That my English teacher read to us in class one day, and I absolutely loved it. It was about this little town that a Hangman came to, set up his gallows in the town square, and commenced hanging people. All the while he keeps mentioning in various speeches to the villagers that he's looking for someone and that he'll stop hanging people when he finds who it is he's looking for. The poem is from the point of view of one citizen who has no intention of being hanged, so he keeps his head down and wonders who the Hangman is looking for and when the hangings wil stop. At the end of the poem, everyone in town is dead except for our "protagonist", and the Hangman approaches him and tells him that it's him that he's been looking for, because he was the one that kept his head down and let everyone else be hanged. She read it to us because it showed the mentaility of most Jewish people during WWII, who mostly kept their heads down and avoided trouble in the hopes that it'll just stop on it's own.

Does anyone know what this poem is called and who it's by?
I just thought of it out of the blue the other day, and it's been bugging me.
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Yes, I first head in 1980 when I was 13 old in a Facing History and Ourselves class...


by Maurice Ogden

Into our town the Hangman came.
Smelling of gold and blood and flame
and he paced our bricks with a diffident air
and built his frame on the courthouse square

The scaffold stood by the courthouse side,
Only as wide as the door was wide;
A frame as tall, or little more,
Than the capping sill of the courthouse door

And we wondered, whenever we had the time.
Who the criminal, what the crime.
That 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 raise the gallows-tree?"

Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
And he gave us 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 another's grief
At the Hangman's 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 Hangman's 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:
"...Did you think I'd gone to all this fuss
To hang one man? That's a thing I do
To stretch a rope when the rope is new."

Then one cried "Murder!" One cried "Shame!"
And into our midst the Hangman came
To that man's place. "Do you hold," said he,
"With him that was meant for the gallows-tree?"

And he laid his hand on that one's arm.
And we shrank back in quick alarm,
And we gave him way, and no one spoke
Out of fear of his Hangman's cloak.

That night we saw with dread surprise
The Hangman's 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,
Halfway up on the courthouse wall.

The third he took-we had all heard tell
Was a user and 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 out comfort hard and long;
And what concern, he gave us back.
"Have you for the doomed--the doomed and black?"

The fifth. The sixth. And we cried again,
"Hangman, Hangman, is this the last?"
"It's a trick," he said, "That we hangmen know
For easing the trap when the trap springs slow.""

And so we ceased, and asked no 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
Till 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 in the empty streets my name-
And I looked at the gallows soaring tall
And thought, "There is no one left at all

For hanging." And so he calls to me
To help pull down the gallows-tree.
And I went out with right good hope
To the Hangman's tree and the Hangman's rope.

He smiled at me as I came down
To the courthouse square through the silent town.
And supple and stretched in his busy hand
Was the yellow twist of the strand.

And he whistled his tune as he tried the trap
And it sprang down with a ready snap.
And 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 no henchman of yours," I cried,
"You lied to me. Hangman. foully lied!"

Then a twinkle grew in the buckshot eye,
"Lied to you? Tricked you?" he said. "Not I.
For I answered straight and I told you true"
The scaffold was raised for none but you.

For who has served me more faithfully
Then you 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 whispered, and sadly
"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 had stood so alone as I.
And the Hangman strapped me, and no voice there
Cried "Stay!" for me in the empty square.
My class a couple years ago also read that poem--- it was bothering me, too, since I also thought it was magnificent. This year I chose it to include in a huge poetry anthology project. But really, you have very good taste in literature, my friend! I find the thematic ideas in the piece really profound.
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I love this poem also!!! I saw the animated film first ( narrated by Herschel Bernardi) and then went on to do the poem in college speech tournaments. Only one problem: where (in a book) is it published??? I've been trying for over twenty years to find it in a book. My speech tournament version I transcribed from the film; the Internet has slightly differing versions all over the where is the definitive, published version???
I was not familiar with this poem before, but after reading the version posted here I would disagree with your teacher's suggestion that it showed the mentaility of most Jewish people during WWII, who mostly kept their heads down and avoided trouble in the hopes that it'll just stop on it's own. I think it shows the mentality of the "regular" people, who did not protest as long as the victims were "others" - foreigners, Jews, etc.

Another version of the same message is this quote, which I was more familiar with:

"When they came for the gypsies, I did not speak, for I am
not a gypsy. When they came for the Jews, I did not speak,
because I wasn't a Jew. When they came for the Catholics, I
did not speak, for I am not a Catholic. And when they came
for me, there was no one left to speak."

-On the Wall at the Holocaust Museum in Washington
It is by Maurice Ogden. The is a 1963 animated film based on the poem as well called "The Hangman"
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I am also looking for a copy of the poem. Like you we worked on the poem in High School - I remember the closing line coming from the Hangman 'I only did what you let me do'. It's over 30 years since High School but I loved the poem and the message it sent.
Ironic that I should come across your post. I'm afraid I have no information to give you but I myself came across your message because I'm looking for the same poem. I read it in my Senior year Minority Groups class and it has haunted me ever since. I'm now a senior in college. I just recently read a song, The Hangman in Jean Ritchie's Singing Family of the Cumberlands, for my Folklore class that made me thing of the Hangman poem. I wondered if there was a connection between the two. If you find the auther of the poem would you please post it? I would be very greatful. If I find it before you I'll send it along. Thanks in advance. ^-^
That is a awesome poem.
Do you think it would make enough of an impact on someone to change their behavior and speak up against injustice or wrong?
Although we all embrace the message, we never think it would be us who would be the coward who hangs back and does nothing.

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