Hanged by the neck until dead!
The processes and physiology of judicial hanging.

Contents please click on the blue hyper links below to navigate round this page.

Introduction

How hanging causes death

Execution equipment

The processes of judicial hanging

Short drop/suspension

The gallows , noose & hood

Short drop

Pole hanging

Pinioning

Suspension hanging

Standard drop

Modern hangings described.

Standard drop

Measured or "long drop"

Is hanging painful?

Long drop

Post mortem findings

Hanging versus Lethal Injection.

Table of drops

After the execution.

Conclusions 

Please note! As this page contains images of real executions which some may find disturbing they must be accessed manually by clicking on the links.

Introduction.
Hanging is the oldest but most widely used method of execution in the world today. In 2011 at least 430 hangings were recorded in nine countries, up from 238 in six countries during 2010.  These executions took place in Afghanistan
, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Singapore, Somalia and the Sudan (Darfur).  Fifteen women were hanged, ten in Iran, two in Somalia, and three in Iraq during 2011.  Iran also carried out a number of public hangings of men. Sadly, the majority of those hanged in the 21st century have still had to die by strangulation, particularly in Iran. It is estimated that only 90 of the hangings during 2011 used a drop designed to break the prisoner's neck.

Hanging remains the standard method of execution in many retentionist countries, notably Japan, Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, several African countries, including Botswana, Kenya and Zimbabwe, and some Middle Eastern countries including Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Syria and in most Caribbean states.  It is also a lawful method as an option to lethal injection in the American state of Washington which has carried out two hangings since the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1976.
It was used extensively in Iraq under Saddam Hussein and continues to be the lawful method there under the new government which reportedly carried out 68 executions during 2011 according to official figures. These further stated that there have been 257 executions from August 2005 to December 2010, including those of six women. Iraq has adopted the American style of hanging.

Hanging originated as a method of execution in Persia (now Iran) about 2500 years ago for male criminals only, (women were strangled at the stake for the sake of decency!) It was the method of choice in many countries as it produced a highly visible deterrent without the blood and gore of beheading. In early times, it was considered ideal because it was the simplest method to carry out, did not give the condemned person a particularly cruel death (by the standards of the day), made a good public spectacle as the prisoner was above the level of the viewers and because the equipment was easy to come by - a tree, a piece of rope and a ladder or cart, being available everywhere. Unlike beheading there was no requirement for a skilled executioner.  Beheading was the other most common form of execution, adopted as the sole means by some countries.

There is no means of knowing how many people have hanged worldwide in the last 2,000 years but it is probably at least half a million. From 1800 and 1964, over 5,000 people suffered death by hanging in Britain. In America it is estimated that some 9,300 people including up to 356 women were hanged from the early 1600's up to 1996.
Hanging was the normal form of execution in many countries up to the end of the 19th century when there was a general trend to abolition or to use more humane methods than the type of hanging used at that time (short drop). It was the standard method in Britain and its colonies and was widely used in France prior to the French Revolution and also in Germany and pre-communist Russia. It was the lawful method in all states of America up to 1890 and continued in some until suspension of the death penalty in 1968. Hanging was also used by many other countries that have since abolished capital punishment such as Australia, Austria, Canada, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Poland and South Africa. Hitler reintroduced it to Nazi Germany and very large numbers of prisoners were executed by this method in prisons, concentration camps and in the "field" by German soldiers between 1937 and 1945 (see
The execution of women by the Nazis during World War II).

The processes of judicial hanging.

There are four main forms of hanging.

  • Short drop hanging where the prisoner drops just a few inches, and their suspended body weight and physical struggling causes the noose to tighten, normally resulting in death by strangulation or carotid or Vagal reflex.  Pole hanging is a variation on this method.
  • Suspension hanging where the executee is lifted into the air using a crane or other mechanism. Death is caused in the same way as with short drop hanging.
  • Standard drop hanging where the prisoner drops a predetermined amount, typically 4-6 feet, which may or may not break their neck. This was the normal method adopted in America in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.
  • Finally, measured or long drop hanging which became universal in Britain from 1874, where the distance the person falls when the trapdoors open is calculated according to their weight, height and physique and is designed to break the neck. This method was adopted in British Colonies and by some other countries who wished to make executions more humane.
    Each of these processes are examined in detail below.

The "Short Drop" method.
Hanging using little or no drop is still used by some Middle Eastern countries, notably, Iran. It is far more common in the 21st century than long drop hanging.
Short drop hanging was effectively universal up to around 1850 and was usually carried out in public. The prisoner could be suspended by a variety of means, from the back of a cart (or later a motor vehicle), from a horse as was sometimes used in America, or by removing the platform on which they stood, as was used in Nazi hangings and also in present day Iranian ones carried out inside prisons, or by some form of trap door drop mechanism as was used in Britain from 1760 and adopted by many other countries.
This 1809
picture of the triple hanging on the “New Drop” gallows outside the Debtor's Door of Newgate in London shows clearly how little drop was given at that time.

