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View Full Version : Could You Survive "Keelhauling"?


ralph124c
03-05-2008, 11:52 AM
It is hard for me to accept just how cruel our ancestors could be. this bizarre punishment-could anyone actually survive it? I expect that you would be underwater for more tha 5 minutes-so you would drown. But if you managed to hold your breath, would your skin be scraped off by the barnacles on the hull?
Anyway, having survived this-was there worse in store for you?

pulykamell
03-05-2008, 11:55 AM
AFAIK, you were supposed to survive keelhauling. It was just another form of corporal punishment.

Cecil weighs in: (http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a4_239.html)

Keelhauling was meted out to sailors for minor infractions at sea. Typically the victim was tied to a rope looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard, and then dragged under the keel and up the other side. Since the keel was usually encrusted with barnacles and other crud the guy's hide would be scraped raw and he'd think twice about doing whatever it was he'd gotten keelhauled for again. Sometimes they heaped chains and such on him to add injury to insult.

Sure sounds like the guy is expected to live to me.

KneadToKnow
03-05-2008, 11:57 AM
Everybody who can't hear the term "keel-haul" without thinking of a Far Side cartoon, raise your hand.

:raises hand:

Yllaria
03-05-2008, 11:58 AM
Maybe you're not visualizing past ships as small as they actually were. We're not talking cruise liners, here, or aircraft carriers. And on a sailing ship, the men were accustomed to pulling on ropes quickly.

mbh
03-05-2008, 02:23 PM
If the Captain wanted you dead, you would be "hung from the yardarm". A sailing ship's rigging made quite an effective gallows.

John DiFool
03-05-2008, 02:34 PM
Everybody who can't hear the term "keel-haul" without thinking of a Far Side cartoon, raise your hand.

:raises hand:

A certain height-challenged Looney Tunes character comes to mind for me.

Now the next question is whether someone can survive tarring and feathering...

jk1245
03-05-2008, 02:35 PM
I recall reading somewhere (can't for the life remember where) that you could also be keelhauled the length of the ship if you were exceptionally naughty. This did often result in death.

Mongo Ponton
03-05-2008, 05:04 PM
I believe the odds were much better in salt water than brackish or fresh. I don't know if they took that into account.

Freudian Slit
03-05-2008, 05:06 PM
How'd they pull you under with just a rope? Maybe I'm not getting it. You were tied to one end of the rope, they held the other...so how do they get you under and across?

KneadToKnow
03-05-2008, 05:13 PM
How'd they pull you under with just a rope? Maybe I'm not getting it. You were tied to one end of the rope, they held the other...so how do they get you under and across?
You're tied to one end at one side of the boat, they hold the other, then they pay out the rope as they walk it around to the bow and then to the other side. Now they have you at one end, them at the other, and the bottom of the boat in between.

That's how I see it in my mind, anyway.

Valgard
03-05-2008, 05:16 PM
How'd they pull you under with just a rope? Maybe I'm not getting it. You were tied to one end of the rope, they held the other...so how do they get you under and across?

Imagine a long rope with the victim tied at the midpoint. Two groups of sailors hold each end of the rope while standing at the sides of the boat, towards the front. Victim jumps (or is pushed) off the bow and the two sets of sailors begin to walk astern. Victim is thus dragged along the bottom of the boat, being hauled under the keel from stern to bow.

KneadToKnow
03-05-2008, 05:20 PM
I see I had it ... well, not backwards ... perpendicular.

XT
03-05-2008, 06:59 PM
Imagine a long rope with the victim tied at the midpoint. Two groups of sailors hold each end of the rope while standing at the sides of the boat, towards the front. Victim jumps (or is pushed) off the bow and the two sets of sailors begin to walk astern. Victim is thus dragged along the bottom of the boat, being hauled under the keel from stern to bow.

That's not how I understood it to work. I thought you would take a rope looped from the bow and walk it to the mid point of the ship (amidships since we want to get all nautical and all :)). Then with a team of sailors located at the port and starboard you would tie your miscreant up and have the opposite team haul him over the rail, under down the ship side, under the boat and up the opposite side.

What you are describing would be pretty extreme on a large vessel and wouldn't be very easy to accomplish with all the rigging and such in the way. I seriously doubt anyone would survive being hauled the length of a man of war...and even a smaller ship would be pretty rough.

