This week’s term is a perfect example of slang – taking something known to a group of people and using it for a broader, informal cultural reference.
Hangman’s Wages (noun)
By proclamation of James I, the fee allowed for an execution was thirteen pence halfpenny: one shilling for the executioner and three halfpence for the rope. As slang for the present day (late 18th and early 19th centuries), it represents the raised prices charged by the hangman of Newgate, to include the monetary fee and confiscated considerations from the condemned.
William Calcraft, executioner from 1829-1872, was paid one guinea per week as retainer and an extra one guinea per hanging. He also received a half crown for each flogging. He further supplemented his earnings by charging higher fees for executions performed at other prisons across England.
Hangmen were also allowed to keep the clothes and personal effects of the condemned. Calcraft was known to sell items to Madame Tussaud’s for use in their Chamber of Horrors. Other executioners would sell souvenir pieces of the rope and noose. The strangest procured wage came from the selling of chances to come in contact with the recently hanged; sufferers of skin diseases paid to touch the body of the still-hanging corpse on the belief that it would cure the ailment.