Suspension hanging.
This method is currently used in Iran for public hangings and was also used for some executions when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan where executees were hanged from the barrels of tanks and from mobile crane jibs. In Iran, both mobile crane and recovery truck jibs are used. All of these have hydraulic mechanisms for raising them, so the jib serves as both the gallows and the means of getting the prisoner suspended.
In America, instead of the conventional gallows that dropped the prisoner through a trapdoor, some states used a method where weights connected to the rope jerked the person upwards when they were released by the hangman. This method was used in 1874, for the hanging of William E. Udderzook in West Chester, Pennsylvania and also for Charles Thiede in Utah in 1896.
Connecticut used a similar arrangement for the execution of Gerald Chapman on April the 26th, 1926. A weight was connected to the rope which passed over a pulley. The warden operated a lever with his foot to allow the weight to fall, so pulling Chapman 12 feet into the air with such force that his neck was broken.  In New York state Roxalana Druze was rather less fortunate when she was hanged for the murder of her husband in 1887.  As a result New York developed electrocution as its method of execution although men continued to be hanged there until the end of 1889.

Standard drop hanging.
A standardised drop, of between four and six feet, was used in many American hangings during the later part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. This was not worked out against the weight of the individual, but was often equivalent to their height. It was considered as an advance on the short drop method previously used. A drop of this distance was often not sufficient to break the prisoner's neck, however, and many still died by strangulation, although in a lot of cases they were knocked unconscious by the force of the drop and the impact of the heavy coiled knot against the side of the neck. Occasionally, they were decapitated when the drop proved to be too long, as happened at the execution of Eva Dugan in Arizona in 1928. Standard drops were given to the eleven senior Nazis executed after the Nuremberg trials and several were reported to have died slowly. The Lincoln conspirators were given a drop of five feet at their hanging in 1865 and at least two of the four struggled for some time after they were suspended.

The "Long drop" or measured drop method.
In 1872, William Marwood introduced the concept of an accurately calculated drop for the execution of Frederick Horry at Lincoln prison, as a scientifically worked out way of giving the prisoner a humane death. This concept had been developed by doctors in Ireland and was in use there by the mid 1850’s. Longer drops were in use elsewhere by this time, e.g. in America, but the short drop was still used by many countries at this time e.g. Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland & Russia.
The long drop method was designed to break the prisoner’s neck by allowing them to fall a pre-determined distance and then be brought up with a sharp jerk by the rope. At the end of the drop, the body is still accelerating under the force of gravity but the head is constrained by the noose.  If the eyelet is positioned under the left angle of the jaw it rotates the head backwards, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death. The later use of the brass eyelet in the noose tended to break the neck with more certainty.  It is only in the last six inches or so of the drop that the physical damage to the neck and vertebrae occur as the rope constricts the neck and the force is applied to the vertebrae.  The duration of this part of the process is between 0.02 and 0.03 of a second depending upon the length of drop given.  Generally the diameter of the noose is found to have reduced some five to seven inches after the drop.
The accurately measured and worked out drop removed most of the prisoner's physical suffering and made the whole process far less traumatic for the officials who now had to witness it in the confines of the execution shed instead of in the open air.
The drop given in the later part of the 19th century was usually between 4 and 10 feet depending on the weight and strength of the prisoner. The weight used to calculate the correct drop is that of the prisoner's clothed body. In accordance with the recommendations of the Aberdare Committee, from 1886 to 1892, the length of drop was calculated to provide a final "striking" force of approximately 1,260 ft/lbs. force which combined with the positioning of the eyelet caused fracture / dislocation of the neck, usually at the 2nd and 3rd or 3rd and 4th cervical vertebrae. This is the classic "hangman's fracture". The length of the drop was worked out by the formula 1,260 foot pounds divided by the body weight of the prisoner in pounds = drop in feet. Between 1892 and 1913, a shorter length of drop was used, presumably to avoid the decapitation and near decapitations that had occurred with old table. The 1892 table produced a force of 840 ft/lbs.  However there are a number of properly documented instances of substantially longer drops being given during this period.  After 1913, other factors were also taken into account and the drop was calculated to give a final "striking" force of around 1,000 ft/lbs. The Home Office issued a rule restricting all drops to between 5 feet and 8 feet 6 inches as this had been found to be an adequate range. In Britain, the drop was worked out and set to the nearest quarter of an inch to ensure the desired outcome.  From around 1939 it became customary to add a further nine inches to the drop calculated from the 1913 table, to give a force of around 1100 ft/lbs..
The 1913 table is still used in Singapore and probably Malaysia and may have been adopted by other countries which use the British method, e.g. Australia, Canada, the Caribbean nations and Egypt.  Pakistan, India and Bangladesh use the measured long drop but it is not known whether they use the British drop tables.

British drop tables.
The weight of the prisoner is the weight recorded when they were weighed, clothed, the day before execution.

