Hanging has been a method of capital punishment since medieval times. The act of hanging is carried out by suspending a person by the neck from a gallows or gibbet of some sort. There are four different methods of judicial hanging.
Suspension hanging is a short drop, where the weight of the body tightens the noose upon the trachea. This causes the person to slowly die from strangulation and can take up to ten to twenty minutes before death. There is little to no struggle since the main arteries are blocked and blood flow to the brain is reduced.
Short drop is when the noose is placed around the neck and the rope is then tied to a horse or vehicle before the object is moved away. Stools and ladders were also used for this type of hanging. Short drop hanging causes the person to slowly die of strangulation, again this takes between ten and twenty minutes. Before 1850, the short drop was the standard method of hanging and is still common in suicides and lynchings.
Standard drop is a drop between four and six feet. This distance began to be used in 1866, when an Irish doctor, Samuel Haughton, sought a more humane method for hanging. The standard drop was enough to break a person’s neck, thus causing immediate paralysis, immobilization, and unconsciousness.
Long drop was a scientific advancement from the standard drop. Instead of everyone falling the same distance, a person’s height and weight were taken into consideration to determine how much slack in the rope to ensure that the distance would cause a broken neck, but no so much that the person was decapitated. Careful placement of the knot in the noose was also taken into consideration and positioned under the chin to assure the head was jerked back enough to break the neck.
Prior to 1892, the standard drop was the customary four to six feet, which caused the neck to break between the 2-5th cervical vertebrae. Since this caused some decapitations, the length of the drop was shortened between 1892 and 1913. After 1913, other factors were taken into account to reduce the force delivered in the drop.
Hangings in England were a part of judicial execution since the Anglo-Saxon period. In the 19th century, the children of England were punished in the same manner as adults and could be sentenced to death for petty theft. During the Regency Era, in the year 1814, five children under the age of fourteen were hanged at the Old Bailey, the courtyard outside of Newgate Prison. The youngest child was eight years old.
Before 1783, the traditional site for hangings in England were conducted at Tyburn, a settlement west of the city of London, which was used for eight hanging days a year. The gallows were then moved from Tyburn to Newgate Prison, which was London’s main prison. The reason for the move was due to the journey from the prison to Tyburn, which tended to draw a carnival like crowd. This festive atmosphere ruined the warning the authorities hoped to evoke with the sad journey to meet the hangman. With the move, the gallows were also changed to include a trap door in which the hanged person would drop. The public hangings always drew large audiences, and although the gruesome sight was done to deter crime, the atmosphere was riotous and the condemned were often pelted with fruit and stones.
The offences that were considered capital crimes were often debated in Parliament, since many of these crimes were by modern standards, misdemeanors. Criminals could be executed for stealing items valued above a shilling. From 1810-1820, the House of Lords voted six times to remove theft from the capital crime list. With England’s poverty level so high, desperate people were willing to steal rather than starve. England’s alternative from hanging was transportation. Transportation of criminals began in the 16th century, but only after the Transportation Act of 1718 did transportation become a viable form of punishment. Prisoners were shipped to the American colonies between 1718-1775, and then to Australia after the American Revolution. Transportation of criminals ended completely in 1868. This is also the same year that hangings were removed from the public eye and moved indoors.
A nobleman sentenced to death could forgo hanging and choose the death of a nobleman, which is to be beheaded by a swordsman, but this penalty only applied to treason, not murder.
The death penalty was mandatory in the United Kingdom until the Judgment of Death Act of 1823 passed, which allowed judges to commute the death penalty except for treason and murder. In 1965, the Murder Act was passed which suspended the death penalty for murder. In 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed its decision and abolished the death penalty permanently for murder and all crimes.
Here’s a break down by country in the United Kingdom, although it’s not easy to gleam from surviving records if all these death sentences were carried out. During the period of 1735-1799, the number of males executed in England was 6,069, females 375. Thirty-two of these women were burned at the stake. In Scotland, the number of males executed was 209, whereas the women 26. Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands had zero men or women executed in those years. During the period of 1800-1899, in England, male executions were 3,365 whereas women were 172. In Scotland the number of males was 275, females 15. From the years 1900-1964, the numbers dropped dramatically, with 748 males being executed in England and 15 females.
Although my books take place in the United Kingdom, here’s some information about U.S. hangings. Hanging was the most popular means of execution in America. In colonial America, hangings were conducted in public for all to witness. As the years passed, many of the states lessened their number of capital offenses, and because of these changes in the laws, hangings began to decrease. Of course, in other states there was an increase in hangings, such as in the south with slavery and lynchings or the Wild West, where lawlessness and crime flourished. The judges were known to be strict in these untamed western areas and hangings were commonplace since more offenses were punishable by hanging. Between 1830-1920, people’s views changed and many were seeing the cruelty of public hangings, while others considered it a great spectator sport. There were often vendors and merchants selling souvenirs and alcohol near the gallows. By 1835, more and more states were performing private hangings. The introduction of the electric chair in 1890 also led to a steady decrease in hangings. The state of Arizona switched to the gas chamber as its primary means of execution, believing it a more humane way to execute after a botched hanging in 1930.
In 1972, the United States Supreme Court found hanging to be in violation with the eighth amendment of the United States Constitution. But the Supreme Court overturned the ruling, and in 1976, capital punishment was legalized again. Nevertheless, hangings are only legal in the states of Washington, New Hampshire, and Delaware, but even in these states, it is extremely rare. A Delaware killer was hanged in 1996, this was the 3rd U.S. hanging in thirty years.
A special thank you to regencyera.net, Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins, and Captialpunishmentuk.org