The “Half Hanged” - surviving execution.


With special thanks to Ms. Brenda Cook for providing the data for this article.

Date / Place




Southwark – St. Thomas Waterings / London. Barber-Surgeons’ Hall

Unknown Male

Died 23rd February 1587 (i.e. 3 days later.)

14/12/1650 Oxford

Anne Green
age 22

Made full recovery, pardoned, lived to marry & have children and finally died in 1665.

4/5/1658 Oxford

“T” (female)

Taken by force from the doctors by the sheriff and hanged a second time.

1668 London (Ratcliffe Cross)

Thomas Savage
age 17

Taken by the sheriff’s men and hanged again.

1686 (?) Gloucester

30/4/1689 Salisbury

Patrick O'Bryan
age 31

Hanged for highway robbery and afterwards claimed by friends who revived him. They attempted to reform him, but lapsed into old ways, and three years later was hanged again and gibbeted.

24/12/1705 Tyburn

John “Half-Hanged” Smith
age 46

Convicted of housebreaking, reprieved while actually hanging on the 24th of December, 1705, having been suspended for 18 minutes.  He afterwards had two other escapes from the death penalty. Transported to America, ultimate fate not known, but lived until at least 1727.

2/9/1724 Grassmarket, Edinburgh

Margaret “Maggie” Dickson
age 22

Convicted of concealing a pregnancy and /or murdering the baby. According to one account she got her hand between her throat and the rope but was still pronounced dead. Revived in her coffin en route to Mussleburgh for burial. Legally declared dead under Scots law, so no attempt made to re-hang her. (But Sheriff may have been sued for incompetence!) Remarried her husband and lived a further 40 years and had several more children,

25/04/1733 Tyburn

William Gordon

Convicted of highway robbery.  Attempted with the connivance of a surgeon (Abraham Chovet) to avoid suffocation by means of a hole in his windpipe. Was alive when taken down after three-quarters of an hour because the hangman noticed he was still alive after half an hour, but died shortly after being resuscitated.

26/7/1736 Tyburn

Thomas Reynolds
age 28

Convicted of pulling down Ledbury Turnpike in Herefordshire. Revived in his coffin but attempts to conceal and nurse him were unsuccessful and he died later that day of “mismanagement”.

7/9/1736 Bristol

John Vernham

Seemed to make a full recovery but died later that night (11pm) in great intestinal agony, while the sheriff waited to re-arrest him. (Poison suspected but a massive blood clot more likely.)

7/9/1736 Bristol

Joshua “Half-Hanged” Harding

Taken to (Bristol) Bedlam as disordered in his wits. Removed back to (Bristol) Newgate. Sentence later commuted to transportation.

24/11/1740 Tyburn

William Duell, age 16

Convicted of rape.  Found to be alive while being prepared for dissection at Barber-Surgeon’s Hall. Returned to Newgate that night. Sentence later commuted to transportation. May not have survived the voyage.

Town Moor,

Ewan Macdonald
age 19

Convicted of murder. Sentenced to be hanged and then dissected.  He revived and sat up on the dissection table. He was struck a blow to the head with a mallet by the surgeon, killing him.

1785? Newgate?
(New Drop gallows)
see text

John Hayes

Thief and housebreaker. Taken to the private house of Sir William Blizzard, an anatomist, where he revived on the table. Had no memory of the hanging but dreamed of a beautiful green field before recovering consciousness.


Of these thirteen survivals (3 women, 11 men) between 1587 and 1785:-

2 (one a female) were immediately re-hanged by the authorities. (Purple text)

5 (all male) died of the injuries sustained within a short time of recovery. (Black text)

7 (2 were female) lived to tell the tale.  (Green text)


B M Cook

March 2016.

As can be seen from the above table all but the last of these executions were carried out before the “New Drop” came into use and the law changed to require prisoners to hang for a whole hour.  It is also notable that at least five of these people were in their teens or twenties and presumably were thus stronger and fitter.

Hanging when carried out with little or no drop does not cause instant death, neither does it cause severe physical damage to the neck, as the forces exerted are far lower, but rather it squeezes the life out of the person over a period of time due to constriction of the neck causing pressure on the carotid arteries, jugular veins and the vagal nerve, plus putting pressure on the trachea (windpipe) and forcing the base of the tongue upwards against the pallet, both of which can cause asphyxia.  Respiration does not stop either automatically or totally but rather reduces over time.  Pressure on the carotid arteries can cause a reflex which slows heartbeat and may eventually stop the heart.  The vertebrae protect the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain and thus the brain, in what is a virtually comatose state, does not necessarily become totally starved of oxygen.  It is notable that in none of the cases examined below did the person exhibit signs of obvious brain damage after their recovery.