1892 table

1913 table

Weight of prisoner

Drop in feet & inches

Ft/lbs energy developed

Weight of prisoner

Drop in feet & inches

Ft/lbs energy developed

 

105 & under

8’ 0”

840

-

-

 

 

110

7’ 10”

862

-

-

 

 

115

7’ 3”

834

118 & under

8’ 6”

1003

 

120

7’ 0”

840

120

8’ 4”

1000

 

125

6’ 9”

844

125

8’ 0”

1000

 

130

6’ 5”

834

130

7’ 8”

996

 

135

6’ 2”

833

135

7’ 5”

1001

 

140

6’ 0”

840

140

7’ 2”

1003

 

145

5’ 9”

834

145

6’ 11”

1003

 

150

5’ 7”

838

150

6’ 8”

999

 

155

5’ 5”

840

155

6’ 5”

995

 

160

5’ 3”

853

160

6’ 3”

1000

 

165

5’ 1”

839

165

6’ 1”

1004

 

170

4’ 11”

836

170

5’ 10”

992

 

175

4’ 9”

831

175

5’ 8”

991

 

180

4’ 8”

839

180

5’ 7”

1005

 

185

4’ 7”

848

185

5’ 5”

1002

 

190

4’5”

839

190

5’ 3”

998

 

195

4’ 4”

844

195

5’ 2”

1008

 

200 & over

4’ 2”

833

200 & over

5’ 0”

1000

 

The American Military manual specifies broadly similar drops to the above.
The graph below shows how long it takes to drop a given distance.

How hanging causes death.
Short drop and simple suspension hanging
.
Short drop/suspension hanging accounts for a majority of all executions worldwide (excluding China, for which there is no official data) as well as a large number of suicides.
Hanging with little or no drop typically causes death by a combination of the tightening noose occluding the carotid arteries and jugular veins causing cerebral hypoxia (ischemia), i.e. a severely reduced flow of oxygenated blood to and from the brain and asphyxia due to the weight of the person's body forcing the
larynx and the base of the tongue upwards, thus preventing breathing.  It may also constrict the trachea (air passage), however this requires some 33 pounds per square inch of pressure to compress. Compression of the carotid arteries may also cause rapid heart stoppage due to carotid/Vagal reflex, this requiring just 11 pounds per square inch of pressure, whereas compression of the jugular veins only requires some 4.5 pounds per square inch of pressure. The vertebrae protect the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain. However, these arteries go outside the fourth vertebrae instead of inside it, which subjects them to blockage if the pressure on the neck is high enough (usually about 40-50 pounds per square inch of pressure) Consciousness can be lost in as little as 8-10 seconds or persist for as much as a minute.  Flashes of light and “blackness” together with feelings of weakness and powerlessness have been reported by those who have survived (suicidal) hanging.  It is thought that brain death will occur in around six minutes and the heart will stop beating within 10-15 minutes.  
Where the jugular veins are occluded before the carotid arteries, the face will typically become engorged and livid as the brain is filled with blood which cannot get back out. There will be the classic signs of petechiae - little blood marks on the face and in the eyes from burst blood capillaries due to the excessive pressure. The tongue may protrude. Where death has occurred through carotid/Vagal reflex, the face will typically be pale and bluish in colour and not show petechiae. In all cases there will normally be an inverted “V” mark where the knot of the noose was situated and the head will be forced over away from the knot.

When a person is hanged they may exhibit signs of physical struggling for some time after suspension, 1-3 minutes being normal. This is often followed by a quiescent phase before what can be described as the convulsive phase which it is thought occurs after consciousness has been lost.  There will be spasmodic and uncoordinated rippling movements of the limbs which occur for some time and which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes and also heaving of the chest.  You can read reports of executions in the 18th/19th centuries where the person was said to be “greatly convulsed  The legs were drawn up and their chests heaved but this does not necessarily indicate consciousness in the second phase.  Equally it was often reported that the prisoner died "almost without a struggle” and they would be seen to writhe in pain for just a few seconds, if at all, before going limp. There exist many reports and pictures of actual short drop hangings which seem to show that the person died quickly and fairly peacefully, while others indicate a slow and agonising death by strangulation. 

An analysis of 46 recent public hangings in Iran that were legally and meticulously photographed at every stage by official news agency cameramen showed obvious physical struggling in 10 cases, the tongue protruding slightly in four cases, no obvious reddening of the face in any case, drooling from the mouth in two cases and what appears to be an erection and orgasm in one case.  None of the men showed evidence of urination or defecation.  All of the prisoners were hanged using coiled nooses with the knot placed at the back of the neck, thus putting maximum pressure on the base of the tongue and the carotid arteries and jugular veins.  In a recent triple public hanging in Iran which was videoed the two male prisoners seemed to go limp as soon as they were hoisted into the air and showed no signs of physical struggle.  The third prisoner, a woman, struggled hard for approximately one minute before becoming still. (See later for a description of this execution). In another video-taped execution that took place in 2012 a man is seen to convulse for 1 minute and 43 seconds a few seconds after being suspended.  As described above the legs were drawn up several times and there were movements of the arms and hands.

