Hanging is the suspension of a person by a noose or ligature around the neck. The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain "hanging". Hanging has been a common method of capital punishment since medieval times, and is the official execution method in numerous countries and regions. The first account of execution by hanging was in Homer's Odyssey. In this specialised meaning of the common word hang, the past and past participle is hanged instead of hung.
- Methods of judicial hanging
- Short drop
- Standard drop
- Long drop
- As suicide
- As human sacrifice
- Medical effects
- Inverted hanging the Jewish punishment
- The punishment for traitors
- Elizabethan maritime law
- Hanging by the ribs
Hanging is also a common method of suicide in which a person applies a ligature to the neck and brings about unconsciousness and then death by suspension. Partial suspension or partial weight-bearing on the ligature is sometimes used, particularly in prisons, mental hospitals or other institutions, where full suspension support is difficult to devise, because high ligature points (e.g., hooks or pipes) have been removed.
Methods of judicial hanging
There are four ways of performing a judicial hanging: suspension hanging, the short drop, the standard drop, and the long drop. A mechanised form of hanging, the upright jerker, was also experimented with in the 18th century, with a variant of it used today in Iran.
Suspension, like the short drop, causes death by using the weight of the body to tighten the noose around the trachea and neck structure. Prisoners are reported to have little or no struggle before they go limp because their jugular vein and carotid arteries are blocked and blood flow to the brain is reduced. The person slowly dies of strangulation, which typically takes between ten and twenty minutes, resulting in a considerably more elongated and painful death as compared to the standard or long drop hanging. "If the airway is constricted, and full suspension achieved (feet fully off the floor), this method, at least initially, is 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."
The short drop is performed by placing the condemned prisoner on the back of a cart, horse, or other vehicle, with the noose around the neck. The object is then moved away, leaving the person dangling from the rope. A ladder was also commonly used with the condemned being forced to ascend, after which the noose was tied and the ladder pulled away or turned, leaving the condemned hanging. Another method involves using a stool, which the condemned is required to stand on, being kicked away. The guards at the Stutthof concentration camp who were sentenced to death were executed by short-drop hanging; they were placed in the noose while standing or sitting on a truck, and the trucks were driven away.
As with suspension hanging, the condemned prisoner slowly dies of strangulation, which typically takes between ten and twenty minutes, resulting in a considerably more prolonged and painful death as compared to the standard or long drop hanging, which is intended to kill by using the shock of the drop to fracture the spinal column at the neck. Before 1850, the short drop was the standard method for hanging, and is still common in suicides and extrajudicial hangings (such as lynchings and summary executions) which do not benefit from the specialised equipment and drop-length calculation tables used by the newer methods.
A short drop variant is the Austro-Hungarian "pole" method, in which the following steps take place:
- The condemned is made to stand before a specialized vertical pole or pillar, approximately 10 feet (3.0 m) in height
- A rope is attached around the condemned's feet and routed through a pulley at the base of the pole
- The condemned is hoisted to the top of pole by means of a sling running across the chest and under the armpits
- A narrow diameter noose is looped around the prisoner's neck, then secured to a hook mounted at the top of the pole
- The chest sling is released, and the prisoner is rapidly jerked downward by the assistant executioners via the foot rope.
- The executioner stands on a stepped platform approximately 4 feet (1.2 m) high beside the condemned, and guides the head downward with his hand simultaneous to the efforts of his assistants.
Nazi war criminal Karl Hermann Frank was executed in this manner in 1946 in Prague.
The standard drop, which arrived as calculated in English units, involves a drop of between 4 and 6 feet (1.2 and 1.8 m) and came into use from 1866, when the scientific details were published by an Irish doctor, Samuel Haughton. Its use rapidly spread to English-speaking countries and those where judicial systems had an English origin. It was considered a humane improvement on the short drop because it was intended to be enough to break the person's neck, causing immediate paralysis and immobilisation (and probable immediate unconsciousness). This method was used to execute condemned Nazis under United States jurisdiction after the Nuremberg Trials including Joachim von Ribbentrop and Ernst Kaltenbrunner. In the execution of Ribbentrop, historian Giles MacDonogh records that: "The hangman botched the execution and the rope throttled the former foreign minister for twenty minutes before he expired." A Life magazine report on the execution merely says: "The trap fell open and with a sound midway between a rumble and a crash, Ribbentrop disappeared. The rope quivered for a time, then stood tautly straight."