-XT

Yllaria
03-05-2008, 07:21 PM
Cecil (quoted above) and Wiki (with a picture) both say it was across rather than lengthwise.

wiki
The sailor was tied to a rope that looped beneath the vessel, thrown overboard on one side of the ship, and dragged under the ship's keel to the other side.

Kythereia
03-05-2008, 08:30 PM
Depends. If you were pulled you up quickly enough, you'd survive with some pretty bad back injuries--not as bad as what the cat o' nine tails would give you, though. If not, you could drown.

Peter Morris
03-05-2008, 09:21 PM
Everybody who can't hear the term "keel-haul" without thinking of a Far Side cartoon, raise your hand.

I'm not familiar with that one.

Valgard
03-05-2008, 09:26 PM
That's not how I understood it to work. I thought you would take a rope looped from the bow and walk it to the mid point of the ship (amidships since we want to get all nautical and all :)). Then with a team of sailors located at the port and starboard you would tie your miscreant up and have the opposite team haul him over the rail, under down the ship side, under the boat and up the opposite side.

What you are describing would be pretty extreme on a large vessel and wouldn't be very easy to accomplish with all the rigging and such in the way. I seriously doubt anyone would survive being hauled the length of a man of war...and even a smaller ship would be pretty rough.

-XT

Entirely possible; my primary cite is that mighty reference work, "Mutiny On The Bounty" which showed it being done from bow to stern.

:D

Regardless of whether it was done front to back or side to side the mechanics are pretty much the same.

DSYoungEsq
03-05-2008, 09:30 PM
Entirely possible; my primary cite is that mighty reference work, "Mutiny On The Bounty" which showed it being done from bow to stern.

:D

Regardless of whether it was done front to back or side to side the mechanics are pretty much the same.
Actually, the mechanics are quite different. After all, you don't just have someone at the stern and someone at the bow and they walk from one side to the other, etc.

No, you have a rope that is looped under the keel. The victim is attached to the rope. He is tossed off the one side, and the other sailors haul on the other end of the rope, pulling him under the keel and up the other side.

OtakuLoki
03-05-2008, 09:35 PM
Another factor to remember - the draft which would be a measure of how far under the water, the keelhauled miscreant was pulled during the punishment is a lot less than one might think, looking at the sail plans of those old ships. Finding a web reference that included draft for a nominal ship of the era is hard. I chose to look for a brig, since they were work horse hulls that could be found in almost any field of use.

The first (and only) data that I could find for a brig's draft comes from this site about the Battle of Lake Erie, and specifically about the Brig Niagara (http://www.nps.gov/archive/pevi/HTML/Niagara.html). Granted she is a war ship, not a general use brig, but I figure the draft and beam numbers are at least a useful starting point.

Civil Guy
03-05-2008, 11:11 PM
Ooohhh... granted, not so much draft as all that. Granted, your shipmates would be pulling you through smartly - they want it to hurt, not otherwise keep you off duty for too long. Granted, it wouldn't be bare barnacles; some of them at least would be covered with muck. Granted, it would probably be in the ocean where the cold saltwater would act as a slight pain killer and astringent. Still.

As you're going down, seems to me that your bouyancy and the direction of the hauling line are definitely keeping you against the boat bottom. Argh. And what I can't quite get my head around is deciding how much fun it must be to get pulled across the keelboard.

Gotta hurt, that.

aldiboronti
03-05-2008, 11:50 PM
The OED gives the exact definition, which may help. One of the cites also shows that it was sometimes done more than once in succession.

To haul (a person) under the keel of a ship, either by lowering him on one side and hauling him across to the other side, or, in the case of smaller vessels, lowering him at the bows and drawing him along under the keel to the stern.

1666 Lond. Gaz. No. 112/3 He..caused Blake to be loaded with Chains..and..ordered him to be three times Keel-haled (as they [the Dutch] call it).

OtakuLoki
03-05-2008, 11:55 PM
Remember, though - the question here isn't whether the punishment could be fatal. I doubt anyone is arguing that. Simply that it's wasn't always automatically fatal, and listing some of the reasons for which that might be the case.

Cerowyn
03-06-2008, 12:19 AM
My CO threatened to keel-haul several of us shortly after we left port on my first cruise. Not a pretty prospect, even on a [relatively] dinky DDH (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HMCS_Annapolis_%28DDH_265%29): a beam of 42', and a draught of 24'.

I dimly recall from an early class that there were a variety of gruesome Royal Naval punishments, but that keel-hauling was deemed relatively minor in comparison to most of them.