Pole hanging”.
Austria, Czechoslovakia and Hungary used an unusual variant of short drop hanging.  There was no gallows as such, but rather a stout vertical wooden pole (or post) of about 2-3 meters height with a metal hook or eye bolt at the top to which a rope noose was attached.  There was either a ladder or steps up to a small platform at the back of the pole for the executioner to stand on.  The pinioned prisoner was placed with their back to the pole and then lifted up either manually by the hangman’s assistants, on a simple board platform or by a cloth sling running under their armpits so that the executioner could put the noose round their neck.  At the signal they were now jerked downwards by the assistants thus tightening the noose.  This jerk combined with the thinness of the cord typically caused a carotid reflex and led to rapid unconsciousness.  Late 19th century Austrian hangman, Josef Lang, considered this method to be far more humane than American style standard drop hanging and claimed that no criminal suffered for more than a minute with his method.  It is unclear when pole hanging ceased although it was definitely in use until after the end of World War II and was used on various war criminals.  A video of the hanging of Karl Hermann Frank which took place on the 22nd of May 1946 in Prague’s Pankrác prison is currently available on YouTube.  He was lifted up to the top of the pole by a sling and then dropped about a meter, the hangman covering Frank’s face with his hand. This film clearly demonstrates how pole hanging worked and does not give the impression that Frank struggled after suspension.  There are also photos of the execution of Serbs by the Austrians during the war.  Milada Horakova (female) who was convicted of treason by the communist regime in Czechoslovakia suffered this death when she was hanged on 27th of June 1950.  It has been rumoured that her executioner was ordered to “let the bitch suffocate”.
After the end of World War II, Albert Pierrepoint who hanged eight men at Karlou in Austria for war crimes, taught Austrian hangmen the British method and this was used for the last few executions there.  Austria’s last execution took place on the 24th of March 1950 when Johann Trnka was hanged for murder.  Czechoslovakia used pole hanging up to 1954 after which all executions took place within Prague’s Pankrác prison or
in Bratislava from 1968 to 1989.  The Pankrác execution chamber had a metal hook for the noose and a trap door over and 80 x 80 x 80 cm pit.  This still allowed only a short drop and death was officially recorded as “suffocation from strangulation”.  It is not known whether Hungary continued to use pole hanging or a more conventional gallows. Czechoslovakia’s last execution was in 1989 and Hungary’s in 1988.

Standard drop hanging.
Where the standard drop proves inadequate to break the neck or cause unconsciousness, the prisoner seems often to suffer a more cruel death than where little or no drop is used. The force generated by a drop of 5 or 6 feet is very considerable and does great damage to the skin, muscles and ligaments of the neck but does not necessarily induce asphyxia any sooner. This description of a hanging at San Quentin prison in California is from Clinton Duffy who was the warden there from 1942 to 1954 and relates to the execution of Major Raymond Lisemba on May 9th, 1942. "The man hit bottom and I observed that he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated, and droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible". "I also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up."  It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die. When he was taken down and the cap removed, "big hunks of flesh were torn off" the side of his face where the noose had been, "his eyes were popped," and his tongue was "swollen and hanging from his mouth. His face had turned purple."
Fortunately not all standard drop hangings were so gruesome and many prisoners did not show any signs of physical suffering as they were rendered unconscious by the force of the drop, even though their spinal cord was not severed.

The measured or long drop.
It takes between a half and three quarters of a second for a person to reach the end of the drop after the trap opens. The force produced by the prisoner's body weight multiplied by the length of fall and the force of gravity (some 1,100 ft lbs being normal in the U.K.), coupled with the position of the noose is designed to violently jerk the person’s head backwards and sideways. In medical terms this is known as hyperflexion of the neck, which causes fracture-dislocation of the upper neck vertebrae, ideally between the C2 & C3 vertebrae, crushing or severing the spinal cord leading to immediate unconsciousness.  This leads to a number of factors, all of which can cause death.  The Phrenic nerve which controls the diaphragm emerges between the C3 and C4 vertebrae and thus if the fracture occurs above C4 the person's breathing ceases immediately, leading to asphyxia.  The rope constricts the carotid arteries and the jugular veins, with the same results described in “Short drop hanging” above.  Typically the neck is constricted by as much as five inches from its original diameter.  Fractures of the hyoid bone and larynx typically occur which on their own can prove fatal as breathing is severely restricted or prevented.  The normal cause of death is given as comatose asphyxia.  . In most countries cessation of heartbeat is the definition of death that is used.  It is thought that brain death will occur in around six minutes and the heart will stop beating within 10-15 minutes. It is very variable, however, with official reports of from 1-25 minutes for cessation of heartbeat to have occurred.  This time is often implied as length of suffering in newspaper reports of executions, but this is incorrect.  Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur but are almost certainly due to muscular reflexes Here is an official government photograph of the long drop hanging in Kuwait.  The hyperflexion caused by the British style eyelet noose of the neck is self evident.

The Post-mortem report.
Some parts Britain, e.g. London typically carried a post-mortem during the 20th century on the executed person's body to establish the exact cause of death and we are fortunate to have the report of Ruth Ellis' autopsy as carried out by Professor Keith Simpson, who was one of the most eminent pathologists of his day. I have reproduced it as closely as possible to the original 1950's typewriter style. Post mortems were also carried out in other countries.

