The neck breaker


Hanging was the virtually universal method of execution in America up to the 1890's. It was the only form of execution allowed under the original constitution. It became progressively less commonly used through the 20th century, as states adopted the electric chair or the gas chamber, as supposedly more humane alternatives to it. Utah offered execution by firing squad as an alternative and most prisoners chose it.

Approximately 13,350 people have been executed by judicial hanging from 1622 to the present day, most being hanged in public and usually drawing a large crowd of people to watch. Many of these executions are detailed in the Watt Epsy files and the majority were for murder, although 487 men were hanged for rape in 23 states between 1800 and 1960. Up to the end of the nineteenth century hangings were mostly local events and not always fully recorded. Hanging often led to a slow and cruel death as the prisoner strangled on the rope and this led to invention of the electric chair in 1891 (which became the most widely used method in the 20th century, being inflicted, at its peak by 27 states, and from 1921 the gas chamber which was adopted in 11 states). Hanging remains a lawful option (to lethal injection) in both Washington and Delaware although whether any of the prisoners on their death rows will choose it, remains to be seen. The first recorded hanging was that Daniell Frank in Virginia on March 1st 1622 for cattle stealing. The first hanging for murder took place in Plymouth Massachusetts on September 30th 1630. John Billington who had come to America on the Mayflower was executed for shooting another settler with a blunderbuss. The earliest recorded female hanging was that of Jane Champion in 1632 in Virginia for an unknown offense. Margaret Hatch was hanged on June 24th 1633 for murder and on December 6th 1638, Dorothy Talby was hanged in Salem Massachusetts for the murder of her 3 year old daughter, Difficulty. The youngest person hanged in America was Hannah Ocuish who was 12 years and nine months old and was described as a half breed Indian girl. She was executed on December 20th 1786 for the murder of a 6 year old girl whom she had beaten to death after an earlier argument. The last hangings, prior to suspension of the death penalty, took place at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, on June 22nd, 1965, when George Ronald York and James Douglas Latham were executed for the murders of 7 people in a violent rampage while they were serving in the army. Two months earlier, on April 14th, the killers of the Clutter family, Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock were hanged in the same prison and their case became famous in Truman Capote's book "In Cold Blood" which was also made into a film. The gallows (see photo) in the Kansas State Penitentiary stood in the corner of a general warehouse just outside the prison walls and was always referred to as "the corner". It was used for 15 state executions and four military hangings between 1944 and 1965. Since the resumption of executions in 1977, only two states still allow hanging, these being Washington which has carried out two (Charles Campbell & Westley Allan Dodd - see below) & Delaware with one (Billy Bailey). Montana did allow for hanging but none were carried out and it now only allows lethal injection. Washington & Delaware both now offer the choice of lethal injection, so it unlikely that hanging will continue to be used in the 21st century.

Execution protocols.

The drop!
Protocols varied widely depending on the state or county in which the hanging took place. In many counties, during the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, the county sheriff officiated as the hangman but was seldom good at it as he carried out so few executions. This led to a lot of bungled hangings.
Four methods of judicial hanging have been used in America:

The Short drop.

Up to the 1850's most hangings were carried out little or no drop - often just 1 - 2 feet, the prisoner being hanged from a tree after being turned off the back of a cart, ladder or horse. This normally resulted in death by either strangulation or Carotid or Vagal reflex (pressure on the Carotid artery and or Vagal nerve which cause very rapid unconsciousness and cardiac arrest.

Standard drop.

A standard drop of around 4 - 5 feet was used in many hangings during the later part of the 19th century and into the early 20th century. A drop of this distance was rarely sufficient to break the prisoner's neck and they died by strangulation although in a lot of cases were knocked unconscious by the force of the drop and the impact of the knot against the side of the neck. A standard drop of 5 feet was used for the Lincoln conspirators (see below) despite significant weight variations.

Long drop.

This was copied from England and was used in the 20th century by some states. It involved dropping the prisoner an exact measured length which was calculated according to their weight and modified if required to take account of their physique. The force of the drop combined with the position of the knot below their left ear was designed to break the prisoner's neck and thus cause instant unconsciousness, followed rapidly by death. The US Army manual gives a table of drops and this was used for the three post 1977 hangings. The prisoner is weighed prior to execution and their weight in pounds (less an allowance of 14 pounds for the head) divided into 1020 to arrive at a drop in feet.

