I just saw a western about a hanging and the town built a gallows for the hanging. Did this really happen or did they just throw the rope over a tree branch
I don’t even know how to go about checking this out.

Well, “throwing a rope over a tree branch” is not going to hang someone properly. A correct, humane hanging involves enough of a vertical drop so that the neck breaks once the rope goes taut. This of course causes the hangee to go unconscious immediately, rather than slowly and painfully asphyxiating while still conscious.

So yeah, if you were concerned with doing it properly you’d build a gallows with trap doors or at least some kind of mechanism to that effect (like a raised platform they could be pushed off of). I don’t know what Western you saw, but historically, yes, plenty of executions by hanging did involve building actual gallows. I’m sure there were occasionally less sophisticated instances of execution by strangling someone with a rope, but that might be more properly called lynching.

Google image search for gallows old west.

Yes, real towns built real gallows. Over a tree branch was lynching. People in the real west were proud they had formal laws, formal jails, formal courts, and formal justice. These were violated occasionally, as is true everywhere at every time, but the need to maintain the pretense of civilization was intensely felt in isolated areas.

And hangman was a real profession.

The gallows used to execute Tom Horn was operated by water. When Horn was lifted onto the trap door, a plug was pulled from a barrel of water. When enough water had drained that the barrel no longer counterbalanced the condemned, the trap door opened. It took 31 seconds for the trap to open for Horn. The drop wasn’t long enough, and his neck was not broken. Fortunately for him, he was knocked unconscious. He finally died 17 minutes later.

Here’s an account of Horn’s hanging. According to that page, the water-operated gallows had been invented 11 years earlier rather than having been designed because ‘nobody wanted to hang Tom Horn’.

I’ve asked about this in the past. It seems that in every western TV show/movie I’ve seen that involved a hanging the building of the gallows was an important scene of the plot (men hammering and sawing wood and such). They never already had one built from previous executions.

I can just see this scene playing out in some Revisionist Western from the 1970s, and I can see myself not believing it because it’s too over-the-top and steampunk.

To change a famous quote: “When the facts get too weird, print the legend.”

The more humane method of hanging known as the standard drop was introduced in Britain in 1866 and quickly spread to the rest of the Engish-speaking world. (It was the brainchild of the Irish scientist Samuel Haughton.) This method aimed to break the neck thus bringing paralysis, unconsciousness and a far speedier death. The short drop used previously involved a prolonged and painful death by strangulation, which could take from 10 to 20 minutes.

Unless you, or your loved ones, could afford to pay someone to go in, grab your legs, and yank you down.

Could be one of those do-something tropes like the boiling water whenever a birth is happening. But, WAG, depending on the town/county a small community may not give enough use to a gallows to maintain it as a permanent concern – unlike a place like Fort Smith, mentioned in bob++'s link, which would be the head of a judicial district and get a lot of “traffic”. The town may have a basic permanent scaffolding in place but still have to ensure the bits that make it into a proper functioning gallows work when needed, and replace those that have deteriorated. Or after a while sitting out there unused they need the wood for something else so they just take the whole thing apart and store the mechanical parts for when THAT is ever needed again.

I learned how to tie a hangman’s noose when I was a Boy Scout. I’d have to look it up if I wanted to tie one today.

I read in a handful of fictional works that the knot should be positioned under the back of the jaw to snap the neck sideways. Some accounts had the hangman calculating the hangee’s weight to find how far he should drop, and even how many coils of rope should be used in the noose. The intent was to mercifully snap the neck without pulling the head clean off. That sort of thing was embarrassing, and it would unnecessarily freak out the audience.