The evolution of the “long drop” in the 19th century.


With special thanks to Traugott Vitz for his help with this article.


The concept of the “long drop” form of hanging developed in Ireland.

One of the first recorded long drop hangings was that of John Hurley who was executed outside Galway Gaol on 27 August 1853 for the murder of 16 year old Catherine Kendrigan.  22 year old Hurley stood 5 feet 7 inches high and weighed 147 lbs.  He was given a drop of 7 feet 6 inches which produced a force of 1103 ft. lbs.  The Morning Post recorded that Hurley became still after “a few spasmodic convulsions” and was taken down after 20 minutes.  Dr. Charles Croker King who was Professor of Anatomy and Physiology at Queens College Galway witnessed the hanging and examined the body afterwards.  He described the execution as follows : The rope used was ten lines in diameter which most probably equates to 10/12’s of an inch or 21.2 mm., with a large three coiled knot which was placed at the back of the neck.  When the drop fell, Hurley’s body “oscillated for a few minutes, the arms and legs became rigid, the forearms flexed on the arms, the fingers flexed into the palms of the hands and the thighs abducted and slightly drawn up towards the abdomen.”  “After a short time the limbs relaxed and the legs approached each other, the toes pointing downwards.  The hands became pale and the fingers relaxed.”

Dr. King was able to carry out a post mortem and found as follows.  The eyes were not protruding, there was lividity in the lips, but the face was pale.  There was a slight rope mark and some bloody mucus in the hood.  There had been no effusion of urine or faeces but Hurley had had an erection and ejaculated.  Dr. King took a sample of the “thin transparent fluid” staining Hurley’s shirt and found on microscopic analysis that it contained spermatozoa.  The following day he dissected Hurley’s neck and found that there had been no fracture of the spinal column or damage to the spinal cord.

Dr. King witnessed the next execution at Galway, that of Patrick Lydon on 11 May, 1858 for the murder of his wife.  Lydon was 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed 133 lbs.  He was given a drop of 11 feet which would have produced a force of 1463 ft. lbs.  The rope was the same one used for Hurley.  Dr. King recorded that “the loop of the rope ran in an oblique direction from the side of the neck upwards toward the left ear, immediately below which the knot was placed.  (This is the sub-aural position, that would later be standardised on by James Berry.)  Except for a bounce at the end of the rope Lydon made no movement and death was “instantaneous”.  He was taken down after just a few minutes.
Dr. King immediately carried out a post-mortem and found that the left wing of the thyroid cartilage was driven in and fractured and that there was separation of the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae with a gap of 1/8 of an inch.  The face was pale and not congested, there was no blood, urine or semen on the body.  Dr. King noted that with the longer drop there was more damage to Lydon’s neck than there was to Hurley.


It is interesting that the positioning of the knot was not realised to be an important factor at this time. The drop given to Hurley and the force it produced was in line with 20th century practice but the placement of the knot at the back of the neck was the likely reason that his neck was not broken.

The Rev. Dr. Samuel Haughton was a mathematician, a doctor of medicine, a priest and a professor of geology who attempted to find the mathematical formula for hanging, whereby the prisoner’s neck was broken by the force of a calculated drop.  His treatise “On hanging considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view.” was published in the London, Edinburgh and Dublin Philosophical Magazine and Journal of Science, Vol. 32 No. 213 in July 1866.  He concluded that
one should “divide the weight of the patient in pounds into 2240, and the quotient will give the length of the long drop in feet."  He further recommended that if the required drop could not be produced because the height of the gallows platform from the ground would not allow it, shot should be strapped to the prisoner’s feet to ensure a striking force of 2240 lbs.


Patrick Kilkenny was hanged on 20 July 1865 at Dublin’s Kilmainham prison and Dr. Haughton was permitted to carry out a post-mortem, with fellow doctor, Dr. Arthur Foote.  Kilkenny weighed 160 lbs and was given the very long drop of 14 feet 6 inches, producing an energy of 2,320 ft. lbs.  The knot was placed at the back of the neck and all the soft parts of the neck under the skin were completely divided.  The transverse processes of the second cervical vertebra were broken and the spinal cord separated.  Death was recorded as “instantaneous”.  Dr. Haughton concluded that few more inches of drop would have decapitated Kilkenny.


Andrew Carr became the first man to be hanged within Dublin’s Richmond prison on 28 July 1879 using Haughton’s formula and he was decapitated by the drop.

Freeman's Journal of 29th July 1870 gives a report on the inquest with an almost verbatim version of the prison surgeon’s, Dr. Minchin, evidence:

"Dr. Humphrey Minchin sworn and examined.
I am surgeon to the Richmond Bridewell, and, in compliance with the act relating to the carrying out of capital punishment within prisons, I was present at the execution of Andrew Carr on the morning of the 28th July, 1870.  I have since made a post-mortem examination of the body, the head was completely severed from the trunk, all the parts being divided evenly across; the second cervical vertebrae was fractured, which alone would cause instantaneous death.”

“The fall is a matter simply of figures; death by strangulation is caused by a short rope with all the attendant horrors of kicking and struggling, whereas the long rope insures a sudden, instantaneous, and painless death by fracturing or dislocating one of the bones in the neck ; a portion of the force of the fall is usually expended in tightening the elaborate noose usually employed, whereas in the present case I fear that the noose was tightened beforehand, and thus an additional force was reserved which resulted in the accident; the usual formula is 2,240 lbs., divided by the weight of the offender in pounds; in this case 159 will give a quotient representing the number required to break the neck, namely – fourteen; in my opinion the immediate cause of death was a transverse fracture through the second cervical vertebra and a displacement of the second from the third; the drop is 22 feet from the ground, and the man fell 14 feet; I do not think the thinness of the rope contributed to the accident; I suggested 14 feet as a proper fall in accordance with the opinions founded on published scientific data, and with a view of avoiding a lingering and torturing mode of death; the rope did not give way.