Sudden suspension

Instead of the conventional gallows that dropped the prisoner through a trap door, some states used a method where weights connected to the rope jerked prisoner upwards when the weights were released by the hangman. This method was used in 1874, for the hanging of William E. Udderzook in West Chester, Pennsylvania and also for Charles Thiede in Utah in 1896. Connecticut used a similar arrangement for the execution of Gerald Chapman at Weathersfield on April 26th 1926. A weight was connected to the rope and this was released by the warden operating a lever with his foot. Chapman was hoisted 12 feet into the air and his neck was broken by the force of this. This gallows had been modified for Chapman's hanging. From 1894 it had been operated by buckshot which was released by the weight of the prisoner standing on the trap. The shot ran down a chute until there was sufficient weight of shot to trigger the mechanism which then released the weight and shot the prisoner 6 feet into the air.

Public hangings.

Public executions were normal up to 1834 when Pennsylvania became the first state to move them out of the public gaze. The following year New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts did the same. They continued on in some states up to the late 1930's and always drew a large crowd. The last public hanging was that of Rainey Bathea, at Owensboro Kentucky on the morning of August 14th 1936 for the murder and rape of a seventy year old white woman. This was to be the last truly public hanging in America, however at least five more men were to die in virtual public over the next three years. Roscoe "Red" Jackson was hanged at Galena Missouri at 6.00 a.m. on May 26th, 1937 for a murder he had committed three years earlier. 2000 people came to watch. He had killed Pearl Bozarth who was a travelling salesman from Indiana, in August 1934. Bozarth had picked up Jackson as a hitch hiker. Fred Adams went to the gallows set up inside a 10-foot wooden stockade, on April 2nd 1937 in Kennett, Dunklin County, Missouri also for murder, 1000 people turned up to watch. After this Missouri turned to the gas chamber for future executions - a method that doesn't really lend itself to being carried out in public! There were a further two semi public hangings in Kentucky within wooden stockades, those of John "Peter" Montjoy at Covington on December 17th, 1937, and that of Harold Van Venison at Covington on June 3rd, 1938. An estimated 400 witnesses were present for the hanging of Lee Simpson in Ryegate, Montana, on December 30, 1939.


Around 505 women have been hanged in America including 6 in the 20th century, the last being Mary Homes in Mississippi on April 19th 1937 for the murder of her employer. Her co-accused Selmon Brooks was hanged shortly afterwards. Most of these executions were for murder although a few were for other crimes such a witchcraft and adultery. 13 women were hanged at Salem Mass. in 1692 after the infamous witch trials there and hanging was the normal form of execution for women up to the beginning of the 20th century. Mary Ann Surratt is the only woman to have been hanged under Federal law for her part in the assassination of President Lincoln (see below).

Multiple hangings.

Multiple hangings were not unusual in 19th century America. Here are a few examples:


The Honorable Isaac C. Parker presided over a staggering 13,490 cases in the 21 years, from 1875, that he meted out justice at Fort Smith, Arkansas. He sentenced 160 men to death and seventy nine of them were hanged. The first group of prisoners to hang, on September 3rd 1875, comprised 3 white men, 2 Indians, and one black man all of whom had been convicted of murder. Eight men had originally been sentenced to death but one was shot while trying to escape and a second had his sentence commuted to life in prison because of his youth. The hanging attracted huge media coverage for its day. Reporters came from Little Rock, St. Louis and Kansas City. Many of the large Eastern and Northern daily newspapers also sent reporters to cover the event. More than 5,000 people had turned out to watch the prisoners march from the jail to the gallows. They were seated together on a bench along the back of the gallows and had their death warrants read to them. Each was asked if he had any last words. They were then lined up on the trap and George Maledon, the hangman, adjusted the nooses around their necks and drew the black hoods over their heads. At the signal from Judge Parker, Maledon pulled the lever to release the trap through which they now plunged. He took great care in his work and his prisoners usually died of a broken neck rather than by strangulation. Maledon also carried out another 6 man hanging later in his career.

The Lincoln conspirators.

