General Question

silky1's avatar

The term Dead Man Walking originated when?

Asked by silky1 (1485 points ) February 23rd, 2011

It is used when a prisoner is about to be executed.

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12 Answers

coffeenut's avatar

I think it originated with people infected with the Black Plague (ie: they would be dead soon)
but don’t quote me on that

Seelix's avatar

The earliest reference I could find was to a poem by Thomas Hardy from 1909, “The Dead Man Walking”:

THEY hail me as one living,
But don’t they know
That I have died of late years,
Untombed although?

I am but a shape that stands here,
A pulseless mould,
A pale past picture, screening
Ashes gone cold.

Not at a minute’s warning,
Not in a loud hour,
For me ceased Time’s enchantments
In hall and bower.

There was no tragic transit,
No catch of breath,
When silent seasons inched me
On to this death….

—A Troubadour-youth I rambled
With Life for lyre,
The beats of being raging
In me like fire.

But when I practised eyeing
The goal of men,
It iced me, and I perished
A little then.

When passed my friend, my kinsfolk,
Through the Last Door,
And left me standing bleakly,
I died yet more;

And when my Love’s heart kindled
In hate of me,
Wherefore I knew not, died I
One more degree.

And if when I died fully
I cannot say,
And changed into the corpse-thing
I am to-day,

Yet is it that, though whiling
The time somehow
In walking, talking, smiling,
I live not now.

————————————————————
I tried to look for the phrase in the OED online, but didn’t find anything.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Seelix That is amazing. Thank you.

Seelix's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe – I thought it was a pretty cool poem, too, regardless of whether it’s the actual origin of the phrase. :)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@Seelix We’ve been executing prisoners for a lot longer than 100+ years though.

Jude's avatar

The is probably going to get flagged (we’re in General), but, I love that poem. Morbid, but, I love it.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@coffeenut Black Plague would make it European in origin. It seems more of a US term doesn’t it? I’m just thinking it through. (Mods, cut Jude some slack. It’s frigging haunting)

Seelix's avatar

I really thought the OED would give me some info… But I searched “dead man walking” and got nothing at all, and then searched “dead man” as well, but none of the phrases included any walking. I’m heading out, but if anyone else has access to the OED and wants to slog through all the entries for “dead”, be my guest :)

coffeenut's avatar

@Adirondackwannabe I took a “IDC” course that covered containment of diseases, one was Bubonic plague, and the instructor referred to the sick as “the walking dead” and “dead man walking”, the only other time I’ve heard that phrase was in regards to death row inmates….

coffeenut's avatar

and I could be wrong…I’ve never checked into his claims (about the names of the sick)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@coffeenut That could be it. Gesundheit is thought to date back to the Black Plague as well. (German for health)

absalom's avatar

I was under the impression this referred to prisoners on death row. Those making their last walk toward the gallows (or whatever method) were called dead men walking. Consider the subject material of this book, which takes place in a penitentiary. (Also see at the ‘Name’ section of the article, which explains the title and confirms this reading.)

But I’ve also heard it used to refer to men sentenced to death by walking the plank. You know, pirates and stuff. It must be retroactively applied in this case, as the phrase seems to have originated in the U.S.

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