POST MORTEM EXAMINATION

Name Ellis, Ruth Apparent Age 28 years.

At H. M. Prison, Holloway Date July 13 1955.

EXTERNAL EXAMINATION

 

 

 

 

How long dead

Well nourished
Evidence of proper care and attention.
Height 5ft.2ins. Weight 103 lbs.

DEEP IMPRESSIONS AROUND NECK from noose with a suspension point about 1 inch in front of the angle of the L. lower jaw.
Vital changes locally and in the tissues beneath as a consequence of sudden constriction.
No ecchymoses in the face, or indeed, elsewhere.
No marks of restraint.
1 hour.

INTERNAL EXAMINATION

Skull ... ... ...

Basic Meninges

Mouth, tongue,
Oesophagus ... ...


Larynx, Trachea, Lungs


Pericardium, Heart and blood vessels ... ...

Stomach and contents ...

Peritoneum
Intestines, etc. ...

Liver, and Gall bladder

Spleen.

Kidneys and Ureters
Bladder etc. ... ... ...

Generative organs

 

Fracture - dislocation of the spine at C2 with a 2 inch gap and transverse separation of the spinal cord at the same level.


Fracture of both wings of the Hyoid and R. wing of the Thyroid cartilage, larynx also fractured.

Air passages clear and lungs quite free from disease or other change. No engorgement. No asphyxial changes.

No organic changes. No petechiae or other evidence of organic change.

Small food residue, and odour of brandy. No disease.


Normal.

Terminal congestion only.

Normal.

Slight terminal congestion only.


Lower abdominal operation scar for ectopic pregnancy operation in L. tube, now healed.

No pregnancy.

Other remarks ...

Deceased was a healthy subject at the time of death.
Mark of suspension normally situated and injuries from judicial hanging - to the spinal column - such as must have caused instant death.

CAUSE OF DEATH ...

Injuries to the central nervous system
consequent upon judicial hanging.

Signed Keith Simpson
M. D. Lond.

146, Harley St. W. 1 and Guy's Hospital (Pathologist)
Registrar in Forensic Medicine London University

Note : ecchymoses is the medical term for subcutaneous bleeding (i.e. under the skin)

After the execution.

After death by any form of hanging, the body will typically show the marks of suspension, e.g. bruising and rope marks on the neck. In some cases there will have been effusions of urine and faeces as the sphincter muscles become deprived of oxygen and thus relax.  The opening of the sphincters can also be caused by an adrenaline rush which is common in circumstances of extreme fear.
Total body death results usually within less than 30 minutes as the cells becomes starved of oxygen.  This was one of the reasons why prisoners were left hanging for an hour in Britain.  It is noteworthy that irrespective of the method of hanging it seems to take about the same time for total body death to occur.

Experiments were carried out by F.E. Buckland, the assistant director of pathology, British Army of the Rhine, on Nazi war criminals executed by the British at Hameln prison in Germany after World War II and these found, that although the prisoners were rendered unconscious by the drop the heart could continue to beat for up to 25 minutes after execution.  This created a problem because it meant that it would take far longer to carry out the batches of executions.  It was thus proposed that the medical officer present would inject 10cc of chloroform into the prisoner 30 seconds after the drop had been given.  It was found that if the chloroform was injected directly into the heart it immediately stopped beating and if injected intravenously into the arm the heart would stop in seconds.  This procedure was first used at the execution of 10 men and three women on the 13th of December 1945.
On the 8th of March 1946 Albert Pierrepoint hanged eight men at Hameln and it was decided not to inject chloroform.  The prison doctor listened to their hearts with a stethoscope in the normal way and recorded his results. These showed that it took between 10 and 15 minutes for audible heart beats to cease.  On the 15th of May 1946 a further ten executions were carried out and this time the condemned were wired up to an electrocardiograph, which recorded the electrical activity of the heart. It showed that impulses were produced for a further ten minutes; taking the total time to 25 minutes.  A human heart has a sinoatrial node which is located in the upper wall of the right atrium. This is also referred to as the heart’s pacemaker and its contractions generate nerve impulses that travel throughout the heart wall causing both atria to contract.  There are other auto-rhythmic nodes that also effect heart rate.
Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections (priapism) after hanging due to the pooling of blood in the legs and lower body once the heart stops. The original photograph of the execution of the Lincoln conspirators in America in 1865 appears to show one of the men, Lewis Powell, had an erection after he was hanged.
Men may also reach orgasm on the rope. Dr. Charles Croker King was a surgeon in Ireland in the mid 19th century and was able to examine the body of John Hurley who was hanged on the 27th of August 1853 at Galway, immediately after the execution.  Hurley’s neck was not broken by the drop.  King noted that Hurley’s penis was erect and that there was a whitish liquid that had come from it.  He took a slide of this and examined under a microscope, finding spermatozoa. This together with the other post mortem findings was reported in his treatise “On Death by Hanging” published in 1854.  King was professor of anatomy and physiology at Queen’s College Galway. Orgasm may be caused by the stimulation of the penis during the conscious struggling phase, combined with the pressure on the Vagal nerve which is responsible for sexual arousal, together with the reduced level of oxygen reaching the brain.
In the handwritten autopsy notes of a hanging by the famous pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury, he states that there was no "seminal effusion" which implies that he had found this on occasion.