Were you ever present at an execution before? No; this was the first I was officially connected with."
Carr’s hanging was also described thus by an unnamed reporter:

The first private execution in Dublin was marked by an appalling casualty, which, by favour of the Sheriff, was witnessed by some representatives of the press, of whom I happened to be one. It was many years ago, but the memory of that hanging haunts me still. The condemned man was an Army pensioner, who, in the frenzy of delirium tremens, killed a woman of the unfortunate class by almost cutting off her head with a razor. When he fell through the temporary scaffold, erected in a corner of the prison-yard, the head came away absolutely from the trunk, from which a jet of blood of considerable volume was shot in the air. Strong men fainted that day, and one person present was so affected by the horrid sight that his mind never wholly recovered from the shock, and he died from a lingering ailment growing out of it. At the inquest, which was held on the headless body, it was shown that the rope used on this occasion was not thicker than the finger of a man's hand. The convict was a heavy man, and this thin rope literally beheaded him.”


The Rev. Dr. Samuel Haughton gave an address to the Surgical Society in Dublin on 10 December 1875 at which several prison surgeons who had witnessed hangings were present.  He claimed that Carr’s decapitation was the result of the rope used being too stiff.  In fact his theory of the force required to break the neck was the problem.  His recommendation of 2,240 lbs being double what was later found to be ideal.  The rope used for this hanging was 2 inches in circumference which equates to 5/8 inch in diameter which is thinner than the 3/4 inch rope which would later become normal. Dr. Haughton advocated that the knot should be placed under the chin, and that the drop should be 10 feet as a rule.  Ten years later when recalling this meeting, he had reduced it to 8 feet.  Haughton further suggested that a short iron bar about an inch in diameter and 6 inches long should be placed under the chin and the knot fastened into that. The chin would rest on the bar of iron. The knot should be fastened around this bar, brought round the back of the neck and wove through a loop at the opposite end of the bar. By this means the rope would be in direct opposition with the spine, and death would be produced in the most rapid possible method.  There is no evidence that this was ever tried.


Dr. R. J. Kinkead provided a fascinating insight into six hangings at Galway prison published in The Lancet on April 11, 1885.  As medical officer he both witnessed the executions and carried out the post mortems.  The first was Martin M'Hugo who was hanged there on 16 January 1880, by William Marwood.  Kinkead described him as a tall, powerfully built man.  Together with Dr. Pye, he autopsied M’Hugo about an hour and a half after the drop fell.  He noted that there were no faeces, but M’Hugo had ejaculated.  Dissection of the neck revealed that most of the tissues were torn through and the third cervical vertebrae was broken.  The parts were separated by at least two inches and the spinal cord was also separated.  The body was held to the head just by skin.  Marwood gave much longer drops at this time than would be later used.  This must have come close to decapitation.  The same occurred with Patrick Higgins at Galway in January 1883 and Kinkead again attributed this to the excessive drop given.


William Marwood introduces the long drop to England.
Fifty four year old William Marwood had taken a great interest in the process of execution by hanging over the years and knew that he could improve on the way it was carried out by Calcraft et al.  He had never hanged anyone or even assisted at, or witnessed an execution. He had however given a great deal of thought to the subject and concluded that a long drop would be more humane.  He was convinced that if an accurately calculated drop was given, that related to the prisoner’s weight, then their neck would be broken resulting in a fast and pain free death.  Amazingly he persuaded the authorities at Lincoln to let him carry out William Frederick Horry’s hanging on 1 April 1872.  Perhaps after the execution of Priscilla Biggadyke, the previous hanging at Lincoln in 1868, the governor there, Mr. Foster, was only too willing to give Marwood a try so as to avoid the wholly distressing scene that he had had to witness on that occasion.  He and the sheriff were able to select the hangman as there was no Home Office (Prison Commission) list of approved persons at this time. Details of Horry’s case are here.

The existing “New Drop” gallows was erected in the Castle Yard, behind the Assize Court.  William Marwood pinioned his prisoner’s arms just before 9 am and Horry thanked the governor and the chaplain for the kindness that they had shown him.  The normal procession then started off across the Castle Yard with Horry escorted by two warders, walking unaided and with a firm step.  At the foot of the gallows Rev. Richter read the burial service and Horry thanked him and one of the accompanying warders before climbing the steps up to the platform where his legs were strapped.  Here he said “Good bye Mr. Foster, God Bless you.  God forgive my poor dear father.  God bless my poor children.”  His final words as Marwood was hooding him and adjusting the noose were “Lord have mercy on my soul”.  When the trap doors were released Horry dropped leaving just the still, taught rope in sight of the officials on the platform.  His death was reported as being virtually instantaneous. There was no agonised struggling or writhing, no choking sounds, the whole process was far less distressing for all concerned.  The prison surgeon, Dr. Broadbent, examined the body and certified death.  Unfortunately details of Horry’s height and weight were not recorded and nor was the drop length.

Between Horry in 1872 and John Stanton in March 1875, there would be 41 other hangings.  Of these Marwood would officiate at 17.  The others were carried out by William Calcraft and Robert Anderson, George Incher and George Smith and used the short drop.