In some cases the person would be seen to struggle for up to three minutes before dangling limp and unconscious on the rope, in other cases they became still almost immediately they were suspended.  However in either case whole body death can take up to 30 minutes to ensue.

Leaving the person on the rope for one hour had become normal practice by 1760 and was recorded at the hanging of Earl Ferrers at Tyburn in that year.  Prior to this they were taken down when the under sheriff or City Marshall at Tyburn thought they were dead.  It should be noted that the stethoscope was not invented until 1816 and so determining death was not easy in the 1700’s.  Feeling for a pulse or putting an ear to the chest were the only ways to tell if there was still a heartbeat.


Stow’s Annales of 1592 records the following : “On the 20th of February 1587, a strange thing happened: a man hanged for felony at Saint Thomas Wateringes, being begged by the Surgeons of London, to have made of him an Anatomy, after he was dead to all men’s thinking, cut down, stripped of his apparell, laid naked in a chest, thrown into a car, and so brought from the place of execution through the Borough of Southwark over the bridge, and through the City of London to the Surgeons Hall near unto Cripplegate: The chest being there opened, and the weather extreme cold, he was found to be alive, and lived till the three and twentieth of February, and then died.”


On the 14th of December 1650, 22 year old Anne Green was led into the Castle Yard at Oxford Castle to be hanged for concealing a birth.  Anne was a servant in the household of Sir Thomas Read and had become pregnant.  She did her best to hide her condition to avoid loosing her job and after she had given birth concealed the baby which was later found dead. 

Anne was made to climb a ladder set against the gallows beam and the hangman put the noose around her neck.  When she had finished her devotions the ladder was turned over leaving her suspended.  People in the crowd, her friends perhaps, hung on her legs to shorten her sufferings, a not unusual occurrence.  This was stopped by the authorities as it was feared that the rope would break under the strain.  So after about half an hour Anne’s apparently lifeless body was taken down and placed in a coffin to be anatomised at the university.  Although Anne’s execution occurred before 1752, the law required the bodies of those executed at Oxford to be given to the Anatomy School of the university for dissection. 

There three doctors, William Petty, Thomas Willis, Ralph Bathurst were to carry out the dissection and upon opening the coffin noticed that the Anne’s body appeared to be still breathing.  They thus set to work on reviving her, sitting her up and administering hot drinks to her which reportedly made her cough.  They also massaged her limbs to restore circulation in them.  After a while they were able to produce a reflex in the eyes.  She was kept warm and put to bed and within twelve hours had recovered sufficiently to speak a few words.  She was able to answer questions after 24 hours and could eat solid food by the fourth day.  Her recovery and she was completely well within a month.  Asked about her feelings, Anne told the doctors she had no memory of the actual hanging, although she had a recollection of a man in a grey cloak, perhaps her hangman?

The doctors had made careful observation of their patient and had noted that on receipt her face was swollen and had taken on a dark red hue that would be typical of someone who had been hanged at that time.

Once she was fully recovered Anne was reprieved and set free, it being decided that she had suffered sufficiently, although theoretically she could have been hanged again.  She moved to the countryside where she later married and bore three children.  It is thought that she died aged 37 although the cause of her “second” death is not known.


In 1658 a maid servant for whom we just have the initial “T” was hanged at Oxford for the same offence as Anne and was also brought back to life by the doctors.  However she was not so fortunate.  The bailiff, Henry Mallory, on hearing the news that she was still alive took her from the house where she was recovering and hanged her from a tree at Broken Hayes (where Gloucester Green bus station is now.)


17 year old Thomas Savage had murdered a fellow servant and was hanged twice for it.  The first execution occurred at Ratcliff Cross and Savage struggled after the cart was drawn from under him.  A friend struck him several blows on the chest to hasten his death.  He was left hanging for “a considerable time” sadly not specified, before being cut down.  Friends claimed the body and it was removed to a nearby house and laid on a table.  Savage began to breath and opened his eyes and mouth.  The sheriffs heard what had happened and went to the house and re-arrested Savage and took him back to Ratcliff Cross and hanged him a second time.


