The Hangman & Headsman’s Trades

You read about it in crime-novels. You see it in movies or in historical dramas. You maybe even play-acted it in school or on the stage somewhere in a theatrical production of some kind. For centuries, hanging and decapitation have been the two main methods of capital punishment.
But have you ever wondered how it was done? Despite the old saying that “everybody dies easy”, it’s not something that might be said by the men who have the unique and rather unenviable task of actually doing it for a living. The headsman and the hangman, the two men who traditionally carried out these two most common methods of civil execution, actually had to approach each execution from a highly scientific point of view.
Execution by Beheading
Beheading someone as a form of execution is not easy to do. In ancient times, it was done with swords or axes. These weapons, though sharp, did not always do the job very well. The human neck is surprisingly strong and considerable force is required to break it. In medieval times, specially-crafted execution-axes were used, that look similar to the one pictured here:
Axes such as this did not so much ‘cut’ the head off as they simply bashed their way through the neck-bone. They were crude at the best of times and useless at the worst of times. Most medieval executioners also carried a dagger with them called a ‘slitting knife’, with which they would have to literally slice the head off, using the slitting-knife to cut away the remaining muscles and flesh so that the head would fall off the corpse and land in the basket below…all the while, the severed neck would be pumping out blood onto the scaffolding.
During the 1700s, reformers were looking for a more effective way to decapitate people. Axes and swords were inefficient. They did not always work and death was neither swift nor painless. In the early 1790s, the French came up with the answer. The Guillotine.
Named for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, the guillotine was first put to use in 1792. It remained the only legal method of execution in France for the next 189 years (capital punishment in France was abolished in 1981). It was designed to take the human error out of the equation of death by beheading. The angled blade of the guillotine was developed so that the head would be severed cleanly from the body in one swift, sweeping stroke, instead of being hacked off like with an axe.
So much for the guillotine. That was the easy part.
Execution by Hanging
Ah. Execution by Hanging. The favoured method in Asia and in most of the Western countries where capital punishment was (or still is) legal. Anyone can chop a man’s head off. Raise the guillotine, slot him in the hole and let go of the rope…done! But how many people can hang a man? Believe me, it’s not that easy.
The job of hangman is very unique. Not because he’s an executioner. Not because he might be depised by society (I’m sure lawyers are also despised by society), but because there’s a lot more to this job than meets the eye. Not just anybody can hang anybody, not just because of the emotional toll, but simply because not just anybody can hang any body. You see, the thing that makes the job of hangman difficult is that there is a high level of mathematical skill required in this job. You may not see it, or even believe it, but it is true and it is there.
In older times, you hanged a man thus:
You threw the rope over a tree or a hanging-post, got the condemmed man to stand on a chair, then you slipped the noose around his neck, hopped down, kicked the chair away and let him dangle around for five…ten…fifteen…twenty…thirty minutes…however long it took, until he eventually strangled to death. Yes. It could take that long.
This was unacceptable. It was unsightly and it took far too long; another way of hanging the condemned was required. The old method of hanging was called the ‘short-drop’ method. String him up, kick the bucket away and then let him choke to death after a short drop. This by the way, is where we get the phrase ‘kick the bucket’ (meaning to commit suicide). It comes from when the suicider, after looping the noose around his neck, kicks away the upturned bucket that he was standing on.
Almost synonymous with the ‘Short Drop’ hanging method is the Tyburn Tree in Tyburn, London, a famous, triangle-shaped gallows on which up to two dozen people could be executed at one time. The Tree was erected in 1571 and wasn’t taken down until 1783! A plaque stands where the Tree was once located
The new method of hanging was very different from the old, even though on the surface they look the same. And it was this new method, called the ‘long-drop’ method, that was so scientific. And this is why not anybody can hang anybody, or any body, if you get my drift.
