The use of that expression, “turned off,” in these narratives had been puzzling me. As a metaphor, it makes perfect sense. It’s just like turning off a light switch. But these stories come from the days before electricity. How did “turned off” mean “executed” to people back then?
It shows up again in Hawthorne’s notes from the wax museum: “two pirates were represented with halters round their necks, just ready to be turned off.” As I was reading this in the lunch room, I brought the subject up to the others in there. And being a professional librarian, one of them looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that “turn off” meant “to dismiss, send away; Spec. to discharge from employment” back in the 15-1600s. I could see how that might be used as a metaphor for execution.
I went back to the OED on my own a little later, and found that it’s not a metaphor at all. Scrolling down the page, I found another definition: “To hang (on a gallows): orig. to turn off the ladder.” The convict would be up on a ladder, with his or her neck in the noose, and the ladder would be turned so the person would fall and hang.
The things you learn hanging out online…