14

The following sentence occurs in Mark Twain's sketch Private History of a Campaign that Failed:

The drenching we were getting was misery enough, but a deeper misery still was the reflection that the halter might end us before we were a day older.

What is meant here by "halter"? Is an obscure or antiquated meaning of that word being used here? If so, what is meant by it? Or is it a typo, and it should be "weather" instead of "halter?

The context might suggest that, because Twain had just lamented the rain, the thunder, and the lightning, so "weather" would make sense here; but "halter" appears in at least two places where this sketch has been recorded: In the venerable gutenberg rendition of it here, and in another online source here.

  • You might be interested in the German word "halter": One meaning is "holder", and the answers suggest a "neck holder". One other, also quite common meaning is "keeper" (as in car owner) and another one "stockman" (as in shepherd). So maybe Twain enjoyed the multiple meanings in German, since "halter" could then be interpreted as "keeper of souls", God or just the Reaper Man. – Tobias Kienzler Mar 25 '17 at 20:30
17

It means "noose" - figuratively, hanging.

@BeastlyGerbil's answer is correct, but for completeness I checked for other uses of the word "halter" in the Entire Gutenberg Twain Files (warning: slow to load!)

  • The court informed him that a sheriff had been appointed to do the hanging, and—

    Capt. Ned's patience was at an end. His wrath was boundless. The subject of a sheriff was judiciously dropped.

    When the crowd arrived at the canyon, Capt. Ned climbed a tree and arranged the halter, then came down and noosed his man. He opened his Bible, and laid aside his hat. Selecting a chapter at random, he read it through, in a deep bass voice and with sincere solemnity. Then he said:

    "Lad, you are about to go aloft and give an account of yourself; and the lighter a man's manifest is, as far as sin's concerned, the better for him. Make a clean breast, man, and carry a log with you that'll bear inspection. You killed the nigger?"

    -- Roughing It, Chapter 50

  • "By advantage taken of one in fault, in dire peril, and at thy mercy, thou hast seized goods worth above thirteenpence ha'penny, paying but a trifle for the same; and this, in the eye of the law, is constructive barratry, misprision of treason, malfeasance in office, ad hominem expurgatis in statu quo—and the penalty is death by the halter, without ransom, commutation, or benefit of clergy."

    -- The Prince and the Pauper, Chapter 24

  • The jailer finished by lifting himself a-tip-toe with an imaginary halter, at the same time making a gurgling noise in his throat suggestive of suffocation.

    [...]

    Another was a man who had been accused of stealing a horse; he said the proof had failed, and he had imagined that he was safe from the halter; but no—he was hardly free before he was arraigned for killing a deer in the King's park; this was proved against him, and now he was on his way to the gallows.

    -- The Prince and the Pauper, Chapter 27

  • "Yes, we have," said another citizen, "we've got this"—and he produced a halter.

    Many shouted: "That's the ticket." But others said: "No—Count Angelo is innocent; we mustn't hang him."

    -- Those Extraordinary Twins, Chapter 10

  • By the garish light of the electric lamps I saw the little group of privileged witnesses, the wife crying on her uncle's breast, the condemned man standing on the scaffold with the halter around his neck, his arms strapped to his body, the black cap on his head, the sheriff at his side with his hand on the drop, the clergyman in front of him with bare head and his book in his hand.

    -- From the 'London Times' of 1904

So Twain definitely uses the word "halter" to mean a noose for hanging, in his writings in general. Finally, let's look at the wider context of the quote you're asking about:

We were like to be drowned with the rain, deafened with the howling wind and the booming thunder, and blinded by the lightning. It was indeed a wild night. The drenching we were getting was misery enough, but a deeper misery still was the reflection that the halter might end us before we were a day older. A death of this shameful sort had not occurred to us as being among the possibilities of war. It took the romance all out of the campaign, and turned our dreams of glory into a repulsive nightmare. As for doubting that so barbarous an order had been given, not one of us did that.

First he's complaining about the weather, but then he changes topic to worry about the halter. It's not just a typo for "weather": the halter is a deeper misery than the weather. Note also the reference to a barbarous "order" being given - the order for hanging, and nothing to do with the weather.

9

A halter used to be a rope for hanging people - a noose.

Nowadays it has evolved to be a strap around a horse's head, but you can still see the original 'rope around the neck' idea. DLosc in the comments below points out that it used to mean a strap round a horse's head, and became a noose when hanging was introduced in the middle ages. This website pins the strap round the horse's head meaning to Saxon times, and the hangman's noose to mid 15th century.

See here:

'hangman's halter - a rope that is used by a hangman to execute persons who have been condemned to death by hanging'

I haven't read the story but I assume that perhaps they have been sentenced to death by hanging?

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