This process, also known as the measured drop, was introduced to Britain in 1872 by William Marwood as a scientific advance on the standard drop. Instead of everyone falling the same standard distance, the person's height and weight were used to determine how much slack would be provided in the rope so that the distance dropped would be enough to ensure that the neck was broken, but not so much that the person was decapitated. The careful placement of the eye or knot of the noose (so that the head was jerked back as the rope tightened) contributed to breaking the neck.
Prior to 1892, the drop was between four and ten feet (about one to three metres), depending on the weight of the body, and was calculated to deliver a force of 1,260 lbf (5,600 newtons or 572 kgf), which fractured the neck at either the 2nd and 3rd or 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae. This force resulted in some decapitations, such as the infamous case of Black Jack Ketchum in New Mexico Territory in 1901, owing to a significant weight gain while in custody not having been factored into the drop calculations. Between 1892 and 1913, the length of the drop was shortened to avoid decapitation. After 1913, other factors were also taken into account, and the force delivered was reduced to about 1,000 lbf (4,400 N or 450 kgf). The decapitation of Eva Dugan during a botched hanging in 1930 led the state of Arizona to switch to the gas chamber as its primary execution method, on the grounds that it was believed more humane. One of the more recent decapitations as a result of the long drop occurred when Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti was hanged in Iraq in 2007. Accidental decapitation also occurred during the 1962 hanging of Arthur Lucas, one of the last two people to be put to death in Canada.
Nazis executed under British jurisdiction, including Josef Kramer, Fritz Klein, Irma Grese and Elisabeth Volkenrath, were hanged by Albert Pierrepoint using the variable drop method devised by Marwood.
Hanging is a common method for suicide. The materials necessary for suicide by hanging are readily available to the average person, compared with firearms or poisons. Full suspension is not required, and for this reason, hanging is especially commonplace among suicidal prisoners (see suicide watch). A type of hanging comparable to full suspension hanging may be obtained by self-strangulation using a ligature around the neck and the partial weight of the body (partial suspension) to tighten the ligature. When a suicidal hanging involves partial suspension the deceased is found to have both feet touching the ground, e.g., they are kneeling, crouching or standing.
In Canada, hanging is the most common method of suicide, and in the U.S., hanging is the second most common method, after self-inflicted gunshot wounds. In the United Kingdom, where firearms are less easily available, in 2001 hanging was the most common method among men and the second most commonplace among women (after poisoning).
Those who survive a suicide-via-hanging attempt, whether due to breakage of the cord or ligature point, or being discovered and cut down, face a range of serious injuries, including cerebral anoxia—which can lead to permanent brain damage, laryngeal fracture, cervical spine fracture—which may cause paralysis, tracheal fracture, pharyngeal laceration, and carotid artery injury.
As human sacrifice
There are some suggestions that the Vikings practised hanging as human sacrifices to Odin, to honour Odin's own sacrifice of hanging himself from the Yggdrasil. In Northern Europe, it is widely speculated that the Iron Age bog bodies, many who show signs of having been hanged were examples of human sacrifice to the gods.
A hanging may induce one or more of the following medical conditions, some leading to death:
The cause of death in hanging depends on the conditions related to the event. When the body is released from a relatively high position, the major cause of death is severe trauma to the upper cervical spine. The injuries produced are highly variable. One study showed that only a small minority of a series of judicial hangings produced fractures to the cervical spine (6 out of 34 cases studied), with half of these fractures (3 out of 34) being the classic "hangman's fracture" (bilateral fractures of the pars interarticularis of the C2 vertebra). The location of the knot of the hanging rope is a major factor in determining the mechanics of cervical spine injury, with a submental knot (hangman's knot under the chin) being the only location capable of producing the sudden, straightforward hyperextension injury that causes the classic "hangman's fracture".
According to Historical and biomechanical aspects of hangman's fracture, the phrase in the usual execution order, "hanged by the neck until dead," was necessary. By the late 19th century that methodical study enabled authorities to routinely employ hanging in ways that would predictably kill the victim quickly.
