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Hanging Woman

Written by Uncle Buck

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The old wooden painted sign that hangs outside of the Hanging Woman Inn presents a remarkable representation in effigy of the tavern's namesake. Even after spending all of nearly two hundred years out of doors in every manner of weather that the New England climate can provide, the sign is still more than enough to send a shiver down your spine ...

Especially as one stops to consider that in all likelihood it was painted from a "life model", so realistic it both was and continues to be even to this day.

Inside, one of the waitresses pulls to adjust the bodice of her costume. She appears to be perhaps a bit self-conscious about the considerable amount of exposure that has been lent to the top of her ample bosom. Either that or she is preening herself for my appreciative gaze, I wasn't sure which ... Nor did it matter to any major extent since the liklihood of my having the opportunity to touch either one of the breasts in question was negligible to the point of non-existence, so the point was nothing if not entirely moot.

I entered the tavern and looked about the room in search of an empty table. The Inns and taverns of Ye Olde New England were often no more or less than a front room located on the first floor of the proprietors house with living quarters and perhaps and extra bedroom or two up the stairs on the second floor. Unlike the later barrooms that appeared along dusty streets of the Old West, these early eastern taverns seldom had a bar in the way that such establishments have come to be envisioned. The bar provided an out-of-the-way work-space from which the proprietor could dispense his selection of beverages while his patrons sat at the few tables that were set about the room. All of this to say that here, one did not belly-up to the bar, but rather sat down politely and waited to be served.

And so I sat and waited. The serving girl had apparently finished making her adjustments and was now leaning over to take the order of the patrons who were sitting a few tables away. The fellow was speaking to her politely in dulcet tones and I couldn't help but suspect that he was keeping his own voice down in an effort to cause the serving girl to lean over the better to hear what he was saying - which would of course afford him a better view of her assets. I smiled pleasantly to myself, T'was an ancient ruse of course, and one that I was hardly above using myself when the occasion presented itself. But then, the girls seldom mind the attention for in many instances it is thought to enhance the amount of her tip. All's fair in these minor skirmishes of the wits in the never-ending battle between the sexes ...

I turned, basking in pleasant reflection and started. Not violently, I hoped. But I was caught off guard and completely by surprize. For seated there in the chair across fom my own, was a second young woman - and one that I had not noticed as I entered the tavern. How I could ever have missed her, I have no idea, for there really seemed to be no other place for her to be ... Unless she had been in one of the other rooms in the house and had slipped into the tap-room while I was distracted in watching her partner? I could think of no other explanation.

"Please excuse me if I startled you," she said. "But you appeared to be preoccupied and I meant neither to intrude nor to impinge upon your privacy ... She is beautiful, is she not?" My hostess completed her salutation by indicating the other young woman who had succeeded in getting the order and had now turned to walk the short distance to the service bar.

My present company was at least as equally attractive and I managed to say so, for which my hostess smiled in silent appreciation of the compliment. The two women were similarly attired and although my hostess appeared to be somewhat less robust than her sister, she still presented a fine figure of a woman and I was more than pleased to have the pleasure of her company and again I managed to say something in words to that effect, although admittedly I probably stumbled around to some extent. My companion preened in a demure kind of way - if such is possible - but it must indeed be - because she had just done it.

It seemed to me that she was familiar and that I had seen or met her before somewhere - though this time I managed to stifle myself and not say so aloud because that just has to be the oldest line in the book. I was surprized to find a tumbler atop the table at my right hand. I didn't recall ordering a drink of any kind - nor of being afforded the opportunity to do so for the only other serving girl was just then bringing a tray of drinks to the table from which she had taken the first order.

"Try it," My hostess offered her encouragement. "It's mulled cider and our specialty here at the Hanging Woman. You'll find it quite good!"

My female companion was quite correct in her estimation of the drink with which I was presented, but still I wondered precisely how and when it had suddenly appeared there on the table before me. Women are ever all Mysterious Creatures, but how this one had appeared as though from out of nowhere in the first place, and now the small matter of this tumbler of cider had my curiosity aroused to say the least. I was inclined to write it off to the fact that attractive women tend to mesmerize me the better part of the time and let it go at that.

"Would you care to know a bit of the history of our establishment, Mr Simpson?" My hostess inquired politely, and I say hostess because there was no way that I could think of this woman as a serving wench even though that is what her costume purported her to be. I smiled and nodded in reply and the young woman launched herself into what I presumed to be a well-rehearsed historical account.

It is a matter of public record that it was a man by the name of Salem Stonebridge who was the first proprietor of the Hanging Woman and that was the latter part of the 1670's when the town was hardly as you see it today - and in fact was hardly more than a settlement - and an insignificant spot on the map whose continued existence was still in question.

