Hanging Judge
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Now the Deacon was a preacher who had fallen hard from grace
He owned the bar and a string of quarter horses that he'd race
Yea, Deacon he could drink and curse, though he still quoted sacred verse
He was sheriff, judge; he owned the hearse, a man you did not anger

(from) The Sky Above, the Mud Below Tom Russell

Basic Information

A Hanging Judge is a ruthless judge who rules his courtroom as his own personal fiefdom. He will hand out brutal sentences for the most minor infractions. He may be a Corrupt Hick using his power to dominate the local community, a Knight Templar who believes his punishments are justified, or just get off on abusing his power. Any hero who ends up in front of him can expect no mercy and precious little justice.

Typically presides over a Kangaroo Court. The hanging judge is a very common Western Character Trope. In The Wild West, the Hanging Judge is probably a Circuit Judge.

As per the flavour text, there may well be occasions where insufficient separation of powers leads to the hanging judge holding all sorts of other offices which would normally be considered a conflict of interest.

In a sufficiently crapsack world, the hanging judge may be a reasonable response to a setting with an excess of people in need of hanging and/or cardboard prisons. When PCs round the same serial killer up for the fourth time, the hanging judge may suddenly seem like an angel of justice.

The title of The Hanging Judge goes - at least in England - to George Jeffreys, a Welshman who rose to the heights of the British judiciary during the reign of James II. An ardent royalist and reactionary he was famous for his harsh enforcement of the law, always favouring the Crown … he became especially notorious as a result of his work in the aftermath of the Monmouth Revolt where estimates of the number of people hanged on his sentence run as high as seven hundred. Besides brutality in sentencing, he was also known for his dark sense of humour - usually when addressing the condemned - and, on a more positive note, for his sudden and unexpected arrest of the Lord Mayor of Bristol - dragged into the dock in his full regalia of office and fined £10001 for conspiracy to abduct men into bonded labour in the colonies. Unusually for such a man, he died in protective custody … arrested whilst trying to flee the country following James II's deposition in The Glorious Revolution and held in the Tower of London to protect him from lynching.

However, when called upon to assist with strange goings on, for example something happening in a small-town cabaret which might involve a flamboyant stranger and end up with a local magnate murdered and the bank cleaned out, a hanging judge may turn out to be too drunk to be of any use2.


TV Tropes Wiki

Real life Hanging Judges in the The American West include Roy Bean and Isaac Parker, according to Wikipedia.
Judge Jeffreys at "that other wiki"

Game and Story Use

  • Could be used as an excuse or setting conceit for the way Anti Hero PCs dispose of threats to the community. They might even have an understanding with the Hanging Judge, that he won't hold them accountable for any murders of folks he was just gonna hang anyway. They'd be saving the Judge some paperwork.
  • Or, more likely, the Hanging Judge could be a form of socially protected villain.
    • If someone is Wrongly Accused or there's mitigating circumstances, the PCs might have to take a stand against the Hanging Judge.
      • Where do the PCs stand in conflicts between the letter and spirit of the law? Or, between the spirit of the law and the intentions of the judge.
    • The Judge could be the Deus Ex Machina or Sword of Damocles that keeps the PCs from getting overzealous. You'd hate to have the US Marshal or Pinkertons Agent haul you in front of the Hanging Judge, wouldn't ya boys? Guess you'd better just lock up that bad guy, not burn down his ranch and shoot him in the back.
  • Bear in mind that, at some points in history, you could be hanged for a great many things - into the 19th century English courts could and would hang a convict for theft of goods worth more than a shilling (which had been a significant amount of money when the law was introduced, but had not been adjusted for inflation for centuries) and until reforms in 1823 there were approximately 220 capital offences on the books. Hanging might be an entirely reasonable part of a judge's daily business.
    • Also, there may be a shortage of other options - in a lot of times and places there will be no (reasonably accessible) prisons. Also, if the accused is already an outlaw, he may be under sentence of death by default.
  • Could be an interesting source of villain conflict if a hanging judge is dropped into an area where corruption has traditionally given criminals a free hand - PCs caught in the middle could have some interesting dilemmas when faced with choosing between them. Especially if the judge appears as a crusader dedicated to cleaning up their corrupt craphole of a city and the fact that he seems to default towards hanging anyone brought in front of him only appears later. Are the godfathers of organised crime the lesser of two evils after all?
  • Players may also have mixed feelings when the judge who appears to be a designated villain then rounds up some other, previously untouchable villain and drags him into court for sentencing.
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