There is evidence suggesting that there might be superior alternatives if there were sufficient interest to support research into such matters. Consider in particular an event recounted in the biography of Albert Pierrepoint. Events followed a most unconventional sequence during the hanging of a particularly powerful and uncooperative German spy during World War II. Pierrepoint relates:
Just as I was crossing to the lever, he jumped with bound feet. The drop opened, and he plunged down, and I saw with horror that the noose was slipping. It would have come right over his head had it not caught roughly at a point halfway up the hood – it had in fact been stopped on his upper lip by the projection of his nose – and the body jerked down, then became absolutely still apart from the swinging of the rope. I went down into the pit with the prison medical officer. He examined the body and said to me: "A clean death. Instantaneous." He sounded surprised, and I did not blame him. I was surprised myself, and very relieved. On my next visit to Wandsworth the governor told me that the severance of the spinal cord had been perfect.
Not surprisingly in retrospect, it appears that such unconventional application of forces might be particularly efficient. There is at least some evidence that some of the countries with particularly active programmes of judicial execution may have given the question of the design of efficient and reliable nooses practical attention. For example, photographs of nooses in a South African execution chamber opened to the public after abolition of the death penalty showed double nooses. Presumably the upper noose held the lower one in place to ensure a perfect hangman's fracture.
The side, or subaural knot, has been shown to produce other, more complex injuries, with one thoroughly studied case producing only ligamentous injuries to the cervical spine and bilateral vertebral artery disruptions, but no major vertebral fractures or crush injuries to the spinal cord. Death from a "hangman's fracture" occurs mainly when the applied force is severe enough to also cause a severe subluxation of the C2 and C3 vertebra that crushes the spinal cord and/or disrupts the vertebral arteries. Hangman's fractures from other hyperextension injuries (the most common being unrestrained motor vehicle accidents and falls or diving injuries where the face or chin suddenly strike an immovable object) are frequently survivable if the applied force does not cause a severe subluxation of C2 on C3.
Another process that has been suggested is carotid sinus reflex death. By this theory, the mechanical stimulation of the carotid sinus in the neck brings on terminal cardiac arrest.
In the absence of fracture and dislocation, occlusion of blood vessels becomes the major cause of death, rather than asphyxiation. Obstruction of venous drainage of the brain via occlusion of the internal jugular veins leads to cerebral oedema and then cerebral ischemia. The face will typically become engorged and cyanotic (turned blue through lack of oxygen). There will be the classic sign of strangulation, petechiae, little blood marks on the face and in the eyes from burst blood capillaries. The tongue may protrude.
Compromise of the cerebral blood flow may occur by obstruction of the carotid arteries, even though their obstruction requires far more force than the obstruction of jugular veins, since they are seated deeper and they contain blood in much higher pressure compared to the jugular veins. Where death has occurred through carotid artery obstruction or cervical fracture, the face will typically be pale in colour and not show petechiae. Many reports and pictures exist of actual short-drop hangings that seem to show that the person died quickly, while others indicate a slow and agonising death by strangulation.
When cerebral circulation is severely compromised by any mechanism, arterial or venous, death occurs over four or more minutes from cerebral hypoxia, although the heart may continue to beat for some period after the brain can no longer be resuscitated. The time of death in such cases is a matter of convention. In judicial hangings, death is pronounced at cardiac arrest, which may occur at times from several minutes up to 15 minutes or longer after hanging. During suspension, once the prisoner has lapsed into unconsciousness, rippling movements of the body and limbs may occur for some time which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes. In Britain, it was normal to leave the body suspended for an hour to ensure death.
After death, the body typically shows marks of suspension: bruising and rope marks on the neck. Sphincters will relax spontaneously and urine and faeces will be evacuated. Forensic experts may often be able to tell if hanging is suicide or homicide, as each leaves a distinctive ligature mark. One of the hints they use is the hyoid bone. If broken, it often means the person has been murdered by manual choking.