Execution equipment.

The gallows.
All manner of patterns of gallows have been used worldwide over the years. Simple gallows, having an upright with a projecting beam cross braced to it were commonly used in many countries, even up till the end of the World War II.
However for a variety of reasons, gallows’ designs became more elaborate. From 1783, the gallows at Newgate in London had a trapdoor and as the concept of giving the prisoner some drop became more widely used, this style spread. The earliest use of the "New Drop", as it was called in Britain was on May 5th, 1760 for the execution of the Earl of Ferrers. This was in the form of a small box like structure rising about 12 inches from the main platform which would drop level with the floor when the hangman pulled away the supporting props.
The American gallows, shown in this
picture, is what many of you would probably imagine a gallows to look like and is from 1894. This style was used extensively in America and most other countries up until the early part of the 20th century. The present day gallows in Washington's Walla Walla prison looks most unlike this traditional pattern, consisting simply of two massive iron eye bolts through which the rope passes, each set over a single leaf trap operated by an electromagnetic release mechanism. (See picture). America typically used a single leaf trap whereas Britain and countries which adopted British style hanging typically use(d) a two leaf trap.
Modern gallows in Australia, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia and former British colonies typically have no steps and use double trapdoors, normally operated by a lever on the platform. South Africa used a metal beam that could be used for up to seven prisoners simultaneously at Pretoria Central Prison prior to abolition. In early 20th century British execution rooms there were no uprights, the ends of beam being set into the walls, while later a concealed beam running above the ceiling was used, as was the case at Pentonville and Wandsworth prisons in London up to abolition.
Lebanon used this quite complex style of gallows for public hangings - the picture is of the public execution of two men, carried out on the 25th of May 1998.
Visit the
Gallows Galleries for pictures of gallows from Britain and around the world.

The Noose.
Several types of noose are in use worldwide. At its simplest, a noose is just a slip knot fashioned on a length of rope or strong cord. Nazi executioners used this pattern during World War II, typically made from 6-10 mm thick cord.
The traditional hangman's noose (
picture) has from 5 to 13 coils which slide down the rope delivering a heavy blow to the side of the neck. This pattern is still used in America and countries such as Iran and Iraq. The modern American coiled noose is prepared in accordance with a procedure laid down in a U.S. army manual, from 30 feet of 3/4"-1" diameter manila hemp rope, boiled to take out stretch and any tendency to coil. It is formed into six coils and then waxed, soaped or greased to assure that the knot slides easily. Generally the knot is placed under the prisoner’s left ear (the subaural position) as was seen in the photographs of Saddam Hussein.
Britain and most Commonwealth and ex-Commonwealth countries use(d) a simple noose consisting of a loop worked into one end of the rope with the other end passed through it, as
shown here. In the 20th century the eyelet was typically placed below the angle of the jaw, (the submental position)
This was improved in the 1890's by passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet instead of a loop of rope, which made it more free running. This type of noose has been shown to cause a quicker death. It is usually made from a 13 foot length of 3/4" diameter hemp rope, often bound with leather, as
seen here. This type of noose is used in present day Egypt, Kuwait, Singapore and Malaysia and in former British colonies. Modern materials such as Nylon have been tried but tended to be too elastic for long drop hangings.  Iran uses nylon rope for its short drop/suspension hangings.

The hood.
In most countries, at least throughout the 20th century, it has been customary to hood the prisoner before execution. Normally, a black cotton or denim hood is used as shown here, but in some countries, notably Britain and its former colonies, a white linen or cotton hood was the norm as seen here. In South Africa and Australia a white hood was also used which was put on in the prisoner's cell prior to them being led into the gallows chamber. Unlike the British version, it had a flap over the eyes which was only closed just before the drop. Typically, the prisoner is hooded only at the last moment before the noose is put round their neck and adjusted. Although they are able to see the gallows, the trap, the executioner and witnesses and the noose dangling before them, most countries found it to be better than hooding them earlier and trying to lead them to the gallows, as they were more frightened by not knowing what was happening. It is thought that Iraq, Malaysia and Singapore hood the prisoner before leading them to the execution chamber.
Some places such as Iran do not use a hood, although a blindfold may be used at some public executions. There are three good reasons for hooding the prisoner. Firstly, in long drop hangings it is very important that the condemned person does not move at the last moment, just as the lever is being pulled - which could easily alter the position of the noose and thus cause them a slower death.
The second reason is to minimise rope burn and marking of the skin of the neck which is why the hood is generally put over the head before the noose. This also prevents the hood being blown off by the updraft created by the body falling.
Hooding saves the officials, who have to witness the execution, from seeing the condemned person's face as they are about to die and after suspension.

