Hanging is a form of capital punishment or execution, or a method for suicide.
Hanging may involve breaking of the neck (drop-hanging; causing instant unconsciousness without breathing, and quick death), or one or more of the following:
As punishment it has been used throughout history; it is known to have been invented and used by the Persian Empire. The typical sentence involving hanging is that the condemned person "be hanged by the neck until dead". A more elaborate sentence, once used for particularly heinous crimes (e.g. high treason in Britain), was for the person to be "hanged, drawn and quartered".
Hanging has historically been the method of execution used for common criminals; in feudal England, for example, peasants were usually hanged for crimes while the nobility were usually beheaded. Since as a result hanging has become associated with dishonorable execution, the courts in the post-World War II war crimes trials in Germany (the Nuremberg trials) and Japan mandated its use for war criminals rather than execution by firing squad.
As a form of judicial execution in England, hanging is thought to date from the Saxon period, circa AD 400. Records of the names of British hangmen begin with Thomas de Warblynton in the 1360s; complete records extend from the 1500s to the last hangmen, Robert Leslie Stewart and Harry Allen, who conducted the last British executions in 1964.
Early methods of hanging simply involved a hangman's noose on a rope placed around the victim's neck, with the loose end thrown over or tied to a tree branch; the hangman then drew up the criminal, who slowly strangled. An early refinement had the victim climb a ladder or stand in a cart that the hangman then removed. The 1800s saw the development of a machine that used weights to draw the victim aloft. A further development had the victim step onto a metal plate, triggering the weights so that it was the victim that effectively started the process. As the number of executions increased, purpose-built gallows, which usually consisted of two posts joined by a crossbeam, replaced trees. Soon virtually every major town and city in Britain had its own gallows.
Until 1808 the law in Britain offered the death penalty for some 200 offences, including:
A variety of loopholes in British criminal law, together with judicial leniency, tempered the law's tendency to prescribe hanging for what many would today consider minor offences. First-time offenders could escape a capital sentence for some crimes through the benefit of clergy, and of those criminals actually sentenced to death, many were later pardoned. Only about half the death sentences pronounced at common law in the 18th century were carried out, and by the beginning of the 19th century, growing doubt over the appropriateness of capital punishment led to nearly 90% of British capital sentences being commuted to lesser punishments.
Between 1832 and 1834 Parliament abolished the death penalty for:
In 1861 Parliament reduced the number of capital crimes to four:
Britain ended public hangings in 1868, and formally abolished the hanging, beheading, and quartering of traitors in 1870.
Although hangmen had introduced the "drop" by the late 1700s, it was initially only a substitute for the ladder or the cart. The first well-known practitioner of "the drop" was William Calcraft , but his successor William Marwood (who was often quoted as saying "Calcraft hanged them, I execute them"), introduced the "long drop". Marwood realised that each person required a different drop, based on the prisoner's weight, which would dislocate the cervical vertebrae resulting in "instantaneous" death. A process of sometimes grisly experimentation led to the discovery that an energy of 1260 foot pounds (1710 joules) would have the desired effect, so one could calculate the required drop by dividing 1260 by the weight of the victim: a person weighing 112 pounds (50.8 kg) required a drop of 11'4" (3.43 m). Over time, Marwood refined this basic formula to take account of the prisoner's age, stature, and physical condition, especially after some early mistakes when too great a drop resulted in decapitation. Marwood also experimented with the positioning of the knot, and discovered that placing it under the left ear or under the angle of the left jaw would jerk the head backwards at the end of the drop and instantly sever the spinal cord and dislocate the cervical vertebrae. Prison governors and staff who were required, following the abolition of public executions in 1868, to witness executions at close quarters, welcomed the development of swift and "clean" methods of hanging.
As time went by, hanging became more of a science than an art. By the mid-20th century the average time between taking a victim from the cell and death was around fifteen seconds – although on May 8, 1951 Albert Pierrepoint conducted the fastest hanging on record when James Inglis, whom a court had only three weeks earlier convicted and sentenced for the murder of a prostitute, was pronounced dead only seven seconds after leaving his cell.
Extra-legal primitive forms of hanging persisted well into the 20th Century in the United States in the form of lynchings where torture and/or mutilation of the corpse often accompanied the hanging.
In the United States, other forms of capital punishment, such as the electric chair and more recently lethal injection, have largely replaced hanging. The most recent hanging in the United States occurred on January 25, 1996 when Delaware hanged Billy Bailey; Delaware has since abolished the method. Hanging remains legal only in Washington State, which last used it to execute Charles Campbell on 27 May 1994. In 1996 the State legislature amended the law to make lethal injection the default death penalty unless the convicted person chooses hanging.
In the Soviet Union, the last persons to be sentenced to death by hanging were Andrey Vlasov and 11 other officers of his army on August 1, 1946.
A recent case of capital punishment by hanging is that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was convicted of the 1990 murder and rape of a 14 year old girl in Kolkata in India. Although the Supreme Court of India has suggested that capital punishment be given in the rarest of rare cases, Chatterjee was executed on August 14, 2004 in the first execution in West Bengal for eleven years.
On February 27, 2004 the mastermind of the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, Shoko Asahara was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. Hanging is the common method of execution in capital punishment cases in Japan.
Last updated: 06-02-2005 14:03:38