Gruesome, Clumsy and Irreversible: The Science Behind ‘Hanging By the Neck’

At 5:30 am on March 20, four men were executed simultaneously at Tihar jail near New Delhi for the gang-rape and murder seven years ago of a 23-year-old woman who has come to be known as ‘Nirbhaya’ (Hindi for ‘fearless’). They were to be hung by the neck until dead, and which postmortems are expected to confirm.

India is one of 56 countries around the world that retain the death penalty; in its particular case, the punishment of hanging by death is reserved for what its Supreme Court has called the ‘rarest of rare’ cases, alluding to particularly heinous crimes and their perpetrators.

But for the drama of execution as well as the state’s decision to kill its subjects – eliminating them, as it were, from its purview by invoking one of its highest powers – the effect of the death penalty on the rate at which heinous crimes are committed has been unclear, at best. Its potential as a deterrent in particular, a popular claim that imagines the state as an imposing executioner, is yet to be demonstrated, especially for crimes against women.

That said, the act of hanging itself is gruesome in its right, using a method that dates to ancient Greece and technology to the mid-19th century, although there have been many adjustments. India itself uses a method called the long-drop.

Independent India’s first execution by hanging was in 1949, of Nathuram Godse for the assassination of M.K. Gandhi. Since then, 724 people have been executed, nearly half of them by the Government of Uttar Pradesh.

Section 354(4) of the Criminal Procedure Code sanctions the state to ‘perform’ the death penalty, and stipulates that the person “be hanged by the neck till the person is dead”.

Until the mid-19th century or so, the short-drop hanging was the most common method. The noose would be placed around a person’s neck while the person would stand on a short support structure of some sort, like a stool or a ladder. Once the noose was in place, the support would be kicked away and the subsequent short drop would slowly strangle the person.

Specifically, the noose would squeeze on the carotid arteries that ferry blood to the brain and press down on the trachea, which brings oxygen to the lungs. As its supply of blood drops, the brain begins to swell, so much so that at one point it presses on the top of the spinal column and pinches on the vagal nerve. This action stops  the heart. By this time, the person will have been unconscious thanks to the lack of oxygen in the lungs. In all, they’d be unconscious within 20 seconds and dead within 20 minutes.

In 1866, a geologist, doctor, mathematician and science writer named Samuel Haughton considered the short-drop to be too savage: “It seems to me unworthy of the present state of science to continue a mode of execution which, as at present used, is extremely clumsy and also painful to the criminal” (source).

Based on his studies of historical texts, including Homer’s Odyssey, reputed to contain the earliest description of a death by hanging, Haughton identified three mechanisms by which a hanging could kill (quoted verbatim):

  1. By apoplexy, caused by pressure on the jugular veins
  2. By asphyxia, caused by stoppage of the windpipe
  3. By shock of the medulla oblongata, caused by fracture of the vertebral column

He then wrote, “In the first two cases death is preceded by convulsions, lasting from five to forty-five minutes, which are caused by the cessation of the supply of arterial blood to the muscles. In the third case death is instantaneous and painless, and is unaccompanied by any convulsive movement whatever.”

His modification of the short-drop method gave rise to the standard-drop, which took advantage of the third option: “shock of the medulla oblongata”. That is, instead of strangulating as the noose tightened around the neck, the person would drop from a greater height and the rope’s going taut would simply break the neck.

The ‘standard’ stands for the fact that the rope’s length is fixed between 4 and 6 feet. When he was a member of Britain’s Capital Sentences Committee in 1886-1888, he helped prepare a report that recommended that the actual length used during a hanging should achieve a drop energy of 1,708 joules (a figure that bears in mind the importance of not letting the body be decapitated at the same time). A British executioner named William Marwood improved upon these calculations to devise the long-drop method, in which calculations of the rope’s length take into consideration the person’s weight as well, and vary anywhere between 5’1″ and 8’6″ for persons weighing between 51 kg and 89 kg (according to a 1913 table). India uses the long-drop method.

The question obviously arises: why ask executioners to perform mathematical problems when they could simply make the rope long enough to achieve a sufficiently high drop energy for every condemned person?

The answer lies in the spirit with which Haughton undertook his studies of hanging in the first place. In his writings, his sympathy for the criminal is apparent, but more importantly, he identified the purpose of capital punishment as being to kill and not to torture (a distinction that may ask us to reconsider the death penalty itself). With an excessively long-drop, Haughton was concerned that “the mental sufferings of the criminal during the second occupied by his fall may be very considerable”.

In effect, the humanitarianism of death by hanging – insofar as there is any – is encapsulated in the simple but deadly act of breaking the neck, technically called a cervical fracture.

The first seven vertebrae – vertebrae being the irregular bones that make up the human spine – counting down from the skull are called the cervical vertebrae. In medical parlance, they are numbered C1 through C7.

An animated view of the cervical vertebrae. Photo: Anatomography/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.1

Until 1892, a long-drop of 4-10 feet would typically break the C2, C3, C4 or C5 vertebrae, and often tear the head right off. In 1913, the permissible drop energy was revised to 1,355 joules to prevent this from happening. Based on these and various other adjustments, there arose a desirable form of fracture, known popularly as the ‘hangman’s fracture’. It happens when the C2 vertebra is broken at two specific points and when it is dislocated into the C3 vertebra enough to damage the spinal cord.

A hangman’s fracture results bybreaking the C2 vertebra at two specific locations. Photo: Michael Utz, Shadab Khan, Daniel O’Connor and Stephen Meyers/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0

To achieve this for every hanging, executioners were able to determine that the knot of the noose should be placed below the chin, a.k.a. a submental knot. The positioning also gave rise to the phrase “hanged by the neck” – that is, to have the neck bear the body’s load in order to transfer forces to the C2 and C3 vertebrae – instead of just “hanged”. Should the knot be located such that the drop doesn’t immediately cause a cervical fracture, the person could die a slower and more painful death by strangulation, which is obviously considered less humane.

Other common modes of the capital punishment include beheading (most infamously by Saudi Arabia), electrocution, lethal injection (of a sequence of drugs that induces unconsciousness followed by paralysis of the respiratory muscles and cardiac arrest), shooting, stoning and being forced to breathe an inert gas instead of oxygen.

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