Inverted hanging, the "Jewish" punishment
A completely different principle of hanging is to hang the convicted person from his legs, rather than from his neck, either as a form of torture, or as an execution method. In late medieval Germany, this came to be primarily associated with Jewish thieves, called the "Judenstrafe". The jurist Ulrich Tengler, in his highly influential "Layenspiegel" from 1509, describes the procedure as follows, in the section "Von Juden straff":
About dragging the Jew to the ordinary execution place between two mad or biting dogs. After dragging, to hang him from his feet by rope or chain at a designated gallows between the dogs, and in such inverted manner to be executed, from life to death
Guido Kisch showed that originally, this type of inverted hanging between two dogs was not a punishment specifically for Jews. Esther Cohen writes:
The inverted hanging with the accompaniment of two dogs, originally reserved for traitors, was identified from the fourteenth century as the "Jewish execution", being practised in the later Middle Ages in both northern and Mediterranean Europe. The Jewish execution in Germany has been thoroughly studied by G. Kisch, who has argued convincingly that neither the inverted hanging nor the stringing up of dogs or wolves beside the victim were particularly Jewish punishments during the High Middle Ages. They first appeared as Jewish punishments in Germany only towards the end of the thirteenth century, never being recognized as exclusively Jewish penalties.
In France the inverted, animal-associated hanging came to be connected with Jews by the later Middle Ages. The inverted hanging of Jews is specifically mentioned in the old customs of Burgundy in the context of animal hanging. The custom, dogs and all, was still in force in Paris shortly before the final expulsion of the Jews in 1394
In Spain 1449, during a mob attack against the Marranos (Jews nominally converted to Christianity), the Jews resisted, but lost and several of them were hanged up by the feet. The first attested German case for a Jew being hanged by the feet is from 1296, in present-day Soultzmatt. Some other historical examples of this type of hanging within the German context are 1 Jew in Hennegau 1326, two Jews hanged in Frankfurt 1444, 1 in Halle in 1462, 1 in Dortmund 1486, 1 in Hanau 1499, 1 in Breslau 1505, 1 in Württemberg 1553, 1 in Bergen 1588, 1 in Öttingen 1611, 1 in Frankfurt 1615 and again in 1661, and 1 condemned to this punishment in Prussia in 1637.
The details of the cases vary widely: In the 1444 Frankfurt cases and the 1499 Hanau case, the dogs were dead prior to be hanged, and in the late 1615 and 1661 cases in Frankfurt, the Jews (and dogs) were merely kept in this torture for half an hour, before being garroted from below. In the 1588 Bergen case, all three victims were left hanging till they were dead, ranging from 6 to 8 days after being hung up. In the Dortmund 1486 case, the dogs bit the Jew to death while hanging. In the 1611 Öttingen case, the Jew "Jacob the Tall" thought to blow up the "Deutsche Ordenhaus" with gunpowder after having burgled it. He was strung up between two dogs, and a large fire was made close to him, and he expired after half an hour under this torture. In the 1553 Württemberg case, the Jew chose to convert to Christianity after hanging like this for 24 hours; he was then given the mercy to be hanged in the ordinary manner, from the neck, and without the dogs beside him. In the 1462 Halle case, the Jew Abraham also converted after 24 hours hanging upside down, and a priest went up on a ladder and baptised him. For two more days, Abraham was left hanging, while the priest argued with the city council that a true Christian should not be punished in this way. On the third day, Abraham was granted a reprieve, and was taken down, but died 20 days later in the local hospital having meanwhile suffered in extreme pain. In the 1637 case, where the Jew had murdered a Christian jeweller, the appeal to the empress was successful, and out of mercy, the Jew was condemned to be merely pinched with glowing pincers, have hot lead dripped into his wounds, and then be broken alive on the wheel.
Some of the reported cases may be myths, or wandering stories. The 1326 Hennegau case, for example, deviates from the others in that the Jew was not a thief, but was suspected (even though he was a convert to Christianity) of having struck an al fresco painting of Virgin Mary, so that blood had begun to seep down the wall from the painting. Even under all degrees of judicial torture, the Jew denied performing this sacrilegious act, and was therefore exonerated. Then a brawny smith demanded from him a trial by combat, because, supposedly, in a dream the Virgin herself had besought the smith to do so. The court accepted the smith's challenge, he easily won the combat against the Jew, who was duly hanged up by the feet between two dogs. To add to the injury, one let him be slowly roasted as well as hung there. This is a very similar story to one told in France, in which a young Jew threw a lance at the head of a statue of the Virgin, so that blood spurted out of it. There was inadequate evidence for a normal trial, but a frail old man asked for trial by combat, and bested the young Jew. The Jew confessed his crime, and was hung up by his feet between two mastiffs.
