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Death by Hanging

The Dead Man's Rope


Although death by hanging is a very old form of punishment, it evokes cultural memories of Southern lynchings and Wild West "frontier justice."
Hanging of Ketchum

Notorious train robber Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum is prepared for the gallows on April 26th, 1901. Due to human error, the rope would be too long--allowing his body to fall too quickly during the drop, decapitating him.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
History: Hanging is one of the most ancient forms of execution. The Book of Esther, for example, centers on the hanging of the genocidal traitor Haman, and British and U.S. law have always incorporated death by hanging. Although most states have abolished this practice, New Hampshire and Washington still allow prisoners to choose this option. The most recent legal U.S. hanging took place in 1996.

Unsavory Overtones: Over the past century, hanging has become nearly synonymous with the lynchings of African Americans in the American South, and of Hispanics in the Midwest and California.

How It Works: The prisoner stands on trapdoor, and a rope descends from a wooden beam overhead. The rope is fastened around the prisoner's neck in a "Hangman's noose," which tightens when pulled upon. The executioner pulls a lever opening the trapdoor and dropping the prisoner, who ideally dies quickly due to a broken neck.

Complications: The length of the rope must be carefully calibrated in proportion to the prisoner's weight. If the rope is too short, insufficient velocity is generated to break the prisoner's neck and the prisoner is painfully strangled to death. If the rope is too long, excessive velocity is generated and decapitation may result. Even if the rope is of exactly the right length, a prisoner with an exceptionally large or strong neck may suffer strangulation rather than immediate death.
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