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Ladders were once used by lynch mobs as gibbets

Posted in Historical articles, Superstition on Friday, 28 June 2013

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This edited article about popular superstitions originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 308 published on 9 December 1967.

Advertising bill poster, picture, image, illustration

The mother and child would doubtless not walk underneath this bill poster's ladder, but why?

We have, of course, a very practical reason for not walking under a ladder – especially if there is a man with a paint-pot on the top rung!

However, there is another, and more sinister, explanation which goes back to the days when ‘justice’ was rougher and readier than it is today; and when citizens who believed they had been wronged were quicker to take the law into their own hands.

Often they did not wait for the wrongdoer to be arrested and brought to trial. A length of rope, a handy tree, and the job was done!

When these ancestors of ours began to live in towns, things were less simple. Trees did not grow in their streets and so they substituted ladders, which could be quickly erected against any wall. The rope was slung over one of the high rungs, the ‘execution’ carried out, and all evidence removed before the Law could intervene.

The danger from the ordinary person’s point of view, was that anyone passing close by, or particularly beneath, the ladder might be suspected of attempting a rescue – and dealt with accordingly; so the innocent passers-by quickly learnt to keep clear of any ladder leaning against a wall . . . just in case!

This reason for avoiding ladders has, of course, long been forgotten, but the general feeling of ill-luck still clings to them, and the usual precautions against misfortune are often taken, particularly crossing the fingers.

In some places, meeting certain animals after walking under a ladder can strengthen the precautions. In Devon you must remain silent until you have seen a four-legged animal. In Bath people cross their fingers, and keep them crossed until they have seen five dogs!

In some parts of Wales things are even more complicated. You must keep your fingers crossed until you have seen three dogs and three horses – and then you must wish.

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