Applications of the Death Penalty: Hanging

by JoHarrington

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of hanging as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.

Hanging seems to be the default mode of execution. If all of those experimental 'humane' ways of killing don't work out, then there's always the gallows and the noose.

The centuries have given it a kind of gravitas. Familiarity has left it in the lexicon of the nursery.

The harassed mother rounds on her hyper-active child. "I'll swing for you in a minute!" She warns. She doesn't really mean that she's about to kill him and suffer hanging as a consequence. But the phrase is there. It's in the collective memory.

Most of us have never witnessed a hanging, but there are plenty of places in the world where we could. It remains the single most popular means of putting another person to death.

The Magpie on the Gallows by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Just about every country has historically hanged its felons. These are the countries that still do:

Belarus, the People's Republic of China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Malaysia, Mongolia, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States of America and Viet Nam.

For death penalty proponents outside those countries, hanging seems somehow elegant and the right way of exacting an execution. Almost poetical and cultured. Practically pretty. For those I have one consideration to insert into the debate.

The USA invented the electric chair as a more humane method of exacting the death penalty. What reality could have made them do that?

The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People

This is a warts and all telling of how people were hanged. Based on original letters, petitions and eye-witnesses accounts, it inserts a lot of humanity into the picture.

The Popularity of Gallows Executions

Hundreds of thousands of people have been hanged during human history.

The numbers are truly staggering. In London, England, at Tyburn alone over 50,000 people were strung up from the gallows, during its 700 year history.

Across the Atlantic in America, an estimated 16,000 individuals were hanged nationwide between 1605 and 1967. Between 2007-2011, 1663 individuals were executed in Iran. The majority of them were hanged.

These are just snapshots of a worldwide figure for all time. Nobody could possibly estimate that. This method of execution has been going on for a very long time, which is why it figures so highly in our minds and in our language.

As a Briton, hanging was the favorite way of executing people in my country since the Anglo-Saxons invaded in the 4th century. No-one has been hanged here since 1964, with abolition in general terms occurring in 1967.

However a working gallows was maintained at Wandsworth Prison, in London. Every six months until 1998, it was checked to ensure that it was operational. Sacks the weight of the average British person were dropped through the trapdoor. The reason was not only that the Home Office thought that we should have one working, but also that High Treason and felony in Northern Ireland could potentially still carry the death penalty until then.

The legacy of so many centuries of capital punishment has left its stain in the British psyche and its landscape. There are no end of places called something like Gallows Hill or Hangman's Lane dotted around the country. They bear testimony to a terrible past.

I have only twice stepped foot in a death chamber and both of them were gallows within a prison. At Kilmainham Gaol, near Dublin, a quiet corridor ends in a shadowy room and a trapdoor. I flinched back instinctively, then forced myself to look.

It was such a small room, hidden away like a dirty secret. From that high beam had dangled the rope upon which so many Irish men and women had died. It raised goosebumps on my arms, though it was silent now.

The Galleries of Justice in Nottingham is housed in what was once the city's main prison. After meandering through centuries worth of ancient cells, following the history into the 20th century, I arrived in a relatively modern room. I looked around in interest, but there wasn't too much to see. Then I walked through an adjoining room and stopped dead.

There was the gallows, as it was done in England so recently.  So close to the condemned cell. Should the death penalty ever return to Britain, it will be with a noose attached.

Former colonies of the British Empire received their gallows along with our historical governance.  It is, for example, why Americans in Washington State may be hanged, or why Trinidad and Tobago is embroiled in debates about its own death penalty.

Of course, Britain isn't to blame for every use of hanging across the world, but its imperialist fervor to export it certainly played a large part in its on-going popularity.

But what do we really know about death by noose?

Books about Hangmen

Buy these true life accounts to gain an insight into what it really means to hang somebody.
Timothy Spall gives a stunning performance in this compelling bio-pic of Albert Pierrepoint, Britain's most (in)famous hangman.

Death by Noose: The Mechanics of Hanging

How are people actually hanged? The answer depends upon location and when in history, but always involves a rope around a neck.

The idea is genius in its simplicity.  All that is needed is something which with to suspend the individual and a handy beam to which it can be tied.

Traditionally hemp is used, though the thickness has altered considerably over the years. The beam can be a handy tree branch, or a specially constructed gallows. It might even be non-existent. There have been experiments with complicated machinery designed to propel the victim upwards, once the noose is around their necks.