Stranger On A Train
03-06-2008, 03:04 AM
If the Captain wanted you dead, you would be "hung from the yardarm". A sailing ship's rigging made quite an effective gallows."Hanging from the yardarm" is a literary convention, and probably happened rarely in actual practice owing to the significant hazard of having an object the mass of an adult male swinging about. The only way it would be feasible would be to tie down the legs while hanging (as done when moving topsails or mainstails up the mast) so as to prevent the body from flinging about, which will occur even in light seas. I suspect that most deaths in naval service due to punishment occured due to blood loss and shock from flogging or dehydration from water deprivation. What hangings occured were typically done at anchor or on land. Even C.S. Forester tends to avoid this cliche in the Hornblower stories, indicating (correctly) than hanging is reserved only for the most extreme offenses and only after deliberation (although other forms of excessive corporal punishment are common).

Stranger

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 03:22 AM
Imagine a long rope with the victim tied at the midpoint. Two groups of sailors hold each end of the rope while standing at the sides of the boat, towards the front. Victim jumps (or is pushed) off the bow and the two sets of sailors begin to walk astern. Victim is thus dragged along the bottom of the boat, being hauled under the keel from stern to bow.
That would be almost impossible to do - there's equipment and rigging attached to the gunwale at various points along its length - you can't just trot down the full length of the boat holding a rope attached to something that is overboard - it would always get hung up on something.

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 03:25 AM
As you're going down, seems to me that your bouyancy and the direction of the hauling line are definitely keeping you against the boat bottom. Argh. And what I can't quite get my head around is deciding how much fun it must be to get pulled across the keelboard.

I can't remember where I heard it (may have been from a tour guide at HMS Victory - and we know tour guides are always right on the facts, don't we?) - but someone told me that adding chains to the victim when keel-hauling was an act of mercy, because it would result in him sinking and passing under the keel more easily.

Pushkin
03-06-2008, 04:27 AM
I can't remember where I heard it (may have been from a tour guide at HMS Victory - and we know tour guides are always right on the facts, don't we?) - but someone told me that adding chains to the victim when keel-hauling was an act of mercy

I thought, for some reason, that they just dumped these huge chains ontop of the poor sod afterwards, when he was on deck.

"Arrrr, matey, try and get up from under these!"

:o

Derleth
03-06-2008, 04:50 AM
While we're on the subject, how common was making someone walk the plank? Wouldn't it be easier to grab the miscreant and throw him overboard where there's nothing for him to grab on the way down? And how would such an unlucky sod die: In shock from broken bones and internal hemorrhaging, by drowning, or from dehydration?

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 05:10 AM
According to Cecil in this (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/071012.html) article, not common at all:

Walking the plank. Unmentioned in historical accounts of the golden age; tossing someone over the side was quicker. In one instance from 1829 the perps apparently had some extra time and/or panache, and men were indeed tied, blindfolded, weighted with shot, and made to walk. This can't have been a total anomaly (ancient pirates may occasionally have used a ladder in some planklike fashion) but it wasn't common.

OtakuLoki
03-06-2008, 05:13 AM
"Hanging from the yardarm" is a literary convention, and probably happened rarely in actual practice owing to the significant hazard of having an object the mass of an adult male swinging about. The only way it would be feasible would be to tie down the legs while hanging (as done when moving topsails or mainstails up the mast) so as to prevent the body from flinging about, which will occur even in light seas. I suspect that most deaths in naval service due to punishment occured due to blood loss and shock from flogging or dehydration from water deprivation. What hangings occured were typically done at anchor or on land. Even C.S. Forester tends to avoid this cliche in the Hornblower stories, indicating (correctly) than hanging is reserved only for the most extreme offenses and only after deliberation (although other forms of excessive corporal punishment are common).

Stranger


I'm afraid that I can't leave this statement alone, Stranger. I know you've said that in reality "hanging from the yardarms" was probably a rare event, and I agree with that, but the tone of the rest of your answer leaves the impression that you also are throwing out a sea anchor just to cover your butt, and that you can't recall any incidents of it actually happening.

If that's the case I'd like to offer up the Somers (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Somers_%281842%29#The_.22Somers_Affair.22) Affair (http://law.jrank.org/pages/2483/Mackenzie-Court-Martial-1843.html), where a USN captain hanged three men at sea, for their part in a planned mutiny. It's not a minor incident, either - the event was one of the major pressures that lead to the formation of the US Naval Academy. None of the accounts I can find quickly online use the actually expression "hanging from the yardarms," except as a caption to a drawing, so I won't swear that the men hanged aboard the Somers were hanged from the yardarm - however, I find it hard to imagine a more likely place to hang the three mutineers.