President Abraham Lincoln was shot and fatally wounded on April 14th, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth. Booth himself was also shot but his co-conspirators were quickly rounded up and tried by a military court. Mary Ann Surratt, George Atzerodt, David Herold and Lewis Paine were sentenced to hang for their alleged part in the assassination. The death sentences were confirmed by the President on July 5th and the execution was set for 1.00 p.m. on July 7th 1865. A large gallows had been built specially in the yard of the Washington Arsenal prison, it had two traps and two ropes were suspended above each. (See photo) The prisoners were led out and seated on chairs while they were prepared, with Mrs. Surratt being left to last. Captain Christian Rath, who was officiating as hangman, put the nooses around the prisoner's necks and drew white canvas hoods over their' heads. His assistants bound their arms and legs with white cloth strips. From left to right on the gallows were Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold and George Atzerodt. At 1.21 p.m. Rath signaled to the people on the platform to stand away from the traps. He then clapped his hands three times. At the final clap, four soldiers knocked away the supporting planks and the traps fell, dropping the prisoners 5 feet. After the hanging Rath commented "They bounded up again like a ball attached to a rubber band then they settled down''. Army surgeons certified them all dead some 25 minutes later. It was probably the first time an execution was ever photographed as the technology had only recently been perfected. Due to the slow exposure of the photographic plates used at the time the images of Powell and Atzerodt appear slightly blurred in the first photographs taken after the traps fell as their bodies struggled for a few moments. Mary Ann Surratt thus became the first woman to be executed by the under Federal law for a crime few believe she committed. The last hanging under Federal jurisdiction was that of 27 year old Victor Harry Feguer at the Fort Madison prison in Iowa on March 15th 1963 for the murder of Dr. Edward Bartels.

The Haymarket bombing.

On November 11th 1887 four anarchists were hanged in Chicago for throwing a bomb at the police who were trying to control a demonstration in a public square on May 4th of that year. 7 policeman and 4 demonstrators died and many more were injured. 8 of the anarchists were subsequently arrested and charged with murder. Seven of the eight were sentenced to hang, although subsequently two had their sentences commuted to life in prison and one committed suicide while awaiting execution. The remaining four, August Spies, Albert Parsons, George Engel and Adolph Fischer were hanged at noon in front of an audience of some two hundred people, including many journalists, despite many petitions for clemency. The gallows was erected between the first and second floor balconies of the prison, spanning the whole width between the wall and the balconies with a 25 foot beam over a fifteen feet long x five feet wide trap. Four ropes with British style running nooses were suspended from metal rings on the beam. (See photo) At 11.45 a.m. Chief Deputy Cahill ordered the witnesses to remove their hats and a few moments later the condemned men were led in one at a time. Each was dressed in a white shroud and had his hands pinioned behind him. The nooses were placed around their necks and the white hoods pulled over their heads. According to the Chicago Tribune "For a moment or two the men stood like ghosts". Spies said something that was inaudible but Fischer shouted "Long live anarchy" as did Engel. Parsons began to speak but all were silenced by the crash of the falling trap, released from a booth behind the gallows. They fell four feet and twisted and writhed at the ends of their ropes. The bodies were examined by doctors and one by one they were declared dead, Fischer taking the longest at 7 minutes and 45 seconds. Many prominent people were concerned about the justice of their convictions and executions. The largest multiple hanging in American history occurred on December 26th 1862 when 38 Sioux Indians were hanged simultaneously near Mankato in Minnesota for slaughtering hundreds of men, women and children.

The Gallows.

Many different patterns of gallows have been used over the last 400 years. In some cases they were built specially for one execution and never used again. A tree was the earliest form of gallows, with prisoner being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from a ladder, horse or the back a cart. The cart method was used for the hanging of the Salem witches in Massachusetts in 1691. In many states the gallows consisted of two stout uprights about 18 - 20 feet high joined at the top by a beam, often cross braced to them. At about 10 feet from the ground was the platform, reached by steps and with the trap set into the middle of it. Single leaf traps were the most common and were released by a variety of mechanisms usually operated by a lever on the top of the platform or by cords. Normally there was a catch to stop the trap door bouncing back and hitting the prisoner. In some cases sand bags were connected to the door for this purpose. The photograph of the Sierra County gallows is typical of its period (1885). The operating lever and mechanism being clearly visible. See photo) As well as the conventional gallows that dropped the prisoner through a trap door, some states used a gallows where weights connected to the rope, released by cutting a cord, jerked the prisoner upwards instead of dropping them. This form was used in 1874 for the hanging of William E. Udderzook and Charles Thiede described above. Idaho used a similar system to the Connecticut one, but operated by water rather than shot. However it was only used twice and then abandoned due to the possibility of the water freezing in winter executions. The modern gallows in Washington's Walla Walla prison looks most unlike the traditionally imagined style being of the balcony pattern. The rope(s) is tied to one of two large iron eye bolts set into the ceiling and with the free end tied off to a wall mounted metal bracket which takes the force of the drop. On the floor of the balcony there are two single leaf trap doors, each released by an electromagnetic mechanism, operated by a member of the execution team pressing a red button.