Death is supposed to come quickly. A snapped vertebra and cerebral anaemia driving the person quickly into oblivion. More often, it's been twenty minutes struggling into asphyxia. Make no mistake, hanging is a cruel death.

Despite this simplicity, there have been five distinct categories of ways to hang someone. Within those, there have been endless variations on a theme.

  • The Short Drop. This is the method most commonly in use in the world today, because it's favored by Iran. It was also the way in which people were hanged at Tyburn. The victim is forced up a ladder or elevated on top of a truck. The noose is placed over their heads, then their support is simply removed. The victim usually slowly strangles to death.
  • The Long Drop. This is the method favored in late 19th-20th century Britain, thus all of its former colonies.  The victim is placed over a trapdoor with the noose around their necks. The floor gives way beneath them and they fall through to hang. Done competently, this provides an instant death, as the neck is snapped. But that involves the rope being exactly the right length for the individual being killed.
  • The Standard Drop.  This is exactly the same as the long drop, but the rope is always between 1.2-1.8 meters (4-6ft).  That makes it very arbitrary whether death will be instantaneous.  This is rarely used, but was notably the way in which condemned Nazi officials were hanged by American executioners after the Nuremberg Trials. Without exception, the individuals took a long time to die.
  • Suspension. This method involves the individual being lifted off the ground (or a platform) by some form of pulley system.  It was used in the past in various European countries, while some Iranian towns and cities employ it as an alternative of the short drop.  It always results in a slow strangulation.
  • Upward Jerker. Similar to suspension, this elevates the victim at speed and may include a sudden, jolting stop. The aim is to break the individual's neck, so that it's a quick death.  It was used for over thirty years in some American states, and widely employed in Poland. Too many botched hangings has this out of fashion everywhere now.

More Books about Hanging and the Death Penalty

Buy these first hand accounts to learn the reality behind death at the gallows.

The Gruesome Hanging of Josiah and Elizabeth Potts

This double execution in Nevada, USA, typifies just two of the things that can go wrong on the gallows.

Josiah Potts was well liked in the community of Elko, an outback town in the US state of Nevada. But his wife wasn't. 

Elizabeth was deemed too loud, too domineering, too masculine, for the sensibilities of the 1880s society. She ordered her husband around and he timidly took it.

That upset many of the men watching, not to mention the women too. Even in the Wild West some decorum should be upheld.

When the couple left town, there were some sighs of relief. Life went on. At least it did until George and Amelia Brewer started complaining of a haunting in their new home - the one previously occupied by the Potts family.

Strange tappings in the nights and a veritable banging in the cellar led George to go digging.

The body of Miles Faucett was found, horribly mutilated and decomposed. Doctors guessed that he had been dead for around a year; and suspicion fell upon the couple who moved away at around the same time. After all, Miles had been discovered buried in their old basement.

Josiah and Elizabeth were pursued by Elko's sheriff and a constable to their new digs in Rock Spring, Wyoming.  The couple denied all knowledge of the murder. Their five-year-old daughter Edith spoke up though. She testified that her mother had done it and her father hadn't even been home at the time.

Josiah panicked. He had a different version of events. He said that Miles had committed suicide while staying with them. But he knew how disliked his wife was around town and thought that they might pin a murder upon her. When he'd returned home, it was to find his family in distress, so he sought to protect them.

He'd dismembered the body. He'd attempted to burn it in his basement, but all he'd achieved was a charred head. In desperation, Josiah had dug a hole and buried Miles's corpse down there. He'd told anyone who asked that the old man had emigrated further west along the railroad.

Their sixteen-year-old son Charley supported his father's statement. He said that he had witnessed Miles Faucett shoot himself. The boy had fled to his bedroom in shock and his family didn't mention it thereafter.

Josiah wasn't believed.  His case was complicated further when Charley told of why Miles had committed suicide. He'd been caught molesting young Edith in a barn. Elizabeth had rushed in defense of her child, but the muscular miner had attacked her too. He'd throttled Elizabeth until she was black in the face, then stomped away threatening worse if she told of the incident.

She had told her husband, who confronted their boarder in the kitchen. Realizing that he was risking exposure, Miles had simply taken out his gun and shot himself in the head in front of them all. Edith was quite right. Her mother had indirectly killed Miles. She had spoken up about child abuse.

The couple were arrested and found guilty. The courts preferred Edith's testimony to Charley's; and ruled that there was no suicide. Miles had been murdered. Both protested their innocence until the very end. But it was their end which made the headlines.