Though there are of course no photographs of the building as it existed, the original Hanging Woman was in all probability hardly the quiet and dignified place that it is today. It was a drover's tavern that gained much of its revenue from the carriage trade. That is not unlike the way that it is to this day except that for most of its long career ...

The Hanging Woman more closely resembled a modern Truck Stop somewhere along the Interstate than it does the quaint little museum that it is today. In short, it was a rowdy environment that prevailed.

Salem Stonebridge did not depend entirely upon income from his tavern as his sole source of revenue. Mr Stonebridge was a Physician as well as the town Mortician - which placed him in the enviable position of being able to cover up any mistakes that he may have made in plying his trade as a Physician.

And being the industrious sort of individual that he was, Mr Stonebridge soon learned the value of a commodity that a few of his expired patrons could provide at no expense to himself whatever. And that commodity was - at least in the case of many of the younger women who were unfortunate enough to depart this earth prematurely - none other than her hair.

Now, while you may feel that hair is a rather strange resource to offer in trade, you will perhaps recall that a peruke - or a wig if you will - was the fashion of the day and that no Gentleman would so much as think of appearing in any social setting without one. Picture in your mind's eye the portraits of almost any Man of Affairs whether he be a Man of Means or not and you will see him posed seated uncomfortably in a chair as he stares sternly out at the succeeding generations.

And at the same time, there was no synthetic means to reproduce the material from which the perukes were constructed - and so you will perhaps understand how it was that this renewable resource was looked upon in some circles as being a valuable asset.

Now Salem Stonebridge was nothing if he was not in all ways a practical man. So it was not ere long that he determined that the death of one of his younger female patients, while of course deeply regrettable was at the same time profitable. Not only did he exact his fees as a physician, but as a mortician as well, besides which, when his departed patient fit into the aforementioned category, then Mr Stonebridge would avail himself of the opportunity to shear her as it were - thus depriving the corpse of her locks as well as to accrue a bit of additional income to his own account books.

Just as a side note, we are given to understand that when a patient had the misfortune to expire, that Mr Stonebridge was generous enough to forgive the surviving family the fee due to him as a physician - and apply them to that which he obtained as a mortician. I make mention of this historical footnote because it may serve to explain to some degree the fact that - although it was a well-established rumor that the mortician sheared a few of his patrons prior to their burial - it is at the same time interesting to note that no one ever offered anything in the way of an objection to his practice nor of his right to do so.

The only obstacle that presented itself was the relative scarcity of the raw material. A full half of those who placed themselves into the care of Salem Stonebridge were male. And while the men of the era were often inclined to allow their hair to grow as long as it might - the prevalence of baldness among the males of our race was certainly no less at that time than it is today. So with only a few unrecorded exceptions, the men served the mortician no purpose at all in his quest to garner material.

And if the truth be told - in many instances the women served his cause none the better. For whether she will have it that way or not, a woman's hair changes its texture as she passes beyond the Prime Years of her life. At best, it becomes coarse or thin and in either case it is far less desirable either atop her head or when woven into the perukes with which the mortician was primarly concerned.

I believe that it has been recorded in history somewhere that soldiers in the Roman conquering armies did often slaughter the local peasant girls when they were otherwise finished with them to obtain their hair for very much the same reason that Dr Stonebridge, the Physician, did harvest the tresses of his less fortunate patients.

I feel that I would be remiss were I not to hasten to add that this is by no means intended to imply nor to infer ...

That Dr Stonebridge resorted to anything that even remotely resembled the murder of any woman whether she was young or old. Oh, no ... Not at all.

Witchcraft and its practice and practitioners were of a paramount concern to the citizens who populated almost any early New England community. Those who stood accused of any practice in the Black Arts was subject to a cleansing ritual that was little short of an Inquisition. Whether a witch was guilty of the charges made against her or not made little real difference because once a woman stood accused, there was little that she could say or do to convince those who sat in judgement of her innocence - even given the dubiousness of the testimonies that were given as evidence of their misdeeds and used against her.

It has ever been a strange thing to me whenever I think of it ... But the Bible states that God Created Woman even as He did the Man, Adam. It occurs to me that it seems only reasonable to assume that our God was and remains well aware of the Difference Between the Two Sexes inasmuch as it was Our Creator who devised those self-same differences in the first place. And yet somehow to the minds of men, the very concept of sex has devolved into little short of a dirty word! If the Serpent unleashed anything in the Garden in his fateful visit to Adam and Eve, it was this foolish concept that Sex Is An Evil Thing!

And yet unleash it he did for mankind has ever after been somehow ashamed of his own Entirely Natural God-Given Desires! And - as if to stand in proof of that bold statement is the unrefutable fact that throughout the greater part of history - the witches - those who were often burned at the stake in some misguided attempt to cleanse their mortal souls - were many times the young or otherwise desirable females of the greater population!

