How Does Death by Hanging Work? (2023)

How Does Death by Hanging Work? (1)

In the final days of 2006, former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was hanged for the 1982 murders of 148 people in Dujail, Iraq. While capital punishment is still on the books in many countries around the world, death by hanging has in many cases been replaced by more sterile killing methods like lethal injection, which some believe to be a more humane form of execution. Many people might be surprised to learn that hanging, when carried out with modern techniques, can be one of the quickest and most painless ways to be executed.

The modern method of judicial hanging is called the long drop. This is the method that Iraqi officials used to execute Saddam Hussein. In the long drop, those planning the execution calculate the drop distance required to break the subject's neck based on his or her weight, height and build. The less the person weighs, the longer the drop needs to be.

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The goal of the long drop is to get the body moving quickly enough after the trap door opens to produce between 1,000 and 1,250 foot-pounds of torque on the neck when the noose jerks tight. This distance can be anywhere from 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 2.7 meters). With the knot of the noose placed at the left side of the subject's neck, under the jaw, the jolt to the neck at the end of the drop is enough to break or dislocate a neck bone called the axis, which in turn should sever the person's spinal cord. In some cases, the hangman jerks up on the rope at the precise moment when the drop is ending in order to facilitate the breakage.

The idea of a 'humane hanging" was developed by an Irish mathematician and doctor named Samuel Haughton. He calculated how far the prisoner would have to fall and then be brought up by a jerk on the rope so they would be killed quickly and relatively painlessly. Haughton published his findings in 1866.

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In 2020, 55 countries still had the death penalty, according to Amnesty International. But the vast majority of executions took place in just five countries: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Iran is the leader in hanging people, but Bangladesh, Botswana, Egypt, India, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria also hung people in 2020. In addition, hanging is a form of execution in Afghanistan, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Palestinian Authority and Sudan.

In the United States, judicial hanging is legal in both Washington state and Delaware, and three prisoners have been hanged since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, the last in 1996. We'll explain how an "ideal hanging" or a long drop works, and what happens with a "short drop."

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Contents

  1. How Hanging Kills the Victim
  2. Suicide by Hanging

How Hanging Kills the Victim

How Does Death by Hanging Work? (2)

During an "ideal long drop," the prisoner's neck breaks and spine severs, blood pressure drops down to nothing in about a second, and the subject loses consciousness. Brain death then takes several minutes to occur, and complete death can take more than 15 or 20 minutes, but the person at the end of the rope most likely can't feel or experience any of it. In a less-than-ideal long drop, if the distance is miscalculated or some other factor misses the mark, the subject will die of decapitation (if the drop is too long) or of strangulation (if the drop is too short or the noose knot isn't in the correct position).

Strangulation can take several minutes and is a far more excruciating experience. The carotid arteries in the neck, which supply blood to the brain, are compressed, and the brain swells so much it ends up plugging the top of the spinal column; the Vagal nerve is pinched, leading to something called the Vagal reflex, which stops the heart; and the lack of oxygen getting to the lungs due to compression of the trachea eventually causes loss of consciousness due to suffocation. Death then follows in the same pattern as it does when the neck breaks, with the entire process ending in anywhere from five to 20 minutes.

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For the person being executed, the actual experience of the hanging lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes — or at least that's the general belief by forensic scientists. In some countries where executions are carried out by hanging, though, other methods are used. In the short drop, which can be a few inches to a few feet, the subject invariably dies of strangulation and/or the compression of the arteries in the neck. The same type of death occurs in suspension hanging, in which the subject is jerked into the air instead of being dropped. And in a standard-drop hanging, the subject falls about 5 feet (4.5 meters).

Depending on the weight and build of the subject, this drop will either break the neck and spinal cord or cause death by strangulation, carotid-artery compression or Vagal reflex. In these older methods, unconsciousness still typically occurs in anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but if it turns out to be a few seconds, it's blind luck (or bad luck, depending on how the country's legal system views the practice — if the point of the hanging is severe punishment for the subject and deterrence to other would-be criminals, a "good hang" may be the most gruesome experience possible).