Gallows built especially for Josiah and Elizabeth Potts, Elko, Nevada, 1890.
Gallows built especially for Josiah and Elizabeth Potts, Elko, Nevada, 1890.
Northeastern Nevada Museum

On June 20th 1890, Josiah and Elizabeth Potts were taken to Elko's new gallows. They embraced, stealing one last kiss before the assembled crowd. Josiah gushed out, "Goodbye, Elizabeth. I'm sorry!  I love you!"

She affirmed that she loved him too, then added, "God knows that we are innocent!"  But the black hoods went on and, side by side, they received the nooses over their heads.

It should be mentioned here that Elizabeth Potts was a heavily set woman. She weighed in at over 200lbs (14.2 stone; 91kg). As she fell through the trapdoor, the sheer momentum of the fall jerked hard upon the rope. As she stopped, her head was nearly severed from her body, held on by just a few bones and muscles at the back of her neck. 

Blood spurted from the exposed arteries, drenching those at the front of the crowd. People screamed. A female witness fainted, as the blood pumped over her. Elizabeth's grisly remains dangled in full public view.

Her husband wasn't nearly so large.  He was quite a slightly built man, which had contributed to his reputation as a hen-pecked, timid individual. When he fell, the noose tightened and held him. Then remained tightened. The hundreds gathered there watched him struggling for up to twenty minutes, alongside his wife. He was strangled with excruciating slowness, bit by bit, on the end of the rope.

Did Elizabeth and Josiah Potts deserve to die like that?

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Yes, justice was served because....
Strict Gram on 08/15/2014

If they were guilty they deserved what they got. I'd hate to think they were innocent.

A History of American Women Hanged (1840-1899)

What Can Go Wrong With a Hanging?

With this mode of execution so popular, in so many countries, for so many centuries, we've had plenty of opportunity to find out.

In 1989, a man named Charles R. Campbell was due to be hanged in Walla Walla State Penitentiary, in Washington State, USA.

But there was a problem. No-one had been hanged for so long there that officials couldn't find a trained executioner.

The story made news headlines and there were no shortage of offers from members of the public to act as hangman here. But that was never going to happen. Justices knew what the mass of Americans didn't.  Too much can go wrong with a hanging at the hands of the incompetent.

Washington State paid a lot of money to import an executioner, but he wasn't needed. Charles received a reprieve on the eve of his hanging. The crisis was averted.

The same situation occurred in Delaware, USA, in 1996, when Billy Bailey opted for death by hanging (on the gallows pictured above). It occurred, but only after prison staff had tried very hard to persuade him to choose lethal injection instead. The state hadn't hanged anyone for fifty years, despite it still being on the statute books.

So why were those officials so afraid?  Let's run through a few possibilities from the annals of botched hangings.

  • December 24th 1705, John Smith (London, England). John had been slowly strangling at the end of a noose, in Tyburn, for over fifteen minutes, when the mood of the crowd started to change. A call of 'reprieve' began, which quickly threatened to end in a riot. Fearful of their own safety, officials cut John down and took him to a nearby tavern to begin his recovery.
  • November 24th 1740, William Duell (London, England). Sixteen year old William had been publicly hanged with four other boys at Tyburn, before his body was taken to Surgeons' Hall. Such cadavers were a rich source of anatomy lessons.  As the surgeon bent over William, he found a pulse. Acting quickly, he was able to revive the boy. Traumatized, William gabbled about having had a bad dream. It cut no ice and he was returned to Newgate Prison. However, he had cheated the gallows. He was deported instead.
The Hanging of Thomas Jeremiah: A Free Black Man's Encounter with Liberty

The tragic untold story of how a nation struggling for its freedom denied it to one of its own.In 1775, Thomas Jeremiah was one of fewer than five hundred “Free Negros” in South...

View on Amazon

  • August 31st 1876, James Murphy (Ohio, USA). The rope broke.  That wasn't according to plan, but it was not quite what caused so many witnesses to watch in tears. James looked younger than his nineteen years and spoke as a nice, polite Irish boy. He'd killed another man in a gang-fight, but not in cold blood. Even the hardened prison guards had started pitying his plight, especially when he'd voluntarily surrendered a smuggled knife to the deputy. He'd received it to commit suicide, but couldn't bring himself to do it.

    Now the teenager was on the floor beneath the gallows and he was terrified. A reporter held his wrist and recorded a pulse-rate of 120. James, still blinded by his hood, clung onto the attendant Father Murphy. "Father, I'm not dead! I'm not hurt! What are they going to do with me?" 