The features of the earliest attested case, that of a Jewish thief hanged by the feet in Soultzmatt in 1296 are also rather divergent from the rest. The Jew managed, somehow, after he had been left to die to twitch his body in such a manner that he could hoist himself up on the gallows and free himself. At that time, his feet were so damaged that he was unable to escape, and when he was discovered 8 days after he had been hanged, he was strangled to death by the townspeople.
As late as in 1699 Celle, the courts were sufficiently horrified at how the Jewish leader of a robber gang (condemned to be hanged in the normal manner), declared blasphemies against Christianity, that they made a ruling on the post mortem treatment of Jonas Meyer. After 3 days, his corpse was cut down, his tongue cut out, and his body was hanged up again, but this time from its feet.
The punishment for traitors
Guido Kisch writes that the first instance he knows where a person in Germany was hanged up by his feet among two dogs until he died occurred about 1048, some 250 years earlier than the first attested Jewish case. This was a knight called Arnold, who had murdered his lord; the story is contained in Adam of Bremens "History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen" Another example of a non-Jew who suffered this punishment as a torture, in 1196 Richard, Count of Acerra, was one of those executed by Henry VI in the suppression of the rebelling Sicilians:
He [Henry VI] held a general court in Capua, at which he ordered that the count first be drawn behind a horse through the squares of Capua, and then hanged alive head downwards. The latter was still alive after two days when a certain German jester called Leather-Bag [Follis], hoping to please the emperor, tied a large stone to his neck and shamefully put him to death
A couple of centuries earlier, in France 991, a viscount Walter nominally owing his allegiance to the French King Hugh Capet chose, on instigation of his wife, to join the rebellion under Odo I, Count of Blois. When Odo found out he had to abandon Melun after all, Walter was duly hanged before the gates, whereas his wife, the fomentor of treason, was hanged by her feet, causing much merriment and jeers from Hugh's soldiers as her clothes fell downwards revealing her naked body, although it is not wholly clear if she died in that manner.
Elizabethan maritime law
During Queen Elizabeth I's reign, the following was written concerning those who stole a ship from the Royal Navy:
If anye one practysed to steale awaye anye of her Majesty's shippes, the captaine was to cause him to be hanged by the heels untill his braines were beaten out against the shippe's sides, and then to be cutt down and lett fall intoe the sea.
Hanging by the ribs
In 1713, Juraj Jánošík, a legendary Slovak outlaw and folk hero, was sentenced to be hanged from his left rib. He was left to slowly die.
The German physician Gottlob Schober (1670-1739), who worked in Russia from 1712, notes that a person could hang from the ribs for about three days prior to expiring, his primary pain being that of extreme thirst. He thought this degree of insensitivity was something peculiar to the Russian mentality.
The Dutch overlords in Suriname were also in the habit of hanging a slave from the ribs. John Gabriel Stedman stayed in South America from 1772–77 and described the method as told by a witness:
Not long ago, (continued he) I saw a black "man suspended alive from a gallows by the ribs, between which, with a knife, was first made an incision, and then clinched an iron hook with a chain: in this manner he kept alive three days, hanging with his head "and feet downwards, and catching with his tongue the "drops of water (it being in the rainy season) that were "flowing down his bloated breast. Notwithstanding all this, he never complained, and even upbraided a negro "for crying while he was flogged below the gallows, by calling out to him: "You man ?—Da boy fasy? Are you a man? you behave like a boy". Shortly after which he was knocked on the head by the commiserating sentry, who stood over him, with the butt end of his musket.
William Blake was specially commissioned to make illustrations to Stedman's narrative.
The proper, traditional past tense and past participle form of the verb "hang", in this sense, is (to be) "hanged". Some dictionaries list only "hung", whereas others show both forms. For example, "people are hanged; meat is hung".