Marwood’s first female execution was that of 43 year old Frances Stewart within Newgate Prison’s new execution shed.  Stewart had been convicted of drowning her grandson.
On Monday 29 June 1874 she was pinioned in the condemned cell and then led in a procession of two matrons, the under sheriff and the chaplain to the gallows.  Here Marwood made the necessary preparations and operated the trap doors.  According to a report from the Echo newspaper he bungled the execution by not tightening the noose sufficiently and she struggled somewhat.  I doubt that this is actually true, it was more likely what their reporter expected to happen.  Reporters were not allowed inside the shed and had to watch the proceedings from outside.  The entrance to the shed had two pairs of half doors and only the upper pair were left open after the prisoner and officials had entered.  Thus with a long drop all that would be seen by reporters was a taught rope hanging down from the beam, the prisoner’s body would have been completely below the level of the trap doors. In evidence to the Aberdare Committee, Mr. Leonard Ward, the then Chief Warder at Newgate reported that Frances turned her head at the last moment and thus altered the position of the eyelet to the back of her neck but that she still died instantly. Equally it has been claimed that the drop given was less than three feet, so unless she was of heavy build this would have been insufficient.  If true it is probable that her head would have been visible above the closed lower doors.

Marwood’s next female was 40 year old Mary Williams who was hanged at Liverpool’s Kirkdale Gaol on Monday 31 August 1874, beside 22 year old Henry Flannigan for two unrelated murders.  The York Herald newspaper reported the execution in detail.  “Shortly before 8 o’clock the prisoners were brought out of the reception room and ascended the drop.  Flannigan appeared to be in a state of stupor and did not utter a word.  Williams continued to protest her innocence.  She recited several prayers and before the cap was fixed shook hands with a female warder and said Good bye, God Bless you all.  The bolt was drawn and both fell about five feet, only the caps appearing above the black drapery of the scaffold.  Their legs, from the knees downwards could be seen below and from the slight convulsive twitching that lasted but a few seconds, death appeared to speedy in each case.”

On the morning of Monday August 2 1875, a small piece of legal history was made within the walls of Durham prison.  A woman was to be hanged with two men, all for unrelated crimes and this was to be the last such occasion in England.  The woman was twenty eight year old Elizabeth (Lizzie) Pearson who was to die for the poisoning murder of James Watson and the men were 36 year old William McHugh, who had been convicted of drowning Thomas Mooney at Barnard Castle and 22 year old Michael Gillingham who had murdered John Kilcran at Darlington.  All three had been tried and convicted at the Durham Summer Assizes the previous month.

On the fatal morning the three prisoners were offered breakfast, reportedly comprising of a lamb chop, bread and butter and a cup of tea at 7 a.m.  It was reported that Elizabeth only managed the tea.  They were allowed time to pray with their respective priests, Elizabeth being looked after by the prison chaplain, the Revd. J. C. Lowe.  Just before 8 a.m. "the three prisoners were led forth from their respective cells to the pinioning room, where their limbs were securely tied," according to the Northern Echo’s reporter. "Hence they were taken by the warders to the quadrangle, in which the gallows were erected, and where William Marwood stood ready to perform his task." The Durham County Advertiser reported that Elizabeth “walked to the scaffold without assistance and, indeed, throughout the whole proceedings remained the most self-possessed of the three.” 
We do not know if Elizabeth was aware that she would be hanged with a measured drop or whether she would have still expected to strangle on the rope.
  It was reported that the men were prepared first and that Elizabeth witnessed this before being led past them to her position on the trap where she was placed under the second beam with her back to them.  Warder Cox assisted Marwood in the strapping of the prisoners’ legs. All three prayed with their ministers until Marwood gave a signal, whereupon the ministers shook hands with the prisoners and stepped off the trap.  A moment later Marwood pulled the lever.  Gilligan was seen to struggle for a moment or two before becoming still, Elizabeth and McHugh made no movement.

The Northern Echo of Tuesday 3 August, reported "After the rope and the cap had been adjusted, the bolt was withdrawn, the woman dropped in the air, and died without a struggle.”  The concept of a measured drop breaking the prisoner’s neck was obviously still a very new one to newspaper reporters in 1875.

The three bodies were left hanging for the required hour before being taken down and placed in plain black coffins.  The mandatory inquest was held at 10 o’clock before John Graham, the coroner.  The Under Sheriff was present and was asked if the prisoners struggled much to which he replied “no, not at all.”  It was noted by one reporter that "The head of each was covered with a cap (white hood), leaving the face and neck free, the countenances of the deceased were remarkably placid and betokened only the quietest of deaths."

William Marwood did his best to persuade prison authorities to have the platform of the gallows level with the surrounding ground or floor because of the difficulty many of the condemned had ascending steps.  Typically he worked without an assistant and had to pinion the prisoner’s legs himself.  He improved the pinioning arrangements and devised a body belt with wrist straps that could be applied quickly.  He also gave attention to the rope and noose.  He chose a five-ply three quarter inch diameter Italian silk hemp rope with a metal eyelet through which the free end of the rope passed to form the noose.  The eyelet was held in position by a leather washer.  This combined with the drop and the position of the eyelet under the angle of the jaw or just in front of it would be much more likely to cause fracture dislocation of the culprit’s neck.

It is thought that Marwood used both the sub-aural and submental positions for the eyelet.  “There are conflicting reports, all equally trustworthy, about Marwood’s preference. Some say he placed the eyelet under the angle of the jaw or just in front of it, some observed his eyelet right under the tip of the chin. It is possible that he changed his preferred position during his lifetime, or that he did not care much at all about one inch here or there, provided the eyelet was somewhere toward the front on the left side.