Pinioning.
In modern times it is normal to pinion the prisoner's hands either in front of them or more usually behind their back with either handcuffs or a leather strap. Some countries use additional straps for the arms or even elaborate leather harnesses for the arms and wrists, as in Kuwait. In long drop/standard drop hangings, the prisoner's legs are normally pinioned with a cord or strap around the ankles to prevent them getting their feet onto the sides of the trap when the doors fall. In Britain, as women's skirts got shorter in the 20th century, an extra strap was placed round the lower thighs to prevent the skirt billowing up as they dropped and exposing their underwear. Thigh straps were also used for men in some countries, notably in the USA.
For short drop and suspension hangings, the legs were and still are, often left free.
Charles Campbell, who was hanged in Washington in May 1994, was strapped to a special collapse board (visible in the photo of the Walla Walla gallows, above) as he was not able to support himself at the end.  Other prisoners have been hanged strapped to chairs, both they and the chair falling through the trap.

Modern hangings described.

Many countries carry out hanging executions in complete secrecy, e.g. Botswana, Malaysia, Japan and Singapore so details are hard to come by. There are however, a few modern hangings which have been reported in detail or actually filmed.
Compare these to a 1950's British hanging described in my
History of Judicial Hanging in Britain.

A Kuwait hanging in 2004.
Three men who had been convicted of a particularly cruel “honour” murder of a little girl called Amna Al-Khaledi were hanged at the Nayef Palace in Kuwait City on Monday the 31st of May 2004. The prisoners were Marzook Saad Suleiman Al-Saeed, aged 25, Saeed Saad Suleiman Al-Saeed, aged 28, and 24-year-old Kuwaiti Hamad Mubarak Turki Al-Dihani. They were brought to the Nayef Palace at 8.45 on the Monday morning and were allowed time to prepare and pray before they were hanged.  At about 9.45 they were led to the white painted metal and wood gallows wearing regulation brown boiler suits and with their wrists and arms strapped behind them with leather straps. Here they were made to climb the steps up onto the platform some 10 feet above and were placed upon individual double trap doors.  Each prisoner was allocated a three man execution team, all wearing black overalls and ski masks.  Once on the trap a leather strap was placed around each man’s ankles and a British style, leather covered eyelet noose placed over his head, held in place by a heavy rubber washer and followed by a black hood.  They were given measured drops (of about 7 feet) and afterwards examined by doctors with stethoscopes to determine the time of death.  Marzook Saad Suleiman Al-Saeed was pronounced dead after eight minutes, Hamad Al-Dehani took six minutes to die, and Saeed Saad Suleiman Al-Saeed expired in five minutes and 20 seconds.  The time of death being stated as when there is no longer a audible heartbeat. From the photographs and the length of drop it is likely that their necks were broken.  There was no report of any of the men struggling after the drop fell and all seemed to become limp immediately.  The aftermath of the execution was witnessed by over 1000 people, including Amna’s relatives who were let into the compound to view the dangling bodies.  The scene was photographed by press photographers for publication in the following day’s papers.  Click here for a photograph. It is interesting to note that the time taken for these men to die is about the same as recorded in typical lethal injection executions in the USA.

Saddam Hussein hanged in Iraq in 2006.
Probably the most high profile execution in modern times took place on at 6:10 a.m. on December the 30th 2006 when the former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein was hanged by his own people in a two-story building in the Shia Khadamiya District in Northern Baghdad.  Saddam was dressed in a white shirt and dark overcoat for his execution.  He was led up the long flight of steps to the gallows platform where he was positioned over the chequer plate metal trap doors. The rope was looped through a metal eye on the ceiling and the free rope hung down to its attachment point.  A black scarf and a seven coil American style noose were placed round his neck.  He refused the traditional hood and after being taunted by his guards, the trapdoors were released and he dropped a little more than his own height through the trap and was brought to a halt by the noose which had its knot positioned under his left ear.  From the cell phone video and still photographs it would seem that his neck was broken and that he died without any struggle.  He was taken down after hanging for just ten minutes.  Click here for a photo.  Saddam had been convicted of the murder of 148 Shias in the town of Dujail in the 1980s.

An Iranian hanging in 2007.
On the 15th of July 2007 a 29 year old Iranian woman, whose name was only given as Houriyeh, was hanged in public together with her two male accomplices.  She had murdered her husband by strangling him in his sleep and paid the two men, Farhad and Reza, to murder three of her in-laws.  They strangled her husband’s parents and stabbed his brother to death.  Houriyeh was given a head-to-toe black chador for her execution which seems to be the standard dress for condemned women in Iran.  The three prisoners were bought to the execution ground, their legs shackled and the hands cuffed behind them.  The American style coiled nooses were attached to a spreader bar suspended from the jib of a crane.  At the signal all three were simultaneously lifted off the ground and became fully suspended.  The two men appeared to become unconscious almost instantly but a few seconds after being lifted into the air Houriyeh began to struggle hard, continuing for just over a minute before becoming still.  Some 5,000 people, including judiciary and police officials, witnessed the execution and it was secretly videoed on a mobile phone.  The video seems to bear out 19th century newspaper reports of short drop hangings in Britain and the USA, where women often seemed to die harder than men. Click here for a photograph.

