by Maurice Ogden
Into our town the hangman came,
smelling of gold and blood and flame.
He paced our bricks with a different air,
and built his frame on the courthouse square.
The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
only as wide as the door was wide
with a frame as tall, or a little more,
than the capping sill of the courthouse door.
And we wondered whenever we had the time,
Who the criminal? What the crime?
The hangman judged with the yellow twist
of knotted hemp in his busy fist.
And innocent though we were with dread,
we passed those eyes of buckshot lead.
Till one cried, “Hangman, who is he,
for whom you raised the gallows-tree?”
Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye
and he gave a riddle instead of reply.
“He who serves me best,” said he
“Shall earn the rope on the gallows-tree.”
And he stepped down and laid his hand
on a man who came from another land.
And we breathed again, for anothers grief
at the hangmans hand, was our relief.
And the gallows frame on the courthouse lawn
by tomorrow’s sun would be struck and gone.
So we gave him way and no one spoke
out of respect for his hangmans cloak.
The next day’s sun looked mildly down
on roof and street in our quiet town;
and stark and black in the morning air
the gallows-tree on the courthouse square.
And the hangman stood at his usual stand
with the yellow hemp in his busy hand.
With his buckshot eye and his jaw like a pike,
and his air so knowing and business-like.
And we cried, “Hangman, have you not done,
yesterday with the alien one?”
Then we fell silent and stood amazed.
“Oh, not for him was the gallows raised.”
He laughed a laugh as he looked at us,
“Do you think I’ve gone to all this fuss,
To hang one man? That’s the thing I do.
To stretch the rope when the rope is new.”
Above our silence a voice cried “Shame!”
and into our midst the hangman came;
to that mans place, “Do you hold,” said he,
“With him that was meat for the gallows-tree?”
He laid his hand on that one’s arm
and we shrank back in quick alarm.
We gave him way, and no one spoke,
out of fear of the hangmans cloak.
That night we saw with dread surprise
the hangmans scaffold had grown in size.
Fed by the blood beneath the chute,
the gallows-tree had taken root.
Now as wide, or a little more
than the steps that led to the courthouse door.
As tall as the writing, or nearly as tall,
half way up on the courthouse wall.
The third he took, we had all heard tell,
was a usurer…, an infidel.
And “What” said the hangman, “Have you to do
with the gallows-bound…, and he a Jew?”
And we cried out, “Is this one he
who has served you well and faithfully?”
The hangman smiled, “It’s a clever scheme
to try the strength of the gallows beam.”
The fourth man’s dark accusing song
had scratched our comfort hard and long.
“And what concern,” he gave us back,
“Have you … for the doomed and black?”
The fifth, the sixth, and we cried again,
“Hangman, hangman, is this the man?”
“It’s a trick”, said he, “that we hangman know
for easing the trap when the trap springs slow.”
And so we ceased and asked now more
as the hangman tallied his bloody score.
And sun by sun, and night by night
the gallows grew to monstrous height.
The wings of the scaffold opened wide
until they covered the square from side to side.
And the monster cross beam looking down,
cast its shadow across the town.
Then through the town the hangman came
and called through the empty streets…my name.
I looked at the gallows soaring tall
and thought … there’s no one left at all
for hanging … and so he called to me
to help take down the gallows-tree.
And I went out with right good hope
to the hangmans tree and the hangmans rope.
He smiled at me as I came down
to the courthouse square…through the silent town.
Supple and stretched in his busy hand,
was the yellow twist of hempen strand.
He whistled his tune as he tried the trap
and it sprang down with a ready snap.
Then with a smile of awful command,
He laid his hand upon my hand.
“You tricked me Hangman.” I shouted then,
“That your scaffold was built for other men,
and I’m no henchman of yours.” I cried.
“You lied to me Hangman, foully lied.”
Then a twinkle grew in his buckshot eye,
“Lied to you…tricked you?” He said “Not I…
for I answered straight and told you true.
The scaffold was raised for none but you.”
“For who has served more faithfully?
With your coward’s hope.” said He,
“And where are the others that might have stood
side by your side, in the common good?”
“Dead!” I answered, and amiably
“Murdered,” the Hangman corrected me.
“First the alien … then the Jew.
I did no more than you let me do.”
Beneath the beam that blocked the sky
none before stood so alone as I.
The Hangman then strapped me…with no voice there
to cry “Stay!” … for me in the empty square.
THE BOTTOM LINE: “…I did no more than you let me do.”
“The Hangman” is a poem written by Maurice Ogden in 1951 and first published in 1954 in Masses and Mainstream magazine under the pseudonym “Jack Denoya.”
In 1964, animator Paul Julian and Les Goldman created an animation of the poem read by Herschel Bernardi and with a musical score by Serge Hovey.
Les Goldman was inspired to make this film after hearing the poem read on Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles by Les Claypool.
Although the poem has a pattern similar to that of the famous statement beginning “First they came for the communists…” that has been attributed to the anti-Nazi pastor Martin Niemöller commenting on the Holocaust as early as 1946, however the poet, Maurice Ogden, was actually writing about America during the McCarthy era. Ogden was an actor and writer who was denied work and persecuted by the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1950s and early 1960s for allegedly having been a member of the Communist Party many years earlier.