He developed his own drop table, allowing ten feet for a person of eight stone (112 lbs) and reducing progressively to seven feet for a person of 16 stones (224 lbs).  These drops produced a “striking force” of 1120 ft. lbs. for the lightest prisoners and 1568 ft. lbs. for the heaviest which is nearing the stage of likely decapitation.


In a letter to a prison governor, dated 7 June 1879, Marwood gave what today we would call a method statement, as under. The letter was printed in facsimile in the St. Stephen's Review in 1883. It seems that spelling was not one of his strengths.



in Replie to your Letter of this day i will give you a Compleat Staitment for Executing a Prisoner.

1 - Place - Pinnion the Prisoner Round the Boady and Arms tight---

2 - Place - Bair the Neck--

3 - Place -Take the Prisoner to the Drop

4 - Place - Place the Prisoner Beneath the Beam to stand Direct under the Rope from the Top of the Beam

5 - Place -- strap the Prisoners Leggs Tight

6 - Place - Putt on the Cap

7 - Place - Putt on the Rope Round the Neck thite. Let the Cap be Free from the Rope to hide the Face angine Dow in Frunt.

8-Place - Executioner to go Direct Quick to the Leaver Let Down the Trap Doors Quick

No greas to be Putt on the Rope all Rops to be Well Tested before Execution and all Rops to be kept Dry in good Auder


Sir the araingements of the Place of Execution you Can git at HM Prison Newgate London it wanting 2 Feet Deeper in the Pitt beneath then it is Perfect say 10 Feet beneath

Sir Pleas i thought it would be the Best Way to give you a Clear under-standing in the araingements of a Execution of a Prisoner to Prevent aney Mistake in the Araingement in the Matter in Question


Sir i shall be glad to asist you in all improvements

Sir i Remain your Humble Servant,

Wm Marwood

Church: Lane-Horncastle Lincolnshire.


William Marwood carried out a total of 178 hangings, including those of eight women.  25 were in Ireland and one in Jersey, in public.  It is fair to say that he did his best to make executions far more humane than had previously been the case, but he was still at the beginning of a learning curve that would take another 40 years or so to perfect.


Bartholomew Binns succeeded William Marwood, only holding the job as principal for a year, during which he carried out eleven executions. Since he had no prior experience he was given a demonstration of hanging by Mr. Leonard Ward, the Chief Warder at Newgate.

The execution of Henry Dutton at Kirkdale on 3 December 1883 was botched by Binns.  The twenty two year old was to die for the murder of Hannah Henshaw, his wife’s grandmother at their home in Athol Street Liverpool.  Dutton weighed just 128 lbs and was given a barely adequate drop of 7’ 6” using an over thick rope of 1 1/8” diameter with the eyelet positioned at the nape of the neck.  He struggled for two minutes and his heart beat for eight minutes after the drop.  The prison surgeon at this time was Dr. James Barr, who made a careful examination of the body to determine that Dutton’s neck had not been broken.  Dr. Barr was dissatisfied with the clumsy way that Binns had pinioned Dutton and conducted the hanging. There was a strong suspicion that he had been drinking beforehand. Click here for a detailed report of the inquest, put together by Traugott.  Binns’ last job was the hanging of 18 year old Michael McLean at the same prison, on the 10 March 1884.  Binns was seen to be in a drunken state and the execution was not entirely satisfactory – it took 13 minutes for McLean‘s heart to stop. After the formal complaint about this and his drunken behaviour, he was sacked.


In June 1884, Dr. James Barr, the medical officer of Liverpool’s Kirkdale Prison, published “The Mechanics of Hanging” in The Lancet.  Here he discussed all relevant aspects of death by hanging and how it should be best achieved.  In this article he suggested for the first time that the drop energy produced should be 1260 ft. lbs. and that the eyelet should be positioned so as to rotate under the chin during the drop which would result in it being in the submental position.  He would later testify to the Aberdare Committee and also later still get involved with the training of hangmen.


James Berry succeeded Binns.  He had spent time with William Marwood and was acquainted with his method and drops.  Like Marwood and Binns, Berry had received little formal training, nor did he have an official table of drops to refer to.  Berry carried out a total of 130 hangings, including those of five women.  Unlike Marwood, Berry invariably placed the eyelet just behind/under the left ear (the subaural position)

An unfortunate experience concerned the execution of 45 year old Robert Goodale at Norwich Castle on 30 November 1885. Goodale who weighed 15 stone (210 lbs) but was in poor physical condition, was decapitated by the force of the drop, which Berry recorded as 5’ 9 1/2” or 5’ 10”.  This produced an energy of at least 1208 ft. lbs., which might not have decapitated a healthy younger man.  This is the only recorded instance of total decapitation in England, although two other of Berry's prisoners, Moses Shrimpton at Worcester on 20 May 1885 and John Conway on 20 August 1891, at Kirkdale, came close to being decapitated and there was blood spatter on the walls of the pit. For Shrimpton’s hanging the gallows was set up in the prison’s treadmill house.  The normal preparations were made and when Berry operated the trap Shrimpton dropped from view.  When the witnesses and newspaper reporters looked down into the pit they were horrified by what they saw.  Shrimpton had been all but decapitated by the fall and there was blood running down over his body and splashing onto the brick lining and floor of the pit.  At 65 years old his neck muscles had weakened and Berry claims the weight he was given by the prison authorities for Shrimpton of 10 stone (140 lbs) had been incorrect.  The drop given was reported to have been nine feet.  Two newspaper accounts gave his weight as "probably more than 10 stone" and The Worcestershire Chronicle, of 30 May 1885 whose reporter had been present, suggests that it was nearer 12 stone.  If his weight was 10 stone or 140 lbs, a nine foot drop would have produced an energy of 1,260 ft. lbs., high but not excessive.  However if Shrimpton was in fact 12 stone (168 lbs) the drop energy would have been greater, somewhere in the order of 1,512 ft. lbs., which would account for the near decapitation.

