Who invented Hangman? (Invention Timeline Explained)

Have you ever wondered about the history of various old games? While there are many more games in the market seen as advanced and groundbreaking, for some reason the classic board games and classroom games never seem to go out of style. It’s also not necessarily about the most popular ones, such as Monopoly or even chess. Sometimes the most seemingly mundane game can have an incredible history.

For example, have you ever wondered about the history of Hangman? Just about everyone knows the relatively simple game of Hangman, and it’s often fun enough that plenty of people still play Hangman and its many variations. Did you know Hangman had some pretty odd beginnings? Let’s look into the timeline and development of this 

Who invented Hangman?

The interesting thing about this is the history of the Hangman “game”. One the one hand, there’s a so-called 17th century tradition of prisoners getting a chance to play for life, known as the Rite of Words and Life. On the other hand, the earliest  rendition of Hangman as a game comes from Alice Gomme’s book called Birds, Beasts, and Fishes.

Hangman’s key contributors (and evolution)

  • Europe
    The so-called 17th century tradition known as the Rite of Words and Life 

    The Rite of Words and Life involves the executioner asking a few questions to the guilty party. With each answer guessed incorrectly, the legs of the table they stood on were sawed off. If they answered it correctly, they would be freed.

  • Alice Gomme
    Birds, Beasts, and Fishes

    Alice Gomme’s book in 1894 talks about many different children’s games, with one of them being an early rendition of Hangman.

  • Milton Bradley
    The release of the Hangman board game

    While Hangman has already been a popular classroom game, its popularity increased with Milton Bradley’s release of Hangman in 1976. 

When was Hangman invented?

If you’re talking about the actual game, it was invented in 1894, or at least a rendition of it in Alice Gomme’s book. The Hangman game also supposedly has a history with The Rite of Words and Life. It apparently gave those sentenced to death one more chance for freedom.

A brief history of Hangman

One of the most fascinating things about children’s games and poems is that they often have strangely dark pasts. With Hangman, the game supposedly gets its start with the Rite of Words and Life. It’s a so-called 17th century tradition where those who are sentenced to death are given one more chance at freedom. It’s said that they would be put on top of a 5-legged stand. This stand would then lose one of its legs each time they guessed in correctly. Naturally, if all 5 guesses are wrong, all the legs are cut off. If the prison somehow gets it right, they’re pardoned.

The lack of evidence makes this a shaky theory at best. That said, the 17th century was a strange time — it could have been possible that there existed such a means of escaping execution. As far as the actual game goes, its first known rendition was made in 1894, courtesy of Alice Gomme’s book, the Birds, Beasts, and Fishes. Funny enough, Alice Gomme’s book would have no rendition of the hanged man, but rather players had to keep score to ensure that the number of attempts were accurate.

Hangman is a relatively simple game, but the design of the hanged man was what made it popular, and was the reason why it was connected to the Rite of Words and Life. In 1976, Milton Bradley released the Hangman board game, which added the novelty of board pieces to the game experience.

In a game of Hangman, the player is given 6 chances to guess a word or a phrase. They guess through letters, and each letter guessed wrong adds a line to the Hangman illustration. If the Hangman illustration is completed, the player loses. It’s a surprisingly effective game, considering its simple rules.

Hangman timeline

  1. 17th century
    The Rite of Words and Life

    Those who are sentenced to death were apparently given another chance at being pardoned through the Rite of Words and Life. They were given a chance at answering questions, and if the five questions were answered wrong, the person was executed.

  2. 1894
    Alice Gomme’s book

    Alice Gomme’s book called the Birds, Beasts, and Fishes had many different games — Hangman included. The illustration of the hanged man wasn’t part of this rendition, and players instead had to take note of the number of times they guessed incorrectly.

  3. 1976 onwards
    Release of the Hangman board game and its growing popularity

    Milton Bradley’s release of the Hangman board game undoubtedly played a role in the overall popularity of the game. It added a bit of novelty to the experience, and it continued to spread the word of the popular classroom game.

Where was Hangman invented?

Hangman was invented either in 17th century Europe through an old tradition known as the Rite of Words and Life, or it was developed more specifically in Britain by Alice Gomme. Either way, Hangman has its origins tied to Europe. 

The importance of Hangman

  • A game with a strange history

    Considering the Rite of Words and Life, there’s no denying that Hangman got its start with some rather interesting stories.

  • An easy game to play

    There’s nothing quite like a simple game you can play with family and friends. Hangman doesn’t demand much from the players — even the design of the hanged man is just a stickman.

  • The beginnings of a pop culture phenomenon

    Wheel of Fortune got its start with Hangman! Merv Griffin states he thought up of the premise when he recalled long car trips playing Hangman with his sister.

  • It helps with teaching foreign languages

    People who wanted to learn English could learn a surprising amount by playing the game. Hangman is particularly good at teaching foreign languages due to how easy it is to play. It’s a mixture of fun and education in a great package.

Hangman by the numbers

  • 6The number of guesses you usually have in a game of Hangman before losing the game. The cool part is you can modify it based on the illustration.
  • 5The number of guesses in the infamous Rite of Words and Life. The executioner was known to offer questions that the guilty would have to answer if they hoped to avoid execution.
  • 12There are 12 frequently occurring letters in games of Hangman, which means you can potentially increase your odds by mixing and matching the 12 letters.
  • 1960Brazil had a show in the 60s called Let’s Play Hangman. It eventually evolved into Brazil’s own Wheel of Fortune.

Five facts about Hangman

  • The hardest word to guess in Hangman

    While there are quite a few uncommonly used letters in Hangman, there is one particular word that’s the perfect storm of trickery in the game. The four-letter word jazz is considered the trickiest in the game.

  • Shorter vs longer words

    In a typical game of Hangman, the longer words are usually much easier to guess, as the percentage of guessing letters right is higher. For example, guessing any vowel will potentially get something right if it’s a long word. 

  • The earliest surviving footprints

    The oldest footprints were found down the slopes of a volcano in Italy. Surprisingly enough, the footprints were dated to be 325,000 years old!

  • Switching the game based on the illustration

    Keep in mind that there’s no need to use the proverbial hanged man in Hangman. Instead, you could potentially go for other illustrations, perhaps allowing even more guesses. Many classroom teachers prefer drawing an apple tree, though it can be simple illustration. With a new drawing, you can have a custom game of Hangman.

  • As easy or as difficult as you want

    Hangman can be made as easy or as challenging as you want, and it can help you in a variety of situations. It’s a great language teacher, and a game of Hangman can help players memorize words.

FAQ about Hangman

  • Can you play Hangman online?

    You absolutely can! There are various ways you can play Hangman online. For example, there are some gaming platforms out there with Hangman built in for online users to try. You can even play the game online through Zoom and other online conferencing software if you’d like.  

  • What’s the most common letter in Hangman?

    If you want to get better at Hangman, it’s all about understanding the most common letters. For example, the letter that tops the list is e, at an 11% chance. The next is the letter a, at an 8% chance. Surprisingly, the letter r comes next at 7%!

  • How do I throw Hangman players for a loop?

    If you want to give them as challenging a time as possible, you can use the word kickshaw and jazz as potential Hangman words. Irregular and unpredictable words are well and good, but it’s also a good idea to choose words based on how uncommon they are in the game.

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