An Unexpected Hanging
The gavel made a sharp sound, and the courtroom fell quiet. Thomas’s time of sentencing was at hand. He could think only of Rita at this moment, wondering if he would see her again. From on high, the judge spoke.
“The crime of which you have been found guilty is a most unusual one,” he said, addressing Thomas. “I have no choice, considering the circumstances, to sentence you to hang in the gallows.”
The courtroom began to buzz with hushed voices. The judge removed his glasses, slowly and deliberately, and cleaned them on the hem of his robe before returning them to his face. He looked down at Thomas.
“One day next week, you will hang at noon. I will not tell you which day. It will be a weekday, and when the clock strikes noon, you will be surprise to find the hangman knocking at your cell door. Yes, it will be a surprise to you. And you will hang. This is a rare punishment, although not without precedence. It is a sentence that fits the crime.”
Thomas stood and the room began to blur. He thought of nothing, not even Rita. He was escorted by an armed guard from the courtroom, meaty hands under each arm propelling him forward. Corridors, hallways, stairwells—everything shimmered around him. Thomas was dragged to his new cell and deposited onto the cold floor.
“Your new home,” laughed one of the guards. “We will bring one meal a day in the evening until the day of your execution.” The door was shut and the metal lock slid into place. The only light was a grimy lantern, set on a shelf above a small cot. A draft seemed to pull through the room, and the light from the flame flickered and danced on the dank stone walls. Thomas lay on his back and watched the moving shadows. He searched for shapes in the images, each one coalescing into a creaking wooden platform or a swinging noose of rope. He closed his eyes, but he was taunted by faces he could barely recognize.
“Get a hold of yourself,” Thomas said to himself. “They’re just shadows. This is what the judge wants. You’re scared, but you can still think logically.” He opened his eyes and slowly sat up. “Think. What did the judge say? One day next week, a weekday, the hangman will come at noon. And I’ll be surprised. He repeated that part: You will be surprised.”
Thomas stood and paced around his cell. There seemed to be a puzzle in the sentence. Perhaps he could figure it out. But what was it?
“A weekday, and I will be surprised. Well, if I survive until Thursday night, then the only day the sentence can be carried out will be Friday. But that’s impossible, because I won’t be surprised. I’ll know ahead of time the day of my execution. So I can say, logically, that I will not hang from the gallows next Friday.”
This was something, then. Something he could make sense of in all this madness. Thomas felt a familiar click in his mind. He might be on to something.
“OK, but can I take this logic one step further? Since I now know for certain I cannot hang on Friday, Thursday is the last possible day of the week I can hang. But if I survive until Wednesday night, I’ll know that I must hang on Thursday. I won’t be surprised when the hangman comes to knock on the cell door. Therefore, it is impossible for me to hang on Thursday, too.”
The logic worked! He moved back another day, and realized his reasoning still held. He could work his way back through the week, and one by one eliminate each day. By thinking about things logically, he’d made sense of this cruel riddle. He would escape the hangman.
“That’s it!” said Thomas. “The judge cannot keep his promise. It’s impossible for me to be executed any day next week and be surprised. That’s the puzzle! Tricky, tricky.”
Relieved, Thomas lay back on his cot, smiling in the half-light. He no longer dreamed of the gallows. Instead, he allowed himself to think of Rita—the day they met, the way she smiled at him, the first time they kissed. He was at peace. He would see Rita again. It must be.
Monday came, and noon passed without a knock on the door. It worked! Thomas had unlocked the judge’s little riddle. The hangman did not come on Tuesday either. Thomas slept soundly that night, for the first time in many months. Rita was there with him. He was certain of it.
A knock came at his door. It was Wednesday. Was it noon already? It couldn’t be. When the cell door swung open, a man with a black hood over his head filled the frame. It was the hangman!
“No!” yelled Thomas. “How can this be? It’s impossible! I had it all figured out, step by step. It was so logical…”
“Surprised?” said the hangman from beneath his hood. “They always are, you know.”
Thomas tried in vain to explain the obvious mistake, but he was pulled, in complete shock and surprise, from his cell. His sentence was going to be carried out exactly as the judge had decreed.