For centuries, most hangings were carried out by the sheriff or legal entity of the town or county where the death sentence had been passed. Prisoner’s deaths were usually painful as most executioners were not proficient enough to know how to calculate the correct “drop” of the hangman’s noose to ensure breaking the neck, thus the victim usually died by strangulation. The use of gallows with a trap door didn’t become common practice until the 1870s. Prior to that, most were hanged from the branch of a tree, being turned off the back of a cart, or a horse.
And female criminals didn’t escape the hangman’s noose. One of the first recorded hangings in the Wild West of a woman was during 1849, when miners pioneered the boomtowns of California where gambling, drinking, violence and vigilante justice was common. One woman, known as “Pretty Juanita,” was convicted of murder after stabbing a man who had tried to rape her. Before she was hung, she gave a laugh and a salute as the rope pulled tight around her neck. She was first person hanged in the California mining camps.
In the first part of the 19th century, cattle rustlers, horse thieves, gamblers and other “desperadoes” in the Old West were the most common.
The state of Montana holds the record for the bloodiest vigilante movement from 1863 to 1865 when hundreds of suspected horse thieves were rounded up and killed in massive mob action. Texas, Montana, California, and the Deep South, especially the city of New Orleans, were hotbeds of vigilante activity in American history.
“Lynching” found an easy acceptance as the nation expanded west to the frontier, where raw conditions encouraged swift punishment for real or imagined criminal behavior. Vigilance committees, consisting of anywhere from several dozens to several hundred men, formed quickly who summarily made decision to execute in order to repress crime. Even where official law enforcement did exist, prisoners were sometimes dragged from jail by a lynch mob and hanged.
Did these hangings deter criminal activity? No more than the executions of today.