Streets of Death

On a chilly morning on October 31, 1860, Johannes Nathan had a last look at the watery sun that just peeped through the clouds. Then the rope pushed his last breath out of his throat and everything went black. Was his last thought with his mother-in-law that he had beaten to death on the road to Sittard? We will never know. We do know, however, that he was the last person in the Netherlands to be sentenced to death (periods of war not included). The death penalty was abolished in 1870.

However, up until 1860, death by hanging was a common penalty for capital offenses and for small offenses if you were of low class. The possibility of being hanged was even more frightening because of torture practices. If someone refused to confess, torture was applied. We now know that torture easily leads to false confessions to stop the pain, but in those days, that wisdom was not so common.

So if you were guilty of a serious offense, you would confess to avoid torture. If you were innocent, you would too. And in both cases, you were hanged. This dubious method of law practice could lead to serious mistakes. A horrible example of this is the dozens of so-called "Bokkenrijders" that were falsely accused of murder and sentenced to death in the early 1700s. Read our article about the Bokkenrijders if you would like to know more about that case.

Almost every major town and city had gallows. A hanging was public entertainment, at which large crowds would gather. The bodies of the dead were exposed at the entrance of the town to warn people that disobeying the law could have serious consequences.

Nowadays all the gallows are gone, but many street names still hint at their bygone presence:

Dodenberg (death hill), Cuijck
(death road), Bornerbroek
(gallow hill), Tubbergen
(gallow camp street), Meppel
(gallow street), Amsterdam
(gallow field), Ootmarsum
(gallow holm), Utrecht
Korteademhalingssteeg (short breath alley), Zwolle
Wipstrik (gallow), Zwolle

Some people would like to reintroduce the death penalty in the Netherlands for capital offenses. However, as long as we cannot guarantee that innocent people will not be mistakenly executed, I think we better leave it as it is today.