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Black Cap of Death

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"And the Lord have mercy upon thy soul!"

"Describe Topic Here, you are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul."

In British Courts, a black capnote  is the ultimate symbol of doom for a condemned man. Seeing a judge put it on lets all present in the courtroom know that, barring some miraculous appeal or other happenstance, the fate of the prisoner at the dock has been sealed. The sentence of death shall soon be passed. While British Judges are still issued the caps, the death penalty has been abolishednote  (and now banned Europe-wide by the European Convention on Human Rights), so they're unlikely to ever see use (with the possible exception of cases where the British Judicial Committee of the Privy Councilnote  still acts as court of final appeal for residual colonies or for former colonies which apply British law and still have the death penalty).


Despite this, a judge wearing a black cap still serves as shorthand for "this prisoner's been sentenced to hang" (similarly to The Executioner's hood). A particularly crazy Hanging Judge might even be already wearing it.

The cap has a black Color Motif both because black is the traditional color of death and mourning,note  and to signify that the judge is humble before God who has the only real power over life and death.

Useless trivia: when the British ruled over Ireland, the judicial black cap was known in Gaelic as the caip bais, pronounced "kybosh". Thus a new word entered English. Of course, the judge wasn't so much putting the kybosh on his own head as, symbolically, on the condemned man's...



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  • Late in Fables, specifically Volume 14: Witches, King Flycatcher dones a black hood when rendering his judgement about Mr. Brump the goblin devouring of Mr. Seed-create the squirrel, echoing this trope. It ends up subverted as Brump only ends up exiled.


  • In Death Comes to Pemberley and its television adaptation, the judge at George Wickham's trial puts it on when condemning him to the gallows.
  • In Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, after Judge Wargrave has been found dead (apparently), another character (Philip Lombard) mentions that there will be no more putting on his black cap and sending others to the gallows for him.
  • In Pamela Branch's The Wooden Overcoat, the character of Benji wonders, during a trial, why the judge has his black cap tucked up under his desk?
  • In the Rumpole of the Bailey short story, "Rumpole and the Vanishing Juror", Rumpole muses that there is always one jury member that is too eager to see the black cap brought out.
  • In Judge Dee books, the Chinese equivalent is the judge wearing a red robe.
  • The judge at Dr. Bickleigh's trial at the end of Malice Aforethought and its first television adaptation puts on a black cap when sentencing the doctor to the gallows.
  • In Bram Stoker's short story "The Judge's House", the titular judge's ghost slowly dons a black cap before hanging his house's current tenant.

     Live-Action TV  
  • In Blackadder's courtmartial in Blackadder Goes Forth General Melchett assures Blackadder that he'll be an impartial judge (Blackadder accidentally shot and ate Melchett's pet pigeon), then calls for the black cap because he'll be needing it, unlike any pretenses of justice.
  • The BBC's 2007 mini-series version of Oliver Twist has the Judge (played by Rob Brydon) blithely asking how many people's sent to the gallows that week (22, but it was only Tuesday) before cavalierly slapping on a black cap and giving Oliver the death sentence for pickpocketing. Later in that same adaptation, in sentencing Fagin he wordlessly puts on his black cap and slams his gavel and Fagin is taken away.
  • Spoofed in Monty Python's Flying Circus during the "Court Charades" sketch when a judge portrayed by Graham Chapman sentences another judge to be burnt at the stake as he slaps on a black cap.
  • Appears in Downton Abbey when Mr. Bates receives a guilty verdict that carries a mandatory death sentence which fortunately is later overturned on appeal.
  • Seen in Grantchester when a character is convicted of murder and sentenced to hang. The angle shifts momentarily to one above and behind the judge to call attention to the action.
  • Foyle's War: The episode "The Hide" has full solemn choral music played as the the Black Cap is reverentially brought out and placed upon the judge's head to pronounce sentence, even as the scene is intercut with Foyle discovering the secrets that the sentencee is pleading guilty to protect.
  • Rumpole of the Bailey: In the episode "Rumpole and the Golden Thread", when Rumpole visits an African nation which still has the death penalty, the resident British Ambassador is excited to see a capital case because seeing the black cap brought out "adds a certain zest" to the trial. Rumpole is not enthusiastic about seeing it in the least, however.

     Web Animation 
  • Extra History's second episode on Jonathan Wild, a chessmaster who controlled most of London's underground, all the while posing as a popular public figure. When he was found out, the court sentenced him to hang, and Matt describes the judge putting on his black cap.

     Real Life  
  • There are only two known photographs of the Black Cap being actually worn while a death sentence is being pronounced. This photo from 1912 shows Mr Justice Bucknill passing sentence on the convicted murderer Frederick Seddon, who poisoned his tenant Eliza Mary Barrow. Seddon was hanged a month later. This 1922 photo shows Mr Justice Avory passing sentence on Thomas Allaway, convicted of murdering a little girl.