Methods of judicial hanging
Detail from a painting by Pisanello
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 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 prolonged 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 from 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. This typically takes between ten and twenty minutes but unconsciousness occurs already within 6–15 seconds, 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, called Würgegalgen (literally: strangling gallows), 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.
This method was later also adopted by the successor states, most notably by Czechoslovakia; where the "pole" method was used as the single type of execution from 1918 until the abolition of the capital punishment in 1990. Nazi war criminal Karl Hermann Frank, executed in 1946 in Prague, was among approximately 1,000 condemned people executed in this manner in Czechoslovakia.
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."
Sepia-tone photo from a contemporary 1901 postcard showing Tom Ketchum
's decapitated body. Caption reads "Body of Black Jack after the hanging showing head snapped off."
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. The record speed for a British long drop hanging was 7 seconds from the executioner entering the cell to the drop. Speed was considered to be important in the British system as it reduced the condemned's mental distress.