And such was often the case here in the New England of the latter years of the seventeenth century. Witches were burned at the stake no longer.

Civilization had advanced to a degree after all, and so those convicted of practicing witchcraft were simply hanged as was any other felon of that day and age.

As the local mortician, Salem Stonebridge was called upon - not to perform the actual execution - that was the province of the sheriff ...

But rather to dispose of the miscreant after they had been suspended for what was deemed a sufficient length of time. There was nothing in the way of a fee to be garnered in the performance of his duties - for this was looked upon as a Public Service which was expected of a man in his position.

Disposing of the bodies did of course lend certain other compensations of their own ...

Not the least of which was the hair that was thus obtained from the heads of the condemned. And the matter of digging the graves themselves was left to an individual who went by the name of Schmee, a man who was a regular patron here at the Hanging Woman.

Whether or not there was any stigma attached to the perhaps distasteful task of relieving a woman of her tresses, it did not appear to in any way disturb the innkeeper for it was Salem Stonebridge himself who named this establishment. And there were those who said that it was Mr Stonebridge who painted the first of the signs that were to hang over the door.

The prosecution and execution of those who stood accused of practicing Witchcraft occured for only a relatively brief period of time in the History of New England.

And so it is not known precisely how long the practice of shearing the hanged women continued nor whether the practice was passed along to subsequent morticians or proprietors of the Hanging Woman.

And if any of those women ever rained curses upon the heads of her executioners, then they could not have been especially effective ...

Because Mr Stonebridge, for his part, lived well into his nineties before passing on to his reward. And so there you have a bit of the background of this place we call the Hanging Woman and how it came to gain its name.

"And now sir, if you will be good enough to excuse me? I see that Molly has arrived to relieve me for it is the end of my shift, you see."

My hostess rose sedately from where she was seated, bowed her head ever so slightly as she smiled at me pleasantly, and then turned and slowly faded away into the crowd that was gathering inside the Hanging Woman.

I had finished my own drink long ago and seeing the popularity of the place, I decided that it was high time that I relinquished my table to some of the other patrons.

I managed to catch the eye of the serving girl and asked her for my check. She fished around in the pocket of the apron she wore but failed to produce one.

"I had a mug of mulled cider," I volunteered helpfully.

"Did you say mulled cider, Mister And did I serve it to you?"

"Well, no. You didn't as a matter of fact. It was another waitress ... But she's gone off-duty ..."

"Off duty? When?"

"Only just a few minutes ago ... Why? Is that so unusual?"

"Well, no Sir, it isn't. It does happen now and then ... But it's the first time its happened during my shift! I just wish that I had seen her that's all!"

"Saw her? Don't you work with her?"

"Well, no ... Not until today ... The others have ... But not me ... Never before ... We only serve mulled cider during the winter months and ... Well ... You see, Mister ... They say that this place is haunted!"

"Haunted? I shouldn't wonder that it was!"

"Then you know the story behind this tavern?"

"Only recently ... My hostess related it to me ..."

"Mr ... Your drink is on the house!"

The waitress turned to attend to business but I pressed her with a bill that I felt was more than enough to cover the price of my drink - and then some.

"Gee ... Thanks, Mister! Thank you very much!"

"You will share this with your friend the next time you see her?"

I didn't make my request especially forcefully but I did think that it would perhaps be appropriate ... Even though I rather doubted that it would happen ...

Then I supposed that might depend upon how vindictive the Spirits might be who in habit this place!

"Oh! I will! Thanks again, Mister!"

I wandered outside and paused for a moment on the boardwalk that ran along in front of the tavern. There were a fair number of other people - tourists like myself for the most part out and about ... Some were peering curiously into the windows of the shops along the boardwalk while at the same time there were others who obviously could have cared less ... And it made me to wonder why they had come to a place that was essentially a living museum in the first place?

I wondered among other things about my gracious hostess of a quarter hour before ... And of where she might have taken herself went she took her leave? But of course anyone at all familiar with the surrounding area could be quite some distance away by this time ...

I stepped off the boardwalk preparing to cross the street ... But as luck would have it, there was a small burst of traffic in the form of a horse-drawn carriage pulling to the curb and so I held up for a moment. Absently I turned to look back at the facade of the Hanging Woman Inn ... And as I did a chill ran down my spine ... For I suddenly realized where it was that I had seen my hostess prior to our conversation of only minutes earlier ...

For there hanging over the entrance to the tavern was that old hand-painted sign of a young woman hanging in effigy ... Hanging just as she had been hanged an untold number of years before ...

The young woman who only minutes ago had served me a mug of mulled cider and regaled me with her History of the Hanging Woman ...

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