A gallows consists of a frame made of two upright posts with one transverse post positioned between them, many feet above the ground. A gallows is used to execute people; individuals are hanged from the neck from a rope connected to the gallows until they are dead. Generally speaking, gallows are constructed from wood. Occasionally, they are also referred to as "hanging trees." This is because a tree can easily serve the same function; a rope can be attached to a sturdy tree branch, and an individual can be hanged on that rope.
Historically, gallows were often used by governments to execute prisoners who committed serious crimes, though they are used less frequently in modern times. They were also commonly used in times of war to execute war criminals. Many countries have switched to what some perceive as more humane execution methods, such as lethal injection. Other countries, such as some middle eastern countries, still use hanging as a means of execution. Saddam Hussein, for example, was hanged in Iraq in 2006 for crimes against humanity and some other offenses, including some war crimes.
Many different kinds of gallows have been used throughout history. Some were constructed to be permanent and serve the dual purpose of executing prisoners and intimidating those still living. They served as symbols of justice and power—ever present reminders of the consequences of acting against the rulers of a given area. Others were constructed to be temporary and tended to be used only for execution. Some temporary gallows were even designed to be transported to the scenes of crimes.
The basic frame design was effective. In many cases, the condemned prisoner was led to a platform beneath the transverse beam. There, the noose was placed around his neck; the rope was also attached to the transverse beam. When it came time to execute the condemned, a trap door beneath his feet was opened and he fell through. The rope tightened around his neck, and his momentum then drew it rapidly tight; he either died as a result of a broken neck or of strangulation after the fall.
Gallows were used as a relatively inexpensive and efficient means of execution. Over time, however, some people began to question the morality and humanity of execution by hanging. Many nations and societies moved on to other methods of execution, such as the lethal injection or the electric chair. These methods are generally perceived as being more humane, though they are much more expensive.