he pissed on the floor 
of his cell. From fright.–Kindly take one of my cigarettes, sir. Do you 
not admire my new silver case, sir? From the boxwallah, two rupees eight 
annas. Classy European style.” 

Several people laughed–at what, nobody seemed certain. 

Francis was walking by the superintendent, talking garrulously. “Well, 
sir, all hass passed off with the utmost satisfactoriness. It wass all 
finished–flick! like that. It iss not always so–oah, no! I have known 
cases where the doctor wass obliged to go beneath the gallows and pull 
the prisoner’s legs to ensure decease. Most disagreeable!” 

“Wriggling about, eh? That’s bad,” said the superintendent. 

“Ach, sir, it iss worse when they become refractory! One man, I recall, 
clung to the bars of hiss cage when we went to take him out. You will 
scarcely credit, sir, that it took six warders to dislodge him, three 
pulling at each leg. We reasoned with him. “My dear fellow,” we said, 
“think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us!” But no, he 
would not listen! Ach, he wass very troublesome!” 

I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the 
superintendent grinned in a tolerant way. “You’d better all come out and 
have a drink,” he said quite genially. “I’ve got a bottle of whisky in 
the car. We could do with it.” 

We went through the big double gates of the prison, into the road. 
“Pulling at his legs!” exclaimed a Burmese magistrate suddenly, and burst 
into a loud chuckling. We all began laughing again. At that moment 
Francis’s anecdote seemed extraordinarily funny. We all had a drink 
together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a 
hundred yards away.