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Walking the plank was a form of punishment thought to have been practiced on special occasion by pirates, mutineers, and other rogue seafarers. For the amusement of the perpetrators (and the psychological torture of the victims), captives were forced to walk off a wooden plank or beam extended over the side of a ship.
The Times reported on February 14, 1829 that the packet Redpole (Bullock, master) was captured by the pirate schooner President and sunk. The commander was shot and the crew were made to walk the plank.
In 1829, pirates intercepted the Dutch brig Vhan Fredericka in the Leeward Passage between the Virgin Islands, and murdered most of the crew by making them walk the plank with cannonballs tied to their feet.
It was said that forcing loyal seamen to walk the plank was supposed, by the perpetrators, to "avoid the penalty for murder" (by not actually killing the victims), but this would hardly have worked. Not only would most legal authorities not have hesitated to prosecute any person who forced another to his death, but piracy and mutiny were also capital crimes. Given the occasions on which it was known to have been employed, it appears more likely to have been an elaborate and unusual form of sadistic entertainment rather than a regular method of murdering unwanted captives.
Although walking the plank plays a large role in contemporary pirate lore, in reality walking the plank was a very rare phenomenon, most pirates and mutineers having little reason to undertake elaborate psychological torture on their prisoners if they intended to kill them anyway.
The term has been used in modern times to describe the resignation of a public figure which occurs amidst controversy, or was demanded by the public, corporate shareholders and suchlike.
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