How Does Death by Hanging Work?

conspirators in Lincoln assassination hanged
The conspirators in the plot to kill President Lincoln hang from the gallows in the yard of the Old Penitentiary at the Washington Arsenal, Washington, D.C., July 7, 1865. Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In the final days of 2006, former Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein was hanged for the 1982 murders of 148 people in Dujail, Iraq. While capital punishment is still on the books in many countries around the world, death by hanging has in many cases been replaced by more sterile killing methods like lethal injection, which some believe to be a more humane form of execution. Many people might be surprised to learn that hanging, when carried out with modern techniques, can be one of the quickest and most painless ways to be executed.

The modern method of judicial hanging is called the long drop. This is the method that Iraqi officials used to execute Saddam Hussein. In the long drop, those planning the execution calculate the drop distance required to break the subject’s neck based on his or her weight, height and build. The less the person weighs, the longer the drop needs to be.

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The goal of the long drop is to get the body moving quickly enough after the trap door opens to produce between 1,000 and 1,250 foot-pounds of torque on the neck when the noose jerks tight. This distance can be anywhere from 5 to 9 feet (1.5 to 2.7 meters). With the knot of the noose placed at the left side of the subject’s neck, under the jaw, the jolt to the neck at the end of the drop is enough to break or dislocate a neck bone called the axis, which in turn should sever the person’s spinal cord. In some cases, the hangman jerks up on the rope at the precise moment when the drop is ending in order to facilitate the breakage.

The idea of a ‘humane hanging” was developed by an Irish mathematician and doctor named Samuel Haughton. He calculated how far the prisoner would have to fall and then be brought up by a jerk on the rope so they would be killed quickly and relatively painlessly. Haughton published his findings in 1866.

In 2020, 55 countries still had the death penalty, according to Amnesty International. But the vast majority of executions took place in just five countries: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Iran is the leader in hanging people, but Bangladesh, Botswana, Egypt, India, Iraq, South Sudan and Syria also hung people in 2020. In addition, hanging is a form of execution in Afghanistan, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, Nigeria, Palestinian Authority and Sudan.

In the United States, judicial hanging is legal in both Washington state and Delaware, and three prisoners have been hanged since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976, the last in 1996. We’ll explain how an “ideal hanging” or a long drop works, and what happens with a “short drop.”

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