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Hell on Wheels Handbook – Public Display of Dead Bodies

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This week’s Hell on Wheels Handbook takes a look at the practice of publicly displaying the dead bodies of criminals, like Schmidt in Season 2, Episode 3.

In the lawless days of the American West (and even after sheriffs and judges began to impose more order), it was not uncommon for the bodies of criminals and other evildoers to be displayed publicly after death. Horse thieves, bandits, and murderers were among those who suffered this morbid fate with their executions sometimes public as well. One of the West’s most memorable displays of this kind involved the corpse of stagecoach bandit William “Brazen Bill” Brazelton (right) who — after being ambushed and shot — was returned to town, roped to a chair, and left exposed to the hot Tucson sun for a day.

As depicted in countless movie and TV westerns, the desire to humiliate a person who had wronged the community was a major factor behind such acts. The public display was also regarded as a deterrence, a belief dating back to ancient times: “The most crowded roads are chosen,” explained one Roman writer about his society’s crucifixion practices, “where most people can see and be moved by this fear.” That philosophy prevailed in the Wild West, too.

One other purpose the practice served was to confirm that the outlaw was dead. As Bill Brazelton sat decomposing in Tucson, several photographers captured his image for posterity — virtual proof of the outlaw’s demise. Not so with Jesse James: after the notorious robber and gunfighter was killed at home in Missouri, a crowd quickly formed to view his body. A photographer snapped a now-famous photo, but despite this evidence Jesse received credit for robberies committed after his death.

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