CalMeacham
03-06-2008, 06:38 AM
Stranger said:

Even C.S. Forester tends to avoid this cliche in the Hornblower stories, indicating (correctly) than hanging is reserved only for the most extreme offenses and only after deliberation (although other forms of excessive corporal punishment are common).


This gives the impression that there's no hanging in the Hornblower books, which isn't really true. In Hornblower and the Atropos, Hornblower tells the French prize crew that he's going to hang one of them from the yardarm, and actually gets the machinery in motion. It's all a ruse, of course, and Hornblower has no intention of actually doing it, but neither the French nor, in fact, Hornblower's own crew knows that, yet nobody acts as if this is something grotesque and unusual -- their objection is that Hornblower is acting precipitously and on his own as judge, jury, and executioner, not that the action of hanging on board a ship is unusual..

I also got the impression that Barry McCool was hanged on Board after his trial, in the short story "Hornblower's Temptation", in the collection Hornblower During the Crisis.

I note that in both cases the ships are still and at anchjor, not underway. Under those circumstances, I can't see Stranger's objections about the body getting in the way coming into play.

chowder
03-06-2008, 06:46 AM
I thought, for some reason, that they just dumped these huge chains ontop of the poor sod afterwards, when he was on deck.

"Arrrr, matey, try and get up from under these!"

:o


............and when or if you do, it's your turn in the barrel..........Arrrrr

MarcusF
03-06-2008, 07:00 AM
I can't say how common "hanging from the yardarm" was but it definitely happened. Richard Parker (http://www.napoleonguide.com/richard-parker.htm) - one of the leaders of the RN Nore mutiny of 1797 - was hanged in this way:

Quote:
The hood was pulled down and before he dropped his white cloth Parker jumped off the platform towards the sea. The rope was still to be untied for the hauling gang and so when it reached its limit it jagged taut and broke the prisoner's neck.

A signal gun sounded and the shocked hauling gang belatedly raised the body to the yardarm. After an hour it was brought down and quickly buried near Sheerness fort. Stranger refers to the problem of the body swinging around amongst the rigging but this hanging, and I guess any others ordered by a Courts-Martial, would take place while the ship was anchored in port.

slaphead
03-06-2008, 07:58 AM
What hangings occured were typically done at anchor
So, to summarise, there is broad agreement with Stranger's proposal that if you're going to hang someone aboard a ship it's most likely to get done while the ship is at anchor? Most likely in a fleet anchorage where there were enough other captains about to form a court-martial?

That would be almost impossible to do - there's equipment and rigging attached to the gunwale at various points along its length - you can't just trot down the full length of the boat holding a rope attached to something that is overboard - it would always get hung up on something.
My understanding (admittedly from reading historical fiction) was that any seaman worthy of the name would have been able to work their way along the side of the ship, stepping outboard of the chainplates or shrouds or whatever they are called when necessary. Not the kind of thing to attempt in bad weather or while trying anything too complex, but holding a rope it shouldn't be too hard. Particularly if there was some prep time to rig a handrope to hold on to for the tricky bit. Compared with the challenge of trying to work sails up a mast in bad weather, it would probably be fairly trivial.

Whether it was feasible doesn't have much bearing on whether it actually ever happened - the vast majority of references to the term keelhauling certainly indicate it was done side-to-side.
Frustratingly this google link (http://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&ct=res&cd=3&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.blackwell-synergy.com%2Fdoi%2Fabs%2F10.1111%2Fj.1467-9922.2006.00383.x&ei=RPfPR8eDKaOwwQHa7smXAw&usg=AFQjCNHNkrjnk8KGnMvjjlb4vYHKSLvmpg&sig2=2RxmBpEEsfxzPMI_QWp1dQ) to a Blackwell Publication does not complete, although it does come up with the summary text:
Keelhauling along the length of the hull was generally a death sentence because it could take as long as 3 min, and perhaps longer, to walk the ropes all... so if someone has access to this publication they might be able to dig out a bit more detail.

KneadToKnow
03-06-2008, 08:59 AM
I'm not familiar with that one.
Probably just me, then. It shows a pirate school, and one of the gags is a sentence diagrammed on the chalkboard: "I will keel-haul him."