Hanging a body using the ‘Long Drop’ method is a tricky process. In the short-drop method, the aim is to strangle the condemned until they die from suffocation. The long-drop method aims to break the victim’s neck, providing swift and painless death, specifically, to break the neck at the C2 vertebra; the second vertebrae down from the head. Achieving this is difficult because no two persons are exactly alike. Some weigh more than others. Some weigh less. Some are taller than others, some are shorter. Some might have thin, scrawny necks. Some have thick, bulldog ones. How on earth are you going to figure out how much rope to use and how long a drop you need to break a given person’s neck? Because if you don’t have the right amount of rope, things can go horribly wrong.
See? It’s not so easy now, is it?
The long-drop method was developed by an English hangman named William Marwood in 1872. In time, a table was drawn up that took all the complexity out of how to carry out a good hanging. It was called Marwood’s Table of Drops. Published in 1888, the Official Table of Drops may be found about three-quarters the way down the page provided in this link. So, how did a long-drop hanging take place?
As I’ve explained, hanging changed over time. By the late 19th century, it was a pretty scientific undertaking that required care and deliberation. A typical long-drop hanging is done in the following manner:
1. The day before the hanging, the condemned prisoner is taken out of his (or her) cell. He or she is then weighed (while clothed) and the weight is recorded.
2. The hangman consults the Table of Drops, which specifies length of drop (and therefore, length of hangman’s rope) required for that weight, such that the drop will produce a clean, quick break of the neck.
3. The rope is measured and marked at the correct length, either with a painted lne or a length of metal wire wrapped around the rope at the correct point. A noose is tied at the end and then the rope is affixed to the gallows.
4. Sandbags equal in weight to the prisoner to be hung, are tied to the noose and the trapdoor is opened. The sandbags drop, stretching out the rope. This is done a full 24 hours before hanging, to take the elasticity out of the rope to prevent recoil later on.
5. On the day, the prisoner is marched out to the gallows. The noose is put around his neck and slightly off-center so that when the rope pulls tight, it breaks the neck. A prayer is said and the prisoner is allowed last words. He may or may not choose to have a black hood placed over his head.
6. The lever is pulled. The trapdoor falls open and the prisoner falls through. If the hanging is successful, the momentum of the body draws the noose tight and the sudden deceleration causes a quick and painless break of the neck.
7. The body is then cut down and prepared for postmortem examinations. In older times, a body was left hanging on the rope for up to an hour after death. This was eventually deemed unnecessary when a physician could just check the body and announce whether death had or had not occurred.
8. The rope is removed from the gallows and stored. This is in case it might be required later by law-enforcement or prison officials.
The hanging is done.
The Hangman’s Calculation
If you do a bit of research, you’ll find out that Tables of Drops changed markedly over the years. Starting in about 1888, they changed at least twice in the next 30 years, once in the 1890s and once again in 1913, with differing weights and drops for each new table. How do you figure out how much rope is needed for any given drop?
Remember that the tables are a guide. They only give the suggested drop-length, the length calculated to be most effective. But as I explained, not everyone is the same, so there are variables that might make the Table of Drops ineffective for any number of reasons, from a person being over the maximum weight in the Table of Drops, to their neck being particularly thick or the rope being thinner or thicker than usual. So how do you figure out the drop?
You use a piece of mathematics called the Hangman’s Calculation. It’s set up in the following manner:
(1260 / W ) + 1.5 = D.
1260 foot-pounds of force (the amount considered sufficient to cause neck-breakage), divided by the prisoner’s WEIGHT (W), with an added 1.5ft (18 inches or 1’6″) of rope for the noose itself, equals the optimum drop-length for a given person.
Despite all the maths and calculations, hanging remains a bit of a trial-and-error way of execution. Even when the Tables of Drops were well-established in society, it wasn’t unknown for bungled hangings to occur, and the condemned could still strangle to death or have their heads ripped off during botched hangings. Although no longer widely practiced in the Western world, hanging is still a very common method of execution in Asia in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Bali, where there are significant drug-trafficking problems.

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