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Suicide by Hanging

Suicide by hanging is bizarrely popular considering how much potential there is for agonizing pain. We've already discussed how long drop hangings are designed to minimize drawn-out suffering and potential complications. By comparison, short drop hangings (as are typically done in suicides) usually cause the much slower and vastly more painful strangulation death, rather than a quick neck break.

Suicide by hanging is commonly classified as "suffocation," but hanging makes up the majority of such deaths. It is second in the U.S. (28.3 percent) only to suicide by firearm (50 percent), according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Hanging is classified as a particularly lethal method of suicide, as it's more likely to actually result in death than other methods. By contrast, drug poisoning is more common among "attempters," rather than "completers."

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According to a study out of Korea, although drug poisoning was the most common way to attempt suicide, hanging was the most "successful" method, as 52.2 percent of completers used this method. Only 1 percent of completers used drugs. This unfortunate success is probably causing the increased rates of suicide by hanging. In 2001, "only" 31.4 percent of suicides were by hanging, compared with 50.5 percent in 2012, according to the Korean study.

In the U.S., there was a 16 percent increase in suicide between 2000 and 2010, mostly because of the rise in hanging, according to a 2013 study. "Suicide by hanging/suffocation increased by 104% among those aged 45–59 years and rose steadily in all age groups except those aged ≥70 years," the study authors wrote. Death by hanging has also achieved mainstream glamorization thanks to the deaths of beloved celebrities, such as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, actor/comedian Robin Williams, designer Kate Spade and fashion icon Alexander McQueen. But it remains a painful way to go.

(Video) How it would Feel to Die by Hanging Execution

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Originally Published: Jan 4, 2007

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  • Amnesty International. "Death Sentencing and Executions 2020." (Aug. 3, 2021) https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT5037602021ENGLISH.PDF
  • Childs, Dan. "Death By Hanging: What Saddam Faced." ABC News. Dec. 29, 2006.http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=2759048&page=1&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312
  • "The process of judicial hanging." Capital Punishment U.K. (Aug. 3, 2021) http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/hanging2.html
  • Lynch, Peter. "The Irishman who brought the humane drop to hanging." The Irish Times (Aug. 3, 2021) https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-irishman-who-brought-the-humane-drop-to-hanging-1.4170401
  • Stuttaford, Thomas. "Swift end rests with skill of the hangman." The Times Online. Jan. 1, 2007.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2526006,00.html
(Video) Hanging of Gordon Northcott

FAQs

What happens if you call the suicide help line? ›

When you first call, you will get an automated greeting with additional options. A person does not come on the line immediately. After dialing 1-800-273-8255, you will hear the following automated message: "You have reached the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, also servicing the Veterans service line.

Can I call suicide hotline if Im not suicidal? ›

It's important to know that you can, and should, call or text a hotline (formally known in the U.S. as Lifeline) even if you're not suicidal but are experiencing emotional distress.

What is the number for the suicide? ›

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 988. The previous number (1-800-273-8255) will continue to function and will route calls to 988 indefinitely.

What do suicide lines do? ›

The workers are trained to listen, provide support, and connect callers to resources. The hotline can also aid family and friends of someone who may be considering suicide.

What to say to someone who almost killed themselves? ›

listen and encourage them to talk about their situation. show empathy for their situation and take them seriously. not leave them alone. discuss the ways that you can get them help and if they agree follow up and get the help (e.g. contact their doctor or call a mental health centre or crisis hotline for advice)

Where do suicidal thoughts come from? ›

Every person is different, but there are a few common triggers for suicidal thoughts. These include: Depression and other mood disorders – Many mood disorders are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. When left untreated, these imbalances can result in feelings of hopelessness and despair.

How we can stop suicide? ›

Evidence shows that providing support services, talking about suicide, reducing access to means of self-harm, and following up with loved ones are just some of the actions we can all take to help others.

What defines attempted suicide? ›

A suicide attempt is when someone harms themselves with any intent to end their life, but they do not die as a result of their actions.

What is a risk factor in suicide? ›

There are several factors that increase risk of suicide:¹ Family history of suicide or child maltreatment. Previous suicide attempt(s) Mental illness, particularly clinical depression. Alcohol or other drug misuse.

