The History of Hanging (2023)

“Executions are so much a part of British history that it is almost impossible for many excellent people to think of a future without them” – Viscount Templewood, In the Shadow of the Gallows (1951)

As a form of capital punishment, hanging was introduced to Britain by the Germanic Anglo-Saxon tribes as early as the fifth century. The gallows were an important element in Germanic culture. The worthy Hengist and Horsa and their colleagues used a very rough and out-of-hand method of hanging, one that resembled our clean and tidy modern method in only this respect: it worked quite well.

William the Conqueror subsequently decreed that it should be replaced by castration and blinding for all but the crime of poaching royal deer, but hanging was reintroduced by Henry I as the means of execution for a large number of offenses. Although other methods of execution, such as boiling, burning and beheading were frequently used in the mediaeval period, by the eighteenth century hanging had become the principle punishment for capital crimes.

The eighteenth century also saw the start of the movement for the abolition of the death penalty. In 1770 [the British Politician] William Meredith, suggested ‘more proportionate punishments’ for crimes. He was followed in the early nineteenth century by [the legal reformer and Solicitor General] Samuel Romilly and [the Scottish jurist, politician and historian] James Mackintosh, both of whom introduced bills into Parliament in an attempt to de-capitalise minor crimes.

(Video) Hanging - Worst Punishments in the History of Mankind

The History of Hanging (1)
Witches being hanged, from Ralph Gardiner, ‘England’s Grievance Discovered in Relation to the Coal Trade’, 1655

Perhaps unsurprising, considering the fact that in Britain at the time there were no less than 222 crimes which were defined as capital offenses, including the impersonation of a Chelsea pensioner and damaging Westminster Bridge. Moreover, the law did not distinguish between adults and children, and ‘strong evidence of malice in a child of 7 to 14 years of age’ was also a hanging matter.

It was not until 1861 that that the number of capital crimes was reduced to just four by the Criminal Law Consolidation Act, these being murder, arson in a royal dockyard, treason and piracy with violence. Further reform followed, and the last public hanging took place in 1868, after which all executions were carried out within prison walls.

In the nineteenth century the mechanics of hanging came under scientific scrutiny. Certain suggestions and improvements were adopted after which sweeping claims were made that the newly introduced trick for dislocating the neck was a vast improvement on the slower method of simple strangulation hitherto used.

(Video) What It Was Actually Like To Be Present At A Frontier Hanging

How Hanging Kills

The position [of the brass ring] behind the ear has distinct advantages and is best calculated to cause instantaneous and painless death, because it acts in three different ways towards the same end. In the first place, it will cause death by strangulation, which was really the only cause of death in the old method before the long drop was introduced. Secondly, it dislocates the vertebrate, which is now the actual cause of death. And thirdly, if a third factor was necessary, it has a tendency to internally rupture the jugular vein, which in itself is sufficient to cause practically instantaneous death.

However, there is a simple truth behind it all, and it is this: In spite of all the progress we have witnessed, it is not possible for the greatest physician, biologist, or any other scientist to define the exact moment when a hanged person ceases to feel pain. Pro-hanging propaganda states that “death by hanging is almost instantaneous” “Almost”, in relation to hanging, can allow for a period of time which may not be more than two or three minutes, or it can be a quarter of an hour, or as it has happened, much longer such as the one hour and eleven minutes taken to hang Antonio Sprecage in Canada in 1919. An intelligent law takes care of this in the sentence “to be hanged by the neck until dead”. The operative words are “until dead”.

The History of Hanging (2)
Sepia-tone photo from a 1901 postcard of Tom Ketchum’s decapitated body after hanging.
Caption reads “Body of Black Jack after the hanging showing head snapped off.”

(Video) Science of the Gallows

Bungled Hangings

Hangmen and other government officials concerned with executions in Britain spoke with awe of the “Goodale Mess” – the hanging of a man called Goodale, at which the prisoner’s head was jerked right off the body – and one of their terrors was that, because of some slight oversight, it could be easily repeated. To avoid anything so unseemly a man named William John Gray, sentenced to death for the murder of his wife, was reprieved in April 1948. After shooting his wife, Gray shot himself, fracturing his jaw. Medical examination showed that the injuries caused were of such a character that “as make it impractical to carry out the execution”. This could mean one of two things: that he might die from strangulation because of a failure of the brass eyelet to cause dislocation; or that, to cause dislocation, he would have to be given a drop so long that his head might be pulled off. Hence, in the interests of both humanity and hanging, it was much safer to grant him a reprieve.

