Opening the Gallows Gates

The iron gates that once opened for Spokane County's public hangings will soon be erected again near their original spot

(Left) Charles Brooks, Spokane County's first official hanging victim, moments before his death; (right) the "gallows gates" as they stood until they were torn down in 1970. - COURTESY OF SPOKANE LAW ENFORCEMENT MUSEUM
courtesy of Spokane Law Enforcement Museum
(Left) Charles Brooks, Spokane County's first official hanging victim, moments before his death; (right) the "gallows gates" as they stood until they were torn down in 1970.

For 75 years, iron gates separated prisoners in the courtyard at the Spokane County Courthouse from freedom. They once filled in the "archway of death," which opened to a courtyard where public hangings took place.

But the "gallows gates," as they've been nicknamed, were torn down in 1970 for the construction of a new public safety building. For decades, almost nobody knew where they went. And then, while looking for an old rusty wheel in 2008, Chuck King came across a guy at a yard sale.

"He said, 'I work for the parks department, and the old iron gates from the courthouse are sitting out in a pile at Plante's Ferry Park," says King, who works for the Spokane Valley Heritage Museum. "These gates were just laying outside, up against the fence with a bunch of other junk."

Soon, the gates will again stand at the courthouse like they once did. This time, opening them won't lead you to any courtyard, and they won't be shutting anyone in. Instead, they'll stand to remind us of the history of the Spokane County Courthouse, says Sue Walker, secretary-treasurer of the Spokane Law Enforcement Museum.

"We just felt they should go back up as part of the original courthouse," Walker says. "[We thought] we could use this to share this history of both the beautiful courthouse we're blessed with in Spokane, and to tell the history of the jails through the years and the last three hangings."

Historical posters line the hallway wall of the public safety building as Walker makes her way to her office. She stops and reads one in particular, called "Spokane County's Official Hangings," showing a picture of a man with a noose around his neck moments before his death.

His name was Charles Brooks, a black man convicted of murdering his estranged white wife. His last words: "A man that loves a woman will kill her. If I hadn't loved her I wouldn't have killed her. If you love a woman you will go through fire for her."

This was in 1892, three years before the courthouse was completed and the "gallows gates" were erected. But it wasn't long before the gates would open for the public hangings of two other prisoners. In 1897, a Chinese immigrant named Gin Pong was hanged in the courtyard outside the jail for murdering a countryman. And three years later, George Webster, a farmhand, was hanged for killing his employer's wife.

"[Hangings] were a fact of life back then," Walker says. "That was law."

That's how the "gallows gates" name came to stick. Walker, however, sees the gates as an art form by W.A. Ritchie, who designed the original courthouse.

King doesn't like the term. Sure, he says, the courtyard is where a couple of people were hanged, but it was mostly an exercise yard for inmates.

"That's not why they were put up," he says. "They were put up to keep guys in the exercise yard."

For decades until King found the iron gates in 2008, they had been in the possession of the county parks department, he says. When he found them, he called Walker, both of whom contacted Ron Oscarson, Spokane County facilities director. King's friend, Rick Nelson, restored the gates and they went on display at the 2015 Spokane Interstate Fair.

Walker, King, Oscarson and Nelson, among others, helped to obtain grants for the project so they could bring the gates back to the courthouse. Construction officially began in August, and Walker says the goal is to have them finished before Oscarson is set to retire in early November.

They won't be in the exact same spot as they used to be, but as close as possible, Walker says — if you look hard enough from where the gates will stand, you can see the patchwork on the courthouse wall where the gates once connected. Otherwise, the gates and archway will be re-created to look exactly like they used to. Signs will show historical facts about the courthouse and the jail and the hangings that took place.

And somewhere, Walker says, will be a new message.

"Be careful of the choices you make in life, lest you enter these gates," it will read. "It's never too late to turn around and go the other way." ♦

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About The Author

Wilson Criscione

Wilson Criscione, born and raised in Spokane, is an Inlander staff writer covering education and social services in the Inland Northwest.