What if someone threatens suicide? ›

In all life threatening situations, please call RI Emergency 911 directly. Are you contemplating reporting a suicidal person to the police and have concerns about your safety if you make such a report? Please call 911 or your local municipal police. Share your concerns about safety and ask for guidance.

Do suicidal thoughts cause anxiety? ›

Suicidal thoughts and actions are typically discussed in relation to depression, but a number of studies have suggested suicide may also be linked to anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders often co-occur with depression, and this may be masking a risk of suicide specifically related to anxiety.

Can every suicide be prevented? ›

The good news is that suicide is preventable. Preventing suicide requires strategies at all levels of society. This includes prevention and protective strategies for individuals, families, and communities.

What to do when you are depressed and suicidal? ›

Call a crisis hotline, such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Text HOME to the Crisis Textline at 741741. If you feel you're at immediate risk, reach out to a trusted friend, family member, or healthcare professional.

Who can I call during a panic attack? ›

Panic Disorder Information Hotline: 1-800-64-PANIC (72642)

For many who experience panic attacks, it can be helpful to speak to someone who understands what they're going through during an attack.

How to get mental help fast? ›

If you or a loved one is experiencing or affected by a mental health, substance use, or suicidal crisis, please call or text '988' (or chat online on 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline's website) for free, confidential, and immediate help. (Learn more about the recently launched 988 Lifeline.)

Can family problems cause suicide? ›

Previous studies have reported that family relationships are associated with suicidal behavior.

What to do when someone is suicidal and refuses help? ›

Reach out to your own support system. Talk to another friend or family member. Text START to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free, confidential conversation with a trained counselor. These counselors can support you and offer advice on how to help your friend.

What happens if you text home to 741 741? ›

Text HOME to 741741 from anywhere in the United States, anytime. Crisis Text Line is here for any crisis. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds, all from our secure online platform. The volunteer Crisis Counselor will help you move from a hot moment to a cool moment.

What happens if I text 741 741? ›

So, what does happen when you call/text a crisis line? After you text BRAVE to the Crisis Text Line at 741741, a trained crisis counselor will receive it and respond within minutes. Then, the crisis counselor will help you de-escalate your situation and connect you to help locally.

What is number 988? ›

As of July 16, 2022, all calls and text messages to “988” route to a 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline call center. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline provides 24/7, confidential support to people in suicidal crisis or mental health-related distress.

Is my mental illness my fault? ›

As with other serious illnesses, mental illness is not your fault or that of the people around you, but widespread misunderstandings about mental illness remain. Many people don't seek treatment or remain unaware that their symptoms could be connected to a mental health condition.

Who to text when you need someone to talk to? ›

In crisis and need to talk to someone? We're here for you. Text HOME to 741741 to reach a volunteer Crisis Counselor.

What is a hope box? ›

A hope box (or a whatever-you'd-like-to-call-it box) is a place to put special memory items or little trinkets, such as photos of an important day, concert or train tickets, gifts or notes that friends or family have given, or even receipts for things you'd like to remember enjoying.

Can you have depression without suicidal thoughts? ›

“A lot of people think if you have depression you're going to quit your job and so on, but many people continue to work, continue to function but to a very different degree. You don't have to be suicidal to be depressed. You can just be clinically depressed and think, 'This is the way my life is.

Does a yellow ribbon mean suicide? ›

The Light for Life Foundation Int'l/Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program® is dedicated to preventing suicide and attempts by Making Suicide Prevention Accessible to Everyone and Removing Barriers to Help by: Empowering individuals and communities through leadership, awareness and education; and.

What is a suicide screening? ›

A suicide risk screening can help find out how likely it is that someone will try to take their own life. During most screenings, a provider will ask some questions about behavior and feelings. There are specific questions and guidelines that providers can use. These are known as suicide risk assessment tools.

What is 741 741? ›

How does Crisis Text Line work? You text 741741 when in crisis, available 24/7 in the United States. A live, trained Crisis Counselor receives the text and responds quickly.

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