Just when we thought we had thoroughly combed the historical record and reported all interesting tidbits on a subject, we are reminded that there is no limit to strange stories from the past. In recent days, Commonplace Fun Facts has brought you the accounts of a town that placed a bunch of insects on trial and another story about a San Francisco dog being tried for murder. Just as we were about the close the book on peculiar animal trials, we learned about the infamous Hartlepool monkey hanging.
The event dates back to the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century. The good people of Hartlepool, (pronounced Heartly-pool), United Kingdom were startled to see a French ship approaching the coast. Fortunately, it was not an invasion. The ship was badly damaged and sunk before their eyes.
Folks from the community rushed to the shore and were there as wreckage hit the sand. They pulled the sole survivor from the water and debated what should be done with him.
Keep in mind that about 325 miles (525 km) separate Hartlepool from France. Most Hartlepudians had never seen a Frenchman. Since the survivor was dressed in a French uniform, they could be forgiven for assuming they had just captured a sailor of the nation with which they were at war.
It should also be mentioned that few, if any, of them had ever seen a monkey. That, apparently, is what they pulled from the wreckage. Perhaps it was the ship’s mascot. That would account for the miniature military uniform in which it was dressed. Besides, Napoleon was rumored to be a short fellow, wasn’t he? (Actually, he really wasn’t. Read about that in this article.) Maybe all members of the French military have a similar stature.
The soggy, startled simian screeched with unintelligible utterings. Again, if you don’t know French, what else would you expect to hear?
Hartlepool, being a coastal community, was on high alert over a possible French invasion. They were convinced the doomed ship was part of a reconnaissance mission, leading up to Napoleon’s assault upon their shores.
They questioned the French primate, but he refused to provide any information about his mission. Left with no other option, they charged the creature with espionage and placed him on trial. Even under the threat of capital punishment, the monkey offered no mitigating testimony. He was, therefore, found guilty. The sentence of death was to be carried out immediately. He was dragged into the town square and hanged in a public ceremony.
In this way, Hartlepool became forever associated with the place where a monkey was executed. More than 200 years later, Hartlepudians are referred to as “monkey hangers.” If you attend a football match between Hartlepool United and its rival Darlington, it is inevitable that you will be treated to the taunting chant, “Who hung the monkey?”
Rather than take offense, Hartlepool has embraced this chapter of its history. Hartlepool United’s mascot is H’Angus the Monkey. Its Rugby Union team Hartlepool Rovers are affectionately known as the Monkeyhangers. Throughout the city, countless references to that case of mistaken identity from 200 years ago can be seen. At the Hartlepool Marina, for example, a statue of the unfortunate monkey is a collection point for charity. To the eyes of this American writer, however, the monkey’s face looks suspiciously like Cornelius in the 1968 movie Planet of the Apes.
Local politicians have been known to ride on the coattails of the poor monkey’s miniature uniform. When Stuart Drummond campaigned for the office of Hartlepool mayor in 2002, he dressed in the costume of H’Angus the Monkey. He also promised “free bananas for schoolchildren.” Although he was unable to fulfill that particular campaign promise, something about his association with the monkey worked; he won that election and was re-elected twice.
As much as the history and culture of Hartlepool are linked to the unfortunate French shipwreck survivor, some question whether the event really happened. Some historians have suggested that it would have been quite unusual for a monkey to be on a French ship. What was common, however, was for young boys to serve as part of the crew. The boys had the task of priming canons with gunpowder. For this reason, they came to be known as “powder monkeys.”
It is possible that the sole survivor of that shipwreck off the coast of Hartlepool was not a monkey but was a boy who, through a thick French accent, identified himself as a powder monkey. If so, the citizens of Hartlepool didn’t string up a simian — they executed a very unfortunate lad.
Perhaps it is best that the details of this part of Hartlepool’s past remain clouded by uncertainty. Being labeled as “monkey hangers” has transformed from insult to pride. It probably would have taken a bit longer than two centuries to say the same about the alternative.