The case of Patrick O’Bryan is certainly an odd one.  One might think that public short drop hanging would be a deterrent to crime.  One might think that having survived hanging one would reform rather than face the same fate again.  Not so with Mr. O’Bryan.  He was hanged the first time in 1686 for highway robbery committed on the outskirts of Gloucester.  His body was claimed by friends and carried to one of their homes, where he was seen to be breathing.  A surgeon bled him and in time he made a full recovery.  His friends entreated him to start a new life and offered to assist him financially to do so.  For a time O’Bryan kept his promise to them but could not resist the temptation to return to his old habits.  About a year later he met the man who he held responsible for his first conviction.  This person was shocked to see him, having thought he was dead.  O’Bryan first shot the man and then drew a dagger and stabbed him to death.  Two years would pass before he was arrested on the confession evidence of one of his gang who was waiting to be hanged at Bedford.

O'Bryan was seized at his lodgings in Little Suffolk Street, near the Haymarket in London and committed to Newgate. He was returned to Salisbury for trial at the next Assizes.  He confessed his crimes and was hanged there on Tuesday, the 30th of April, 1689.  Afterwards he was hanged in chains near the spot where the murder had been committed.


John Smith was hanged at Tyburn on Wednesday 24 December 1705 for the crime of housebreaking.  His was the only execution that day and in the normal way he was conveyed to Tyburn in a cart which was backed under the beam and driven forward after the preparations and prayers were completed.  Smith then dangled for some 15 minutes before there was an agitation in the crowd and shouts of “reprieve”.  He was immediately cut down and taken to a nearby house by his friends where he was kept warm and bled, as was the then custom, and soon recovered.  Unlike Anne Green he was able to describe the sensations of his execution.  Initially he felt considerable pain and great pressure inside his head but after a while the pain subsided and he began to see bright lights as he passed into unconsciousness.  His recovery he reported as being intensely painful and was quoted as saying “that he could have wished those hanged who had cut him down”.

Like O’Bryan, being hanged did not deter Smith.  He returned to crime and was tried at the Old Bailey on the capital charge of housebreaking.  The jury bought in a special verdict and the judges decided in Smith’s favour.  He was again charged with a capital crime but the prosecutor died the day before the trial commenced and he was again freed.


Another woman to survive the gallows was Margaret Dickson, who like Anne had concealed the death of her baby and was convicted of its murder.  After trial at the High Court of Justiciary in Edinburgh Margaret was condemned and ordered for execution on Wednesday, the 2nd of September 1724.  She was taken to the gallows set up in the Grassmarket and turned off in the usual way with the executioner hanging on her legs to hasten unconsciousness.  She remained suspended for the “usual time” (unspecified) and was placed in her coffin at the foot of the gallows, the lid being nailed down.  Her relatives claimed her body and took the coffin for burial in the town of her birth, in the churchyard of Inveresk, near Musselburgh some six miles away.  As was not unusual at the time there was an altercation between Margaret’s relatives and some young men who were thought to be apprentice surgeons and wanted the body for dissection.  In the course of this the coffin became damaged and thus much less airtight.  A while later her family stopped for refreshment in the village of Peffermil, leaving the coffin outside the inn.  Two passers by were no doubt horrified to hear noises coming from the coffin and alerted the family who immediately opened it to find a very much less than dead Margaret.  A local doctor bled her at the scene and she started to recover.  She was taken onto Musselburgh to stay with her brother.  She was reported in a contemporary broadside to have been delirious for the next two days but well enough to attend church on the following Sunday.

Unlike the situation in England, Scottish law did not require Margaret to undergo her punishment for a second time and as she had been hanged once she was now free.  She remarried her husband and earned a living selling salt in Edinburgh, where as "Half Hanged Maggie Dickson" she was something of a celebrity.  She was recorded as giving birth to several children and still being alive in 1753, although there is no record of her eventual death.


A macabre experiment was performed on highwayman William Gordon who was hanged at Tyburn on the 27th of April 1733.  Mr. Abraham Chovett was a Demonstrator in Anatomy and had carried out experiments on dogs by making an incision in the windpipe prior to hanging them.  He told Gordon about them and left him a small knife.  After attending chapel on his final morning he made an incision in his throat.  Two surgeons who were in Newgate attended him and partially sewed up the wound.  Gordon told the Ordinary that he had cut himself by accident.  So as not to delay the execution, the four men were to hang that day, William Gordon, James Ward, William Keyes and William Norman were loaded into the cart for the journey to Tyburn.  It was observed that the last three died quite quickly but that Gordon was still alive after 45 minutes.  His body was taken to a house in Edgware Road where Mr. Chovot bled him.  He was able to open his moth and groan but died soon afterwards.  It was opined that had he been cut down five minutes sooner he might have survived.