    The Irish Catholic priest couldn't bring himself to tell him, but it was soon obvious anyway, as James was carried back onto the scaffold. His whole body trembled and he refused to let go of Father Murphy.  The priest spoke firmly into his ear,  "Let go, my son; let go, like a man - be a man - die like a man." And James did! Minutes later, he was successfully hanged using a second, hastily procured rope.
  • August 1st 1884, Alexander Jefferson (New York, USA). Alexander's legs had not been tied together. While he hanged, he managed to free his hands too and struggled hard to remove the noose. He couldn't do it.  For several minutes, the crowd of witnesses watched in horror, as he alternated between pleading with his hands for help from them, and grasping at the rope. Finally he died.
  • November 23rd 1885, John Lee (Exeter, England). Three times John was led onto the trapdoor of the long drop.  Three times it failed to open when the lever was pulled. It worked perfectly when he wasn't there, but the failure meant that he was not hanged. John served 20 years in Portland Prison instead, before his claim of innocence was finally believed and he was released.
  • April 26th 1901, 'Black Jack' Tom Ketchum (New Mexico, USA). The force of his drop was enough to sever Tom's head from his body. He landed on his feet and stood for several seconds, headless, on the floor. Blood shot from his neck arteries, drenching those at the front of the crowd. Then Tom toppled over and lay immobile.
Death on the Gallows: The Story of Legal Hangings in New Mexico, 1847-1923

This books has an entry for every legal hanging in New Mexico since the coming of the Americans. Most of the hangings occurred during the long territorial period, 1850-1912. The entries are organized...

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  • February 13th 1906, William Williams (Minnesota, USA). When the trapdoor opened, William dropped down to land on his feet on the ground. The rope was too long! Several prison officials had to rush forward onto the platform and grab hold of the length of hemp. Between them, they managed to pull William off his feet for the fourteen and a half minutes that it took him to be slowly strangled.
  • April 24th 1922, Colin Campbell Ross (Melbourne, Australia). As he fell, Colin's spinal column fractured but did not snap. Bits of bone slid into his larynx, causing his windpipe to tear. If that wasn't bad enough, then the slow strangulation compounded matters. It took over forty minutes of Colin struggling on the end of the rope before he died. (Incidentally, new evidence emerged afterwards. By 2008, the Victorian Government heard an irrefutable scientific case for clearing his name. Colin couldn't possibly have committed the crime for which he was so agonizingly hanged.)
  • January 9th 1923, Edith Thompson (London, England). Unknown even to herself, Edith was pregnant. Her hanging induced a miscarriage, complicated by a large vaginal hemorrhage. The incident led her executioner to later commit suicide; and for prison officials to ensure that all women should henceforth wear canvas underwear for their hanging, just in case it happened again.
  • August 14th 1936, Rainey Bethea (Kentucky, USA). The executioner was too drunk to pull the lever to open the trapdoor. After abortive attempts, a deputy had to rush over and do it for him.  Over 20,000 people had turned out to watch Rainey hang. The police lost control of the crowd, who mobbed the man struggling at the end of a noose. So many people were desperate to claim a bit of his clothing as a souvenir that they hacked off bits of his flesh too.
  • February  2008, Nolan Yekum (Kilip, Papau New Guinea). At seven months pregnant, Nolan had a little more to fight for, as the noose went over her head. She struggled against her executioners, then her cries led to a different kind of pain. She gave birth prematurely, while dangling from the rope, then managed to free herself!  By now, the witnesses had fled. Mother and child survived in hiding.

None of these examples were particularly rare. In hunting through books and websites collating them, I rejected many case studies as being too similar to something already listed.

As for frequency of incompetence and botched hangings, there was a disquieting statistic in Ken Leyton-Brown's The Practice of Execution in Canada. He estimated that 'over half' of the hangings in Canadian history had been 'mishandled.'

Books About Hanging in Canada

Canada has now abolished capital punishment. But when it allowed the death penalty, that was carried out by hanging.

The Humiliation of Hanging

Death by noose is an undignified way to die, particularly if you are strung up high in a public place.

Image: Crowd around a gallows Above and beyond all other methods of execution, hanging was meant to be a public spectacle. It has never managed to survive long, once taken indoors.  To do that misses half of the point.

In Britain and its erstwhile colonies, no member of the royal family and the aristocracy were ever hanged. Beheading was seen as a more noble way to die. The gallows were only for commoners for two reasons. 