In the Conway case the prisoner was 60 years old and weighed 11 stone 2 lbs, (156 lbs.) and was given a drop of six feet according to Berry’s measurement, which would have resulted in an energy of 936 ft. lbs.  According to Dr. Barr the actual drop was six feet eight inches which would have produced an energy of 1040 ft. lbs. and was an inch shorter than Dr. Barr thought it should be.  This tore open Conway’s throat and led to a bloody mess in the pit.  Berry blamed Dr. Barr, for interfering with his calculations, saying that he would have only given him a drop of 4’ 6”.  It is worth noting that Dr. Barr and Berry had had several previous run-ins. Dr. Barr considered himself to be the country’s leading expert on hanging and was highly regarded as such by the Home Office and the Prison Commission.  To Barr, Berry was just the “common hangman” who should be made to do as he was told by his superiors.  Barr also maintained that Berry had no idea that in setting the drop, one had to take account of the height of the prisoner as well as their weight.
Berry would only hang one more man in England and Wales, Edward Henry Fawcett Watts, on the 25th of August 1891 at Winchester.  Watts weighed 140 lbs and was given a drop of five feet six inches, The Hampshire Advertiser reporting his death as instantaneous, even though the drop only produced an energy of 770 ft. lbs.  The subsequent inquest at 10 a.m. revealed that Watts’ face looked calm and there was just a small rope mark visible on the neck.

It wasn’t until 1903 that the first electrocardiogram machine was invented which could monitor heart action.  However the sphygmograph had been invented in 1854 as a machine to measure the pulse at the wrist and record it on carbon paper in a form similar to a modern heart monitor.  In 1887 Dr. Llewellyn A. Morgan, the medical officer of London’s Newgate prison, used a sphygmograph to record the pulses of three men hanged there that year by James Berry.  They were 41 year old Joseph King, 31 year old Thomas Currell and 22 year old Israel Lipski.  This machine was attached to the prisoner’s wrist as quickly as possible after the drop and recorded their pulse rates at various intervals.  All three recordings show a rise in pulse rate initially and then it diminishing and weakening over time.  In all three cases the men’s necks were broken.  In each case the pulse was taken prior to the hanging, in two cases the day before and in the third case the week before.  One man had a pulse rate of 102 beats per minute, the second 84 and the third a rather low 60.  The first man’s pulse reduced to 54 five minutes after the drop, rose to 102 at 7 minutes and then steadily reduced.  Heart action was still discernable at 14 1/2 minutes but was very weak as it had been since the 10 minute point.  In the second case the heart rate was 162 at 3 1/2 minutes and decreased slowly to 78 at 12 1/2 minutes.  It was very weak throughout and was almost “flat line” by this time.  In the third case there was fast and discernable heart action for the first three minutes, but afterwards there was only very weak pulse.

It is interesting to note that although none of these men could be immediately certified dead, the black flag would have been hoisted and their deaths reported as “instantaneous”.  This was certainly the case with Thomas Currell and Israel Lipski.

After the Shrimpton hanging Berry seemed to become over cautious and the opposite problem occurred in at least three of Berry's later hangings when the condemned died from asphyxia due to the length of drop being insufficient. These were David Roberts, hanged at Cardiff on the 2nd of March 1886, Henry Delvin, executed on the 23rd of September 1890 in Glasgow’s Duke Street prison for murdering his wife, and Edward Hewitt who was executed at Gloucester in June of 1886, also for wife murder.

Dr. J. J. de Zouche Marshall had been authorised by the Home Office to attend executions so as to be able to testify before The Capital Sentences Committee (see below) He was present at Hewitt’s execution and reported as follows : "I descended immediately into the pit where I found the pulse beating at the rate of 80 to the minute and the wretched man struggling desperately to get his hands and arms free. I came to this conclusion from the intense muscular action in the arms, forearms and hands, contractions, not continuous but spasmodic, not repeated with any regularity but renewed in different directions and with desperation. From these signs I did not anticipate a placid expression on the face and I regret to say my fears were correct. On removing the white cap about 1 ½ minutes after the fall I found the eyes starting from the sockets and the tongue protruded, the face exhibiting unmistakable evidence of intense agony."  Hewitt weighed 10 stone 4 pounds (144 lbs.) and Berry had given him a drop of 6 feet which would have produced a force of 864 ft. lbs.  It took two and a half minutes for Hewitt to become still.  Although de Zouche Marshall did not criticise Berry he did feel that the eyelet of the noose should have been placed under the chin.

Dr. de Zouche Marshall was also present at the hangings of James Whelan and Albert Brown at Winchester on 31 May 1886.  Whelan weighed 13 stone (182 lbs.) and was given a drop of four feet, resulting in an energy of 728 ft. lbs.  Brown was a little over 10 stone (140+ lbs.) and was given a drop of six feet six inches, producing a force of 917 ft. lbs.  After the drop Whelan made no movement although his diaphragm continued to expand and contract for three minutes and his heart continued to beat for ten minutes.  His face appeared peaceful.  Brown made efforts to breathe for some four and a half minutes and his pulse continued for 12 1/2 minutes.  Dr. de Zouche Marshall concluded that neither man suffered much, if at all.