Does the prisoner feel pain where the drop is sufficient to break their neck?
Obviously no one can be sure but it is generally held that if the person does feel pain, it is only during the instant that their neck is broken which can be measured in fractions of a second (see below).
Those who witnessed 20th century British hangings never described any obvious suffering on the part of the prisoner and the two post-mortem reports that are available do not seem to indicate anything but a quick death. There were no signs of conscious suffering in the independently witnessed hangings of Westley Allan Dodd and Charles Campbell in Washington and Billy Bailey in Delaware.  Although death was not instantaneous (it never is) unconsciousness was.

According to Harold Hillman, a British physiologist who has studied executions, "the dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck. It had been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck are ruptured, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them."  This would seem to be likely where the neck is not broken, e.g. in a standard drop US style hanging and may be accompanied by some physical struggling.

 

It has been calculated in evidence placed before the Aberdare Committee that it takes 0.02 of a second at the end of the drop for the rope to constrict and then break the neck.  Other research into how the brain functions has revealed that a total loss of any awareness will take place within 0.3 of a second after the spinal cord has been completely severed. The process of unconsciousness is triggered by a reaction within the axons (nerve fibres) of the severed nerves. Normal nerve signals require an antagonistic process within the axons which can only happen if the nerve circuit is unbroken. If, however, all the large spinal nerves are disconnected from the brain stem, as they are in measured drop hanging or beheading, an extremely rapid reaction takes place in both ends of the severed nerves, leading to all nerve impulses becoming stochastic (random) instead of structured.

Consciousness is instantly lost when the process becomes stochastic, no matter how high the activity of the brain may have been prior to it . Furthermore, a self destroying process will begin in the axons, spreading from the point of damage, and destroying the nerves all the way to the main synapses within the brain. This process will be completed within only five seconds.  On this basis where the spinal cord is severed, half a second is the maximum possible time that any pain could be felt.  This is born out by observation and the total lack of any obvious signs of suffering in properly carried out measured drop hangings.

What pain is felt in short drop/suspension hanging?

It should be clearly understood that suicide by hanging is likely to be VERY PAINFUL
as there will hardly ever be sufficient drop to break the neck.

Short drop or suspension hanging is, at least initially, likely to be very painful as the person struggles for air against the compression of the noose and against the weight of their own body, being supported entirely by the neck and jaw. Houriyeh above exhibited very obvious sings of suffering.  While 1 to 3 minutes before unconsciousness sets in may not sound a long time it must feel like an eternity to the suspended and struggling prisoner.

It is sometimes possible to revive a person after short drop/suspension hanging and thus we can have an idea of what they felt. People who have survived hanging have described the pain diminishing after a while and seeing bright lights as they drift into unconsciousness.
An Iranian man identified only as Niazali, was hanged in February 1996 but survived after the victim's relatives pardoned him. He told the Iranian daily newspaper "Kayhan" what it had felt like.  "That first second lasted like a thousand years. I felt my arms and legs jerking out of control. Up on the gallows in the dark, I was trying to fill my lungs with air, but they were crumpled up like plastic bags." Niazali’s hanging reportedly lasted 20 minutes. 

Hanging versus Lethal Injection.
Many people who support capital punishment feel that lethal injection is a better, more modern and humane form of execution than hanging. Is this view based upon the facts or is it purely a perception based on the fact that we have experienced (non-lethal) injections ourselves? It is noticeable that the a majority of the American respondents to my surveys cite lethal injection as the method they would choose for themselves, although a considerable minority of British respondents of both sexes chose hanging.
Execution by lethal injection takes much longer than any other method, anything up to 45 minutes for the complete process during which the prisoner is fully conscious except for the last 7-10 of those minutes (remember that in Britain a 20th century hanging took, typically 15-20 seconds to carry out).  This duration must subject the prisoner to far more mental torture because they know they are being put to death. Lethal injection is clearly much less dramatic than hanging and, therefore, probably easier for the staff and witnesses to cope with. It is suitable for both sexes and all ages of prisoners where a suitable vein can be located. However, there is often a problem where the prisoner has been an intravenous drug user or simply has small veins which tend to contract even further when they are frightened.
One wonders if lethal injection is perceived as being as much of a deterrent as hanging in the minds of criminals or whether they would feel it was a "soft option"?
This is an important point because if the state is going to take the life of a person at all, then surely it should seek to produce the maximum deterrence from so doing without resorting to extreme cruelty. For a detailed look at lethal injection, click here.

Conclusions.
Carried out carefully and humanely, using an accurately measured drop and modern noose, hanging is possibly the least cruel way to execute a criminal. In 20th century Britain, the whole process was over extremely quickly and every effort was made to minimise the criminal's mental and physical suffering. However, as can be seen from the examples cited above, it can also be a very cruel death, if either botched or carried out in such a way as to intentionally cause suffering. It is probable that the countries that execute criminals using little or no drop in public do so in the hope of achieving maximum deterrence and feel that the criminal should be made to suffer for what they have done.

Back to Contents page The history of hanging in Britain