How Does Death by Hanging Work?

By: Julia Layton & Alia Hoyt  | 

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 While capital punishment is still on the books in many countries around the world, death by hanging has in many cases been replaced by more sterile killing methods like lethal injection, which some believe to be a more humane form of execution.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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How Hanging Kills the Victim

platform and gallows at Newgate Prison
The platform and gallows at Newgate Prison, Old Bailey, City of London, 1783. This was the first gallows to have a trapdoor. Guildhall Library & Art Gallery/Heritage Images/Getty Images

During an "ideal long drop," the prisoner's neck breaks and spine severs, blood pressure drops down to nothing in about a second, and the subject loses consciousness. Brain death then takes several minutes to occur, and complete death can take more than 15 or 20 minutes, but the person at the end of the rope most likely can't feel or experience any of it. In a less-than-ideal long drop, if the distance is miscalculated or some other factor misses the mark, the subject will die of decapitation (if the drop is too long) or of strangulation (if the drop is too short or the noose knot isn't in the correct position).

Strangulation can take several minutes and is a far more excruciating experience. The carotid arteries in the neck, which supply blood to the brain, are compressed, and the brain swells so much it ends up plugging the top of the spinal column; the Vagal nerve is pinched, leading to something called the Vagal reflex, which stops the heart; and the lack of oxygen getting to the lungs due to compression of the trachea eventually causes loss of consciousness due to suffocation. Death then follows in the same pattern as it does when the neck breaks, with the entire process ending in anywhere from five to 20 minutes.

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For the person being executed, the actual experience of the hanging lasts anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes — or at least that's the general belief by forensic scientists. In some countries where executions are carried out by hanging, though, other methods are used. In the short drop, which can be a few inches to a few feet, the subject invariably dies of strangulation and/or the compression of the arteries in the neck. The same type of death occurs in suspension hanging, in which the subject is jerked into the air instead of being dropped. And in a standard-drop hanging, the subject falls about 5 feet (4.5 meters).

Depending on the weight and build of the subject, this drop will either break the neck and spinal cord or cause death by strangulation, carotid-artery compression or Vagal reflex. In these older methods, unconsciousness still typically occurs in anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but if it turns out to be a few seconds, it's blind luck (or bad luck, depending on how the country's legal system views the practice — if the point of the hanging is severe punishment for the subject and deterrence to other would-be criminals, a "good hang" may be the most gruesome experience possible).

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Suicide by Hanging

Suicide by hanging is bizarrely popular considering how much potential there is for agonizing pain. We've already discussed how long drop hangings are designed to minimize drawn-out suffering and potential complications. By comparison, short drop hangings (as are typically done in suicides) usually cause the much slower and vastly more painful strangulation death, rather than a quick neck break.

Suicide by hanging is commonly classified as "suffocation," but hanging makes up the majority of such deaths. It is second in the U.S. (28.3 percent) only to suicide by firearm (50 percent), according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. Hanging is classified as a particularly lethal method of suicide, as it's more likely to actually result in death than other methods. By contrast, drug poisoning is more common among "attempters," rather than "completers."

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According to a study out of Korea, although drug poisoning was the most common way to attempt suicide, hanging was the most "successful" method, as 52.2 percent of completers used this method. Only 1 percent of completers used drugs. This unfortunate success is probably causing the increased rates of suicide by hanging. In 2001, "only" 31.4 percent of suicides were by hanging, compared with 50.5 percent in 2012, according to the Korean study.

In the U.S., there was a 16 percent increase in suicide between 2000 and 2010, mostly because of the rise in hanging, according to a 2013 study. "Suicide by hanging/suffocation increased by 104% among those aged 45–59 years and rose steadily in all age groups except those aged ≥70 years," the study authors wrote. Death by hanging has also achieved mainstream glamorization thanks to the deaths of beloved celebrities, such as celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, actor/comedian Robin Williams, designer Kate Spade and fashion icon Alexander McQueen. But it remains a painful way to go.

If you're experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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Originally Published: Jan 4, 2007

Lots More Information

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  • Amnesty International. "Death Sentencing and Executions 2020." (Aug. 3, 2021) https://www.amnesty.org/download/Documents/ACT5037602021ENGLISH.PDF
  • Childs, Dan. "Death By Hanging: What Saddam Faced." ABC News. Dec. 29, 2006.http://abcnews.go.com/Health/story?id=2759048&page=1&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312
  • "The process of judicial hanging." Capital Punishment U.K. (Aug. 3, 2021) http://www.richard.clark32.btinternet.co.uk/hanging2.html
  • Lynch, Peter. "The Irishman who brought the humane drop to hanging." The Irish Times (Aug. 3, 2021) https://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/the-irishman-who-brought-the-humane-drop-to-hanging-1.4170401
  • Stuttaford, Thomas. "Swift end rests with skill of the hangman." The Times Online. Jan. 1, 2007.http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3-2526006,00.html

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