Stranger On A Train
03-06-2008, 11:19 AM
This gives the impression that there's no hanging in the Hornblower books, which isn't really true. In Hornblower and the Atropos, Hornblower tells the French prize crew that he's going to hang one of them from the yardarm, and actually gets the machinery in motion. It's all a ruse, of course, and Hornblower has no intention of actually doing it, but neither the French nor, in fact, Hornblower's own crew knows that, yet nobody acts as if this is something grotesque and unusual -- their objection is that Hornblower is acting precipitously and on his own as judge, jury, and executioner, not that the action of hanging on board a ship is unusual..

I also got the impression that Barry McCool was hanged on Board after his trial, in the short story "Hornblower's Temptation", in the collection Hornblower During the Crisis.Both are true, but again, they're presented as the exception, not the general rule. For captured prisoners, crew were generally pressed into service and officers treated as prisoners of war; pirates and privateers were most likely shot, tossed overboard shackled to a cannon ball, or otherwise dispensed with in convenient fashion. Hanging--portrayed in some fiction as a common and favorite punishment meted out by sadistic skippers--was a fairly rare event (unlike floggings, dragging, starvation and dehydration, masting, et cetera) for the purposes of internal discipline and was unlikely to occur at seas, owing again to the difficulty of performing the mechanics of the job without fouling rigging or interfering with the operation of a ship making weigh.

Stranger

Princhester
03-06-2008, 05:03 PM
Compared with the challenge of trying to work sails up a mast in bad weather, it would probably be fairly trivial.

Totally trivial. I've done harder things at sea on smaller vessels in bad weather, and I'm no saltie. You just walk along the deck passing the end around stays and whatnot. No problem.

Valgard
03-06-2008, 05:12 PM
Hey Scylla are you around? We've got something else for you to try...

:D

Princhester
03-06-2008, 06:01 PM
Actually it wouldn't be a bad one for Mythbusters. You could see how it works while still doing it quite safely: you just do it with breathing gear on, but don't use it unless you have to. Plus just hold on to a loop in the rope rather than be tied to it, so you can let go any time. Plus do it on a ship without barnacles (and/or while wearing a protective suit) so that the laceration aspect isn't a problem.

XT
03-06-2008, 06:14 PM
You should go on their web site and suggest it. I tried to suggest the Tom Cruise motor cycle leap in MI one and never heard back from them.

-XT

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 06:19 PM
Actually it wouldn't be a bad one for Mythbusters. You could see how it works while still doing it quite safely: you just do it with breathing gear on, but don't use it unless you have to. Plus just hold on to a loop in the rope rather than be tied to it, so you can let go any time. Plus do it on a ship without barnacles (and/or while wearing a protective suit) so that the laceration aspect isn't a problem.
So... change everything? Wouldn't that then be a test of whether something else - other than keel hauling can be done?

Princhester
03-06-2008, 06:36 PM
I knew someone would say that :). But if the primary thing is just to see whether you can hold your breath long enough to be hauled under a ship on a rope, then it would still be a fair test. The only difference would be that you have an escape route if the answer is "no".

Another alternative would be to do a test under completely realistic conditions, but using Buster rather than a person, and then just time it and see if it is shorter than someone can hold their breath.

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 06:44 PM
I knew someone would say that :). But if the primary thing is just to see whether you can hold your breath long enough to be hauled under a ship on a rope, then it would still be a fair test.You could dispense with the ship, the rope and the water too - just use a stopwatch.

Princhester
03-06-2008, 06:48 PM
How then would you know how long it takes to get hauled under a ship? Plus my idea makes better TV.

Mangetout
03-06-2008, 07:42 PM
I'd haul a pig carcass under the ship (barnacles and all).

Princhester
03-06-2008, 07:58 PM
Pig carcasses don't have barnacles.

Princhester
03-06-2008, 08:15 PM
Your method does however have the advantage producing as a by product salty port with the rind already scored.

Tenar
03-06-2008, 08:59 PM
Another alternative would be to do a test under completely realistic conditions, but using Buster rather than a person, and then just time it and see if it is shorter than someone can hold their breath.

That wouldn't be accurate at all, as it would eliminate whatever effect fear, adrenaline, cold (from the water, naturally), etc., would have upon the keel-haulee's ability to hold his breath.

Princhester
03-06-2008, 11:41 PM
True enough. You volunteering? I mean, there are limits that ethics impose upon the ability to test stuff.