The first is that it usually takes an average of twenty minutes to die at the end of a noose.  It is an ugly, painful death, wherein the victim's eyes bulge and tongue becomes engorged and distended. Their faces can become deathly white, but more often will turn blue, purple and finally black. Blood vessels in their cheeks and nose burst.

However dignified their stand on the gallows, this death is ignoble.  They will fight for life, kicking out their legs and sobbing. Which leads us to the next big reason.

Hanging was designed to be humiliating. These facts are important, because it's still happening today, especially wherever the short drop is employed.

60% of all men hanged will involuntarily display a death erection. Called a priapism, this occurs because the noose exerts pressure on the cerebellum. This is the part of the brain which controls motor function.  With that crushed, then all muscles will release causing blood to rush to his penis. Frequently the phenomenon doesn't end there. Ejaculation follows.

This is a man who is hanging where a huge crowd of people can view him. He will know many of them. They will be his friends and family.

The same damage to the cerebellum can also cause the victim to urinate. Mucus pours from their mouth and nose.  Ladies may release blood from the lining of their uterus. In short, they menstruate all at once.

Meanwhile, everyone stares.  There might be cheers or jeers; and there might be sympathy. It often depended upon the conduct of the condemned as they were led to the gallows. 

In the USA, it was expected that the victim confess to their crime and give a speech warning others against following in their footsteps.  In Britain, it was demanded that the victim act like he or she didn't care what was about to happen. Nonchalant shrugging or rebellious sneering was the way forward there. The more insouciant the better.  In Iran, contrite silence is preferred. Head bowed, eyes to the ground, no reaction beyond a single line proclaiming the righteousness of Allah.

If those things did not happen, then the crowd would not (or will not) be with the victim. Imagine hanging there in great pain, your bodily fluids flooding out of you, while hundreds or thousands of people throw barbed words or jeer you.

If those things did happen, then there's always the possibility that a compassionate soul will leap out of the crowd to pull on your legs.  One snapped neck later and it's all over.  There's also the possibility that the mood will change, and the mob will demand your life be saved.  Many people have been cut down; many people survived it.

Movies Which Show Realistic Scenes of Hanging

True Grit has a historically accurate hanging scene for its depicted era. Plunkett & MacLeane's is spot on, but for the USA, not Britain, as shown in the film.

Do you support the use of hanging in executions?

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More Articles in this Series

Examining the murky history and gruesome use of beheading as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of electrocution as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of death by needle as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Examining the murky history and gruesome use of asphyxiation as a method of execution. Not an article for the faint-hearted.
Updated: 03/15/2014, JoHarrington
 
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JoHarrington on 07/18/2013

I'm glad that you thought so. They were hard to write, but I did want the information to be out there.

Lilysnape on 07/18/2013

Another very informative article

Lilysnape on 07/18/2013

Another very informative article

JoHarrington on 05/15/2012

I was one of those gruesome kids, who was interested in vampires, serial killers and other monsters. Back then, it was my life ambition to visit the Black Museum. I was gutted when I realised that it wasn't open to the public!

All grown up now, I probably wouldn't turn down the chance to see it, but it's not exactly on my list of ideal places to visit. I didn't know that there were death masks in there. That must have been creepy!

I'm glad that you found this article interesting.

nickupton on 05/15/2012

Another very interesting article. I used to work in New Scotland Yard and once got to visit the Black Museum. In there they have a lot of the nooses used in the last hangings in the UK, with the names of those that were executed using them attached to each noose. Pretty macabre, particularly when the death masks of the executed were staring down at me from the walls!

JoHarrington on 05/14/2012

It's part of a whole series of them. So far I've written about 4 of the 8 execution methods currently used in the world.

EMK Events Ltd on 05/14/2012

I see that you're back to the gruesome stuff, Jo.

JoHarrington on 05/13/2012

If I'm honest, it's surprised me too, especially how people talk about hanging?

Kate on 05/13/2012

I'm surprised at the outcome of the vote. Gruesome article but necessary and well written , thanks

JoHarrington on 05/11/2012

Awww re the eating and reading. <3

Yes, beheading is still very much used, notably in China and Afghanistan.

Hanging as a public spectacle pretty much depends where you are. American hangings take place within prison grounds. Only a handful of official witnesses are present. At the other end of the scale, Iranian hangings take place in public squares with thousands of people encouraged to turn up. It's not really down to the judge in any country, but the laws themselves.


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