In 1927 the British Medical Journal published another account by an ex-colonial surgeon of a botched hanging. He stated that he had to witness the execution of four natives. The executioner was in a hurry that day to keep another appointment, and decided to hang the men in pairs. As a general rule, on auscultation the heart may be heard beating for about ten minutes after the drop, and on this occasion when the sounds had ceased, there was nothing to suggest a vital spark. The bodies were cut down after fifteen minutes and placed in an ante-chamber, when one of the supposed corpses gave a gasp and was found making spasmodic respiratory efforts. The two bodies were quickly suspended again for a quarter of an hour longer.

Another great figure in the annals of hanging is John Lee. It is necessary to say on behalf of the late Mr Berry, who officiated at the long drawn-out hanging process, that he was in every way qualified to perform the task. But the cruel fact remains. Three times he tried to hang John Lee on Monday 23 February 1885; and three times he failed. The failure to hang John Lee was officially explained as due to rain which had caused the planks of the trap to swell. This may well have been the case. It has been suggested that the failure to deal adequately with John Lee is a proof provided by Providence of his innocence. Maybe. Or perhaps it can be attributed to immunity from hanging developed by heredity in accordance with Mendel’s theory. Incidentally, John Lee lived to a ripe and contented old age.

(Video) Capital Punishment in the UK - Hanging (Part One)

Yet it was to be almost one hundred years before hanging was to disappear completely from the British justice system. On 9 November 1965 the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder for five years in the United Kingdom and, on 16 December 1969, the House of Commons voted by a majority of 158 that capital punishment for murder should be abolished. Even after this the death penalty theoretically survived for treason, piracy with violence, arson in a royal dockyard and certain crimes under the jurisdiction of the armed forces, but with the ratification of the 6th protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights on 20 May 1999, all provisions for the death penalty were finally abolished in the United Kingdom.

Worldwide the death penalty is still retained in 77 countries as a way of dealing with a range of crimes. However, the ‘humanity’ of hanging and other forms of execution raises important questions as to the wisdom of a punishment which allows little room for error on the part of an eminently fallible justice system.

© Excerpts from ‘A Handbook on Hanging’ by Charles Duff


What is the history of hanging? ›

Hanging has been a common method of capital punishment since medieval times, and is the primary execution method in numerous countries and regions. The first known account of execution by hanging was in Homer's Odyssey (Book XXII).

Who did they have to drop 3 times when hanging? ›

John "Babbacombe" Lee (15 August 1864 – 19 March 1945) was an Englishman famous for surviving three attempts to hang him for murder. Born in Abbotskerswell, Devon, Lee served in the Royal Navy, and was a known thief.

Who was the last person to be guillotined? ›

At Baumetes Prison in Marseille, France, Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian immigrant convicted of murder, becomes the last person executed by guillotine.

When was the last person executed by guillotine? ›

10, 1977: Heads Roll for the Last Time in France. 1977: France stages its last execution using the guillotine. A Tunisian immigrant living in Marseilles, Hamida Djandoubi, was executed for the torture-slaying of his girlfriend.

What is the main idea of a hanging? ›

Answer and Explanation: In Orwell's "A Hanging," the narrator describes the hanging of a "Hindu" in a British-run prison in Burma. The use of the first person is important to the theme of the piece, which is: blind obedience and the dehumanization of a subjugated people.

Where did hanging start? ›

The first recorded use of judicial hanging is in the Persian Empire approximately 2,500 years ago. Along with widespread rejection of the death penalty as a punishment in many countries, hanging has come to be seen as a brutal method of execution.

What does 3 beeps and hang up mean? ›

The three beeps and disconnect means that the call was not able to go through.

What does 3 beeps mean on a landline? ›

If it's a regular landline number that has been 'ported' to VOIP and the device used to answer calls isn't currently powered up , perhaps three beeps is the tone returned. kelvinward. Beginner. on ‎18-01-2021 10h06.

What does it mean when a call just beeps? ›

When an incoming call constantly beeps, the call is probably coming from a fax or modem. Simply transfer this call to your fax machine.

Who was the youngest person ever executed? ›

George Stinney

Who was the youngest victim of the guillotine? ›

Hannah Ocuish
DiedDecember 20, 1786 (aged 12) New London, Connecticut, U.S.
Cause of deathExecution by hanging
Resting placeLedyard Center Cemetery Ledyard, Connecticut, U.S. (Plot unknown)
Known forYoungest person executed in United States history
11 more rows

Who was the most famous victim of the guillotine? ›

From 1793 the guillotine claimed numerous victims, most famously Louis XVI, Charlotte Corday, Marie Antoinette, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre.

When was the last execution in the US? ›

The last and most recent federal execution was of Dustin Higgs, who was executed on January 16, 2021. Higgs' execution was also the last under the presidency of Donald Trump.

When was the last public execution in the USA? ›

Rainey Bethea, executed August 14, 1936 at Owensboro, Kentucky, was the last public execution in America. He was publicly hanged for rape on August 14, 1936 in a parking lot in Owensboro, Kentucky (to avoid damage to the courthouse lawn by thousands of people who were expected to attend).