As you can see from the foregoing, early long drop hangings were very much hit or miss affairs and the government of the day thought this needed to be addressed.  I feel that they were particularly concerned about decapitation of Goodale and the failed hanging of John Lee at Exeter, both of which occurred in 1885.  They resulted in bad publicity and were raising questions over the continued use of hanging as the form of capital punishment.  So in 1886, the Conservative Home Secretary, Sir Richard Assheton Cross, commissioned a former Liberal Home Secretary, Lord Aberdare, to chair a committee with a brief to inquire into and report upon “the existing practice as to carrying out the sentence of death and the causes which in several recent cases have led either to the failure or to unseemly occurrences and to consider and report what arrangements may be adopted (without altering the existing law) to ensure that all executions may be carried out in a becoming manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect”.  More on the Aberdare Report is here.

The Aberdare Committee’s report provides a remarkably candid insight into the execution process in England and Wales between 1868 and 1888.  At the start of the period there was no standard gallows, no standard noose or pinioning method and no concept of a drop that would typically cause instant unconsciousness.  Neither was there any uniformity of equipment.  The gallows was that provided by the county in which the execution took place.  Some were reasonably fit for purpose and were erected in a shed over a pit.  Others were set up in the open air, some required the prisoner to climb a flight of steps to reach the platform.  Some gallows had a ring or hook attached to the beam which required the rope to be tied to it with a knot that could slip or tighten thus altering the drop.  Others had a chain suspended from the beam which was an improvement, e.g. at Newgate from 1881.  Some had a single trap door others had double leaf traps.

From 1878 the execution rope of a standard pattern with a metal eyelet was available from the Prison Commissioners. The “Government rope”, as it was known, was made by John Edgington & Co. Ltd. of 48 Long Lane, London, formed from a 10’ 2 1/2” length of 3/4" diameter Italian hemp with a metal eyelet for the noose.  A rope could be ordered for an execution from Newgate prison by the sheriff of the county requiring it.  Up to this time hangmen had supplied their own ropes but this was not considered satisfactory.  Nor was their propensity for showing off and indeed selling off used ones for profit.  The Committee endorsed the Prison Commissioners in recommending that in future only government supplied ropes should be used.  Later a second eyelet was formed on the free end of the rope for attachment to the chain by means of a “D” shackle, once the design of the beam had been modified to the split variety with cast iron brackets through which the chain could be passed. (see later)

Dr. J. J. de Zouche Marshall gave evidence to the Committee regarding the hangings he had witnessed and also suggested using a noose with a chin trough which combined with a shorter drop (of around 4 feet) would in his opinion cause fracture dislocation.  This would seem to be a development of Dr. Samuel Haughton’s iron bar suggestion described above.  This concept was never put into practice.

The Committee took evidence from James Berry in June 1887 which included a discussion of the elasticity of the ropes supplied by the Prison Commission.  The elasticity issue was very important because if the rope stretched significantly the condemned got a greater drop. If there was no elasticity there was an increased chance of decapitation.  There was also discussion of the correct position for the eyelet or thimble of the noose, Berry was of the view that it should be placed behind the left ear, the sub-aural position.

The Committee issued its report in July 1888, none of its recommendations requiring new legislation to allow them to be implemented. As stated earlier, until now there had been no official table of drops, Marwood and Berry had devised their own.  An examination of 23 cases where the drop was recorded and the cause of death established included the two cases where there was or nearly was decapitation and the calculated energy was 2320 ft. lbs.  In three cases death was given as suffocation and the energy produced by the drop was between 1082 and 1106 ft. lbs.  In the remaining 18 of these executions fracture dislocation had occurred and the energy had been between 1102 and 1438 ft. lbs.  The average value was 1330 ft. lbs.  It was however decided to recommend a final striking force of 1260 ft. lbs. except for very light prisoners where an energy of 1120 ft. lbs. was deemed sufficient.

Weight of culprit


Energy developed





ft. lbs.







































































The weight is that of the clothed prisoner.  The Committee recommended that the prisoner be weighed on the day before the execution rather than using their weight recorded at admission to the prison as it was found that many put on weight in the condemned cell due to a good diet and lack of exercise.

A number of other recommendations were made by the Committee.  They recommended that the gallows beam be improved, by replacing the single beam with two beams of 8 - 11 inches deep x 3 inch section oak, running parallel to each other about 2 inches apart. Over the centre of the beams were to be positioned three cast iron brackets, each having four holes offset at one inch centres through which a cotter pin was inserted, supporting the chain which hung down between the beams and terminated in a “D” shackle. This allowed very much more accurate adjustment of the drop. They concluded that “the cotter can be inserted between the links of the chain at intervals of 4 inches. The four slots in the bracket above the beam are at intervals of 1 inch vertically, so that the cotter can be placed in the link and slot, which will give the point of suspension of the rope to within an inch of the height required”.

The beams were 11 feet above the trapdoors and were generally set into the wall at each end, there being no uprights.  It took until at least the end of the 19th century for the new design to become universal.  Properly trained assistants were to be used who would strap the prisoner’s legs and who could take over if the hangman became ill or fainted.  This particular recommendation did not totally take effect until after James Berry departed.  The sheriffs were then able to choose from a list of hangmen and assistants approved by the Prison Commissioners. The suggestion that the hangman and assistant should stay in the prison from 4 o’clock in the afternoon prior to an execution was endorsed by the Committee and became standard practice.  Prior to this time, in most cases the hangman did not have an assistant and would have to pinion the prisoner’s legs himself which slowed the proceedings.  It was only from 1884 on that assistants became normally used, although hangings without an assistant still continued up to 1899.  It would seem realistic to say that in most prisons a hanging took between three and five minutes to carry out in the period 1875 - 1899.  This was due to the complex pinioning methods employed at the time, the distance from the condemned cell to the gallows and the hangman having no assistant.