23 year old Thomas Reynolds was hanged at Tyburn on Monday the 26th of July 1736, having been convicted of crimes under the Black Acts and of pulling down Ledbury turnpike in Herefordshire.  His co-defendant, James Bayliss was reprieved.  Bayliss’ wife was given money by Reynolds to purchase a coffin and shroud for him, which she did.  He was taken down and placed in the coffin and taken by his friends for burial.  A woman asked to see his body so the lid of the coffin was removed and it was seen that Reynolds was still breathing.  His friends, concerned that the authorities should discover that he was not dead and try to hang him again, carried the coffin along the Oxford Road.  They found a surgeon who bled him and he was given brandy and sack to try and revive him.  Nobody would take the coffin into their house for fear of prosecution and in due course Reynolds expired and was buried by the Oxford road. 


The 7th of September 1736 saw a double hanging at St. Michael’s Hill in Bristol.  Joshua Harding and John Vernham were conveyed there in a cart from the city’s Newgate prison.  It appears that the pair were both only hanging for eight minutes before being taken down.  The bodies were quickly carried away.  Vernham was taken to a house near the Ferry on St. Philip’s Backs where he was bled.  He seemed to recover quickly and sat up and was able to speak.  The under sheriff found out about this and went to the house with armed officers that evening to arrest Vernham.  However he died at around 11 pm, “in great agony of pain, his bowels being very much convulsed, as appeared by his rolling from one side to the other and often on his belly.”
Joshua Harding was more fortunate.  He was taken back to prison where he made a full recovery.  He had a lot of visitors and told them that he could remember being at the gallows.  He did not recall Vernham being there.  On the 21st of September 1736 he as declared “defective in his intellects” and in due course his sentence was commuted to transportation for 14 years. 


On Monday, the 24th of November 1740, two carts left Newgate prison for the journey to Tyburn.  In one were three men, William Meers, William Duell and Thomas Clark and in the other cart two women, Eleanor Mumpman, and Margery Stanton.

William Duell was a boy of sixteen or seventeen and had been convicted of the vicious rape of Sarah Griffin, at Acton.  Sarah later died from the injuries inflicted by Duell and his accomplices, one of whom died in Newgate before he could be tried and the others not being captured.  For this crime Duell was sentenced to be hanged and then anatomised.  The multiple hangings were carried out by John Thrift in the normal manner and Duell’s body was conveyed to Surgeon’s Hall for dissection as required.  James Guthrie, the Ordinary of Newgate, who officiated at the executions recorded the events of later in the day.

When the body reached Surgeon’s Hall it was left in a passage where a member of staff who was to clean it heard a groan come from it and immediately informed the surgeons.  They bled Duell and when he seemed to have recovered somewhat ordered a coach to take him back to Newgate.  Here he was put in a warm cell and given warm wine and water to drink.  He soon recovered.  Duell was reprieved to transportation to America and no more is known of his fate.


John Hayes was allegedly revived after hanging.  I say allegedly because there are serious discrepancies in this case.  Nobody by that name was hanged at Tyburn in 1782 nor were they sentenced to death at the Old Bailey in that year or the preceding year.  However a John Hayes was condemned at the Old Bailey on the 14th of September 1785 for stealing in a shop.  He was hanged at Newgate on the 10th of November of that year with 17 others.  Here he would have been hanged on the “New Drop” gallows and allowed a fall of about 18 inches.  As his crime was not murder his body could be released to friends and family.  The New Monthly Magazine of 1826 claimed that the body was taken to the home Sir William Blizzard in Gough Square who had bought it for dissection.  Here Hayes made a full recovery.  As with other revivals Hayes had no memory of his hanging.  He was only able to tell Sir William that "The last thing I recollect was passing St. Andrews Church on Holborn Hill in a cart. I thought then that I was in a beautiful green field; and that is all I remember till I found myself in your honour's dissecting-room."  This is strange because according to the magazine there were no green fields on the route to Tyburn, if indeed he had been hanged there. There were certainly none within Newgate prison.  It is suggested that Sir William paid for Hayes’ passage to America and no more was heard of him.