When was the last person executed by electric chair? ›

Georgia decision by the Supreme Court of the United States in 1976. He was the first person to be executed in the United States in this manner since 1966. The last person to be executed by electric chair without the choice of an alternative method was Lynda Lyon Block on May 10, 2002, in Alabama.

Why is the dog important in A Hanging? ›

Symbolism – The Dog

By noting that the dog goes directly to the prisoner instead of the officials, Orwell uses symbolism to suggest that all people are equal regardless of their circumstances.

What does the dog mean in A Hanging? ›

By noting that the dog goes directly to the prisoner instead of the officials Orwell uses symbolism to suggest that all people are equal regardless of their circumstances.

What was the real reason for the superintendent's impatience with the hanging? ›

'A Hanging': summary

The superintendent of the jail where the prisoner is being kept is impatient to get the hanging over with because the other prisoners won't get their breakfast until it has been done.

When was the first hanging in the US? ›

The first known federal execution under this authority was conducted by U.S. Marshal Henry Dearborn of Maine on June 25, 1790. He was ordered to execute one Thomas Bird for murder on the high seas. In coordinating this, Dearborn spent money on building a gallows and coffin.

What country still uses hanging? ›

The only method of execution used in Japan is hanging, and the subjects are blindfolded and adorned in a hood before the trap door is released to initiate the execution. Japan has hung 131 Death Row inmates between 1993 and 2021, but only six from 2019-2021.

What is the most humane method of execution? ›

Lethal injection avoids many of the unpleasant effects of other forms of execution: bodily mutilation and bleeding due to decapitation, smell of burning flesh in electrocution, disturbing sights or sounds in lethal gassing and hanging, the problem of involuntary defecation and urination.

What does 5 beeps mean? ›

5 Beeps - Processor Failure

Troubleshoot CPU, motherboard.

What does 1 beep code mean? ›

1 short beep usually signifies that everything is OK. 1 long beep followed by 2 short beeps is a memory issue.

What Does 7 beeps mean? ›

Seven beeps generally indicate a processor problem, it's veritably uncommonly that the processor actually fails; it's most probably a motherboard issue.

When was the last time someone was hanged in the US? ›

Rainey Bethea, executed August 14, 1936 at Owensboro, Kentucky, was the last public execution in America. He was publicly hanged for rape on August 14, 1936 in a parking lot in Owensboro, Kentucky (to avoid damage to the courthouse lawn by thousands of people who were expected to attend).

What does hanging do for your body? ›

It's a great stretching exercise for your back, arms, shoulders and abdominal muscles, made possible with the opposite forces of your palms' grip on the bar and the gravitational pull of the rest of the body.

Why was hanging used in medieval times? ›

Torture was typically used as a way to extract evidence and information and public execution was often used as a warning to prevent others from committing crimes. There were no laws or rights given to prisoners, allowing torture and executions to be widespread and completely unregulated.

Who was the first man hanged in America? ›

The first recorded execution in the new colonies was that of Captain George Kendall in the Jamestown colony of Virginia in 1608. Kendall was executed for being a spy for Spain.

Do people still get hanged in the US? ›

Lethal injection is the most widely-used method of execution, but states still authorize other methods, including electrocution, gas chamber, hanging, and firing squad.

What was the last state to stop hanging? ›

In August 1936, some 20,000 people descended on Owensboro, Ky., to witness what would be the last state-sanctioned public execution in America. Kentucky was the only state still conducting public hangings, a fate reserved for what was viewed by Kentucky's citizens as the most heinous crime: rape.

What happens if you hang everyday? ›

As an everyday exercise, dead hangs are often overlooked. But hanging from an overhead bar will not only help your spine and give your muscles a much-needed stretch, but it can actually lower your risk for deadly cardiovascular and respiratory diseases too.

How long should you be able to hang? ›

As a guide, we suggest aiming for the following times: Beginner: 10 seconds. Intermediate: 20 to 30 seconds. Advanced: 45 seconds +

Why is hanging good for spine? ›

Decompress spine

A dead hang may decompress and stretch out the spine. It may be beneficial if you sit often or need to stretch out a sore back. Try hanging with straight arms for 30 seconds to one minute before or after your workout for best results.

Where is hanging legal in the US? ›

Three states – Delaware, New Hampshire, and Washington – still permit hanging. Four states – Mississippi, Oklahoma, Utah, and South Carolina – allow for death by firing squads. (Copyright 1951 The Associated Press.

Which country executes the most? ›

Excluding China, three middle Eastern countries — Iran (at least 314), Egypt (at least 83), and Saudi Arabia (65) — collectively accounted for 80% of the confirmed executions in 2021.


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