In a letter dated September 1891 the Prison Department recommended that James Berry be no longer used.  However the Prison Department did not employ Berry and therefore could not sack him.  The same letter also mentioned James Billington as a suitable replacement, as he had successfully carried out eight hangings at Leeds and York.

Berry had become increasingly unpopular with the Home Office because of his holding “court” in local pubs after executions, which had led to questions being asked in Parliament, and his behaviour at the hanging of John Conway within Liverpool’s Kirkdale prison on 20 August 1891. Berry was replaced by James Billington who had carried out executions in Yorkshire since August 1884.  Now that Berry had gone the London Prison Commission tightened its control of executions and executioners and required prison governors and surgeons to report on both using their Form LPC4.


By the latter part of the 1890’s prospective hangmen and assistants underwent formal training at London’s Newgate prison in all aspects of the process of judicial hanging.  There was also now a Home Office list of qualified hangmen and assistants.  William Billington and his brother, Thomas were on the list, together with their father.  William Wilkinson, Robert Wade and Thomas Scott were also on the list.


In December 1891 the Home Office issued its first Memorandum for carrying out the details of an execution.  This would be the first national execution protocol and is reproduced in full below.


Memorandum of Instructions for carrying out the details of an Execution.

1. The apparatus for the execution may be tested in the following manner:–

The working of the scaffold should be first tested without any weight. Then a bag of sand of the same weight as the culprit should be attached to the rope, and so adjusted as to allow the bag a drop equal to, or rather more than, that which the culprit shall receive, so that the rope may be stretched with a force of about 900 foot-pounds. The working of the apparatus under these conditions should then be tested. The bag must be of the approved pattern, with a thick and well-padded neck, so as to prevent any injury to the rope and leather.

2. After the completion of this testing the scaffold and all appliances should be locked up, and the key kept by the Governor or other responsible officer until the morning of the execution ; but the bag of sand should remain suspended all the night preceding the execution, so as to take the stretch out of the rope.

3. The executioner and any persons appointed to assist in the operation should make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the working of the apparatus.

4. The lever should be fixed so as to prevent any accident while the preliminary details are being carried out.

5. Death by hanging ought to result from dislocation of the neck. The length of the drop is determined according to the weight of the culprit.

6. The required length of drop is regulated as follows:

At the end of the rope which forms the noose the executioner should see that 13 inches from the centre of the ring are marked off by a line painted round the rope ; this is to be a fixed quantity, which, with the stretching of this portion of the rope and the lengthening of the neck and body of the culprit, will represent the average depth of the head and circumference of the neck after constriction.

About two hours before the execution the bag of sand should be raised out of the pit and be allowed another drop so as to completely stretch the rope. Then while the bag of sand is still suspended, the executioner should measure off from the painted line on the rope the required length of drop, and should make a chalk mark on the rope at the end of the length. A piece of copper wire fastened to the chain should now be stretched down the rope till it reaches the chalk mark, and should be cut off there so that the cut end of the copper wire shall terminate at the upper end of the measured length of drop. The bag of sand should be then raised from the pit, and disconnected from the rope. The chain should now be so adjusted at the bracket that the lower end of the copper wire shall reach to the same level from the floor of the scaffold as the height of the prisoner. The known height of the prisoner can be readily measured on the scaffold by a graduated rule of six feet long. When the chain has been raised to the proper height, the cotter must be securely fixed through the bracket and chain. The executioner should now make a chalk mark on the floor of the scaffold, in a plumb-line with the chain, where the prisoner should stand.

These details should be carried out as soon as possible after 6 o'clock, so as to allow the rope time to regain a portion of its elasticity before the execution.

7. The copper wire should now be detached, and after allowing sufficient amount of rope for the easy adjustment of the noose, the slack of the rope should be fastened to the chain above the level of the head of the culprit with a pack-thread. The pack-thread should be just strong enough to support the rope without breaking.

8. When all the preparations are completed the scaffold should remain in charge of a responsible officer while the executioner goes to the pinioning room.

9. The pinioning apparatus should be dexterously applied in some room or place convenient to the scaffold. When the culprit is pinioned and his neck is bared he should be at once conducted to the scaffold.

10. On reaching the gallows the duty of the executioner should be as follows:–

(1.) Place the culprit exactly under the part of the beam to which the rope is attached.

(2.) Strap the culprit's legs tightly.

(3.) Put on the white linen cap.

(4.) Put on the rope round the neck quite tightly (with the cap between the rope and the neck) the metal eye being directed forwards, and placed in front of the angle of the lower jaw, so that with the constriction of the neck it may come underneath the chin. The noose should be kept tight by means of a stiff leather washer, or an india-rubber washer, or a wedge.

(5.) Go quickly to the lever and let down the trap doors.

11. The culprit should hang one hour, and then the body should be carefully raised from the pit. The rope should be removed from the neck, and also the straps from the body. In laying out the body for the inquest, the head should be raised three inches by placing a small piece of wood under it.

(Dated) December 1891.


