In medical (orthopaedic) literature the ‘Hangman’s Fracture‘ is a displaced bony injury through the pedicle (posterior bony arch) of the second cervical (neck) vertebra, caused by a sudden and forceful extension (arching the neck backwards) injury.
In today’s world, this injury is most often seen as a result of a motor vehicle accident but in the world of ‘judicial execution‘, a ‘hangman’s fracture’ is the ‘ideal lesion’. It is the bony injury that is witness to the associated spinal cord lesion, causing death by paralysis rather than by strangulation. The topic of execution is distasteful for most people but formal killing of one’s own human species has a long history and there is a certain degree of ‘science’ behind any method of ending a life and the science of a ‘proper’ hanging has been one method that has been looked at quite closely. Although the rope around the neck could be a simple loop or noose, the more effective device was the hangman’s knot.
Traditionally, a true hangman’s knot contained thirteen (there is that number again -see blog: Fun with Numbers) coils of rope (the more coils, the less easily the knot could be tightened or loosened) with the knot placed under the chin or towards the left ear. The point with this snug loop was that with the downward force of the body drop, the neck would be forced backwards resulting in the hangman’s fracture and rapid death. But how far does the victim have to fall? Here’s the ‘science’. A number of different methods have been described depending on the era and ‘expertise’ of the executioner.
Suspension hanging is, as the name suggests, simply a hanging of the victim by a rope around the neck which compresses windpipe and blood vessels, depriving the brain of oxygen and nutrition – death ensues…usually not very quickly.
The short drop is a practical, ‘wild west’ type of execution where the prisoner, with noose around the neck, is stood on a cart or chair which is subsequently removed. The victim dangles and dies of suffocation within 10-20 minutes. A variant of this is the Austro-Hungarian pole method where the prisoner is hoisted to the top of a pole by his chest and feet then ‘let loose’ with a rope around the neck.
The standard drop was instituted in England in 1866, where the ‘standard’ was 4 to 6 feet of fall, usually, but not always, resulting in the bony injury of the hangman’s fracture and rapid death.
The long (or measured) drop was brought into practice in Britain in 1872 based on calculations of the prisoner’s height and weight to determine how far a fall was needed to break the neck but not cause decapitation (more disturbing to the on-lookers than watching the victim die from strangulation). The position of the knot was important and became part of the ‘science’ in judicial hangings. Taking weight and height into account, the calculation was aimed at applying between 1000 and 1300 pound-feet of force (4400-5600 newtons) to the neck.
Despite this ‘science’, hangings did not always turn out as planned. Sometimes the victim died slowly (and obviously painfully) from strangulation or the force to the neck was such that the head was torn off (the end result (death) was the same but nobody liked the mess). Generally, suicide by hanging is of the suspension type, resulting in a slow death by strangulation.
Whenever a judicial hanging was carried out, there was always one man who was in charge – the hangman. Not always well-versed (especially before the 1800s) in the science of hanging, the hangman did not always succeed at achieving a successful execution
Perhaps the most famous executioner/hangman was Jack (John) Ketch, executioner for King Charles II of England from 1663 to 1686, although the dates as to when he started and ended his career are not entirely clear (he died in November of 1686). Ketch carried out execution by hanging and probably more frequently by beheading and became infamous for his ‘less than perfect’ slice of the axe that often required more than one hit to severe the head off his victim.
Discover novels by Robin C. Rickards at Smashwords.com for download onto any e-reader and at Amazon Kindle:
The Judas Kiss
The Organ Donors
Whip the Dogs
The Tao of the Thirteenth God
- India’s last hangman: An executioner’s tale (economist.com)
Next week, we’ll get to know JD Mader, an awesome crime fiction author with a mean streak.