In 1892 the Home Office issued its first official drop table.  Dr. Barr decided that drops should be 33.3% less than had been recommended by the Aberdare Committee.  However surviving records indicated that the new table was seldom adhered to and significantly greater drops were normally given. The difference between the drop as set prior to the execution and the drop as measured afterwards from the top of the platform to the heels of the prisoner was typically between 2 and 4 inches greater than the set drop, rarely more.  This was due to stretching of the neck and of the rope.  In all the cases where LPC4 forms are available, there are but two where the difference exceeded ten inches: The case of Frederick William Fenton (April 4, 1894, Birmingham) where it was 16 inches, and of Charles Thomas Woolridge (July 7, 1896, Reading): 11 inches. In both cases James Billington was the hangman.  For Fenton who weighed 115 lbs, Billington decided on a drop of 7’ 3” which would have produced an energy of 834 ft. lbs., hardly excessive.  One is left wondering if the measurements were correctly made and or recorded.
An analysis of 32 cases show that in only one case was the drop given in compliance with the table, in two cases it was less. One of these was 57 year old “baby farmer” Amelia Dyer who was hanged by James Billington at Newgate on 10 June 1896.  She weighed 213 lbs. and was given a drop of three feet six inches.  Dr. James Scott recorded “On account of her weight and softness of the tissues a rather short drop was given.  It proved to be quite sufficient.”  In the remaining 29 cases the drop given was anything from eight inches to two feet six inches more.  He studied the Execution Register at Newgate, introduced in 1892, with details of 18 hangings, 11 of which he had been present at.  Two were females, including Amelia Dyer.  Of the men one was given a drop in accordance with the Table, due to having attempted suicide by cutting his throat.  In the other 15 cases the men were given drops of 1” -26” more than the Table.  Dr. Scott commented that these drops were not excessive in any instance and could have benefited from being longer in some cases.  With the introduction of the LPC4 form in 1892, the Home Office would have been aware of what drops the hangmen were setting but apparently chose to ignore it.


Weight of culprit


Drop in

Feet & inches

Energy developed

ft. lbs.


8' 0"



7' 10"



7' 3"



7' 0"



6' 9"



6' 5"



6' 2"



6' 0"



5' 9"



5' 7"



5' 5"



5' 3"



5' 1"



4' 11"



4' 9"



4' 8"



4' 7"



4' 5"



4' 4"



4' 2"



It would be sometime before all the new recommendations and instructions came fully into effect.


Multiple (side by side) hangings were still permitted and on 9 June 1896, James Billington carried out a triple execution at Newgate, the last such event there.  The executed were William Seaman, for two murders committed during a break in, together with Albert Milsom and Henry Fowler for the murder of Mr. Henry Smith.  Billington was assisted by William Wilkinson (later William Warbrick).

33 year old Milsom weighed 126 lbs and was given a drop of seven feet six inches.  The LPC4 form recorded that death was due to dislocation of the vertebrae and compression of the spinal cord.  It further notes that there was no tearing of the skin and that Milsom was of light weight and slight build.  Henry Fowler weighed 169 lbs and was given a drop of seven feet.  Again the result was fracture and dislocation of the cervical vertebrae.  His form noted that he had a strong and thick neck.  Both forms were signed by James Scott, the Medical Officer of Newgate.  Unfortunately I do not have a form for Seaman, who was positioned between Milsom and Fowler on the drop, in the hope of preventing trouble between the two men.  The trouble came from an entirely unexpected quarter.  Wilkinson had pinioned Seaman and Fowler’s legs but had some difficulty getting the stiff new leather leg strap to buckle around Milsom’s ankles.  Just as he was finishing this, Billington operated the lever precipitating Wilkinson into the pit too.  According to Wilkinson, he managed to grab onto Milsom’s legs and was thus saved from injury.  This is disputed by the Rev. Meyrick who was present and said that while Wilkinson did go into the pit he did not touch the legs of any of the prisoners.  This is indeed far more credible.


On 21 July 1896, James Billington and William Wilkinson performed a second triple hanging, this time at Winchester prison.  It would be the last triple execution in Britain.  A new gallows had been erected in the coach house for the occasion.

The culprits were 18 year old Samuel Smith, who was a Private in the 4th King’s Rifles and who had shot dead Corporal Payne, who had reported him for minor offences. 24 year old Frederick Burden who had murdered his girlfriend, Angelina Faithfull and 32 year old Phillip Matthews had killed his 6 year old daughter, Elsie.

Four newspaper reporters were admitted and the prison bell began to toll at 7.55 am.  A few moments before 8, the men were pinioned in their cells and then the procession started to the coach house.  Here Billington and Wilkinson quickly completed the preparations.  Fortunately William Wilkinson recorded the details :

Smith weighed 156 lbs and was given a drop of seven feet six inches, Burden at 149 lbs was given the same drop and Matthews at 153 lbs was given seven feet three inches.  Once the drops had been set and tested the ropes were coiled up and tied with a piece of thread.  This avoided the danger of the rope catching as the prisoner dropped as happened in James Burton’s hanging described above.  It also brought the noose to a more convenient level for the hangman and avoided any of the participants tripping over it. Each rope had a rubber washer to hold the eyelet in place and was greased with Vaseline to make it more pliable and close more easily.  This is the first recorded instance of a rubber washer being used, rather than a leather one.

The men’s initials had been chalked on the trap doors to ensure that each got the correct drop.

The thimble of the noose was placed under the angle of the left jaw in front of the ear. 

Smith and Matthews appeared to die instantaneously, whilst Burden made convulsive movements for a few seconds.  Their bodies were left on the ropes for an hour before being taken down for inquest and burial within the prison grounds.  The black flag was hoisted at 8.03 am.


The LPC4 form for 23 year old Frank Taylor, who was hanged at Birmingham on 18 August 1896 by James Billington, records death was by asphyxiation.  Taylor weighed 149 lbs and was given an adequate drop of seven feet six inches which would have produced an energy of 1117 ft. lbs.  However he reportedly turned his head at the crucial moment and altered the position of the eyelet, no dislocation of the vertebrae being found.



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