The Noose.

The coiled noose was used in most states up to abolition of hanging. It is normally formed from Manila hemp rope and has from five to thirteen coils which slide down the rope delivering a heavy blow to the side of the neck, hopefully rendering the prisoner unconscious. The modern noose is prepared in accordance with a procedure laid down in a US army manual, from 30 feet of 3/4" - 1" diameter rope, boiled to take out stretch and any tendency to coil. It is formed into six coils and then waxed, soaped or greased to ensure that the knot slides easily. (See photo). The knot is normally placed beneath the prisoner's left ear and the noose drawn fairly tight. It was realized that it was necessary to take out the stretch from the rope to prevent the prisoner bouncing up again in the trap, as often happened in earlier times. In some states this was done by dropping a bag of sand of approximately the same weight as the prisoner and then leaving it suspended for some hours prior to the execution.

The Hood.

It became normal in later times to hood the prisoner on the gallows. The hood was either white, or more commonly black, in 19th/20th centuries and served to prevent the prisoner seeing the hangman pulling the lever and moving at the crucial moment and also to prevent the witnesses seeing the prisoner's face afterwards. This tended not to be a pretty site where they had died by strangulation. Some states used a long hood which extended well down onto the prisoner's chest while others used a short one which just covered the face. It was normal to put the noose on after the hood so that the material of the hood reduced rope burn.


Again this varied from place to place, although in most cases the prisoners hands were tied either in front of them or behind their backs using cord, leather straps or handcuffs. In more recent times the prisoner's ankles were strapped to prevent them bridging the trap with their legs. The Lincoln conspiratorís legs and arms were bound with cloth - clearly visible in the photos. Some states, e.g. Kansas, used a leather harness to pinion the arms and prevent movement.


America had few "professional" hangmen, most hangings being carried out by the Sheriff of the County in which the person was sentenced. Perhaps the most notable hangman was George Maledon who was Judge Parker's hangman at Fort Smith and hanged at least 60 men on the 12 man gallows there over his 20 year term of office. He used thirteen coil nooses made from high quality hemp, specially made for him in St. Louis. He was very particular in oiling the rope to ensure it ran freely and tested each rope with a sandbag to remove the stretch from it. His normal drop was 8 feet which almost always resulted in the prisoner' neck being broken. As he said, "I never hanged a man who came back to have the job done over". He received the very high fee of $100 per hanging. For more information on Judge Parker and a picture of the Fort Smith gallows visit In other places the hangman could be the warden of the prison or a volunteer from the prison guards. In some states the warden would pull the lever. In others (such as Utah) three unnamed prison guards would, on a signal from the warden, simultaneously cut three strings, one of which would release the trap. Nobody would thus know who had actually sprung the trap. In most cases the identity of the hangman was a closely guarded secret. One American hangman did however, go on to become President. Grover Cleveland was Sheriff of Erie in the 1870's and hanged 28 year old Peter Morrissey on September 6th 1872 for murder. A few months later on February 14th 1873, he officiated at the hanging of another murderer - Jack Gaffney. Cleveland was elected President of the United States in 1884. George Phillip Hanna (1873 - 1948), supervised some 70 Southern hangings in the period from 1915 to 1937. He carried out one of the USA's last public executions, that of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Kentucky on Aug. 14, 1936 and was the executioner in several neighboring states. He never sprang the trap himself, however, leaving this up to the local sheriff or their nominee. His role was to prepare the equipment and on the day prepare the prisoner. He never accepted payment for his executions either. Master Sergeant John C. Woods was probably America's most prolific hangman, being employed as the US military executioner and also responsible for the hanging of 10 of the leading Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in Germany in October 1946. Woods is reputed to have carried out a staggering total of 358 executions, although around 200 seems a more probable figure.

Modern hangings.

Westley Alan Dodd, became the first man to be hanged in America for 28 years, when he went to the gallows in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla, for triple child murder, on January 5th 1993. Dodd had chosen to be hanged and had fought a strenuous battle against the anti-capital punishment lobby to be allowed to die. According to eye witness accounts Dodd appeared at the top window of the execution room at 12.02 a.m., with his hands pinioned in front of him by a strap around his wrists and wearing an orange, boiler suit style, prison uniform. He was asked if he wished to say anything and made a short speech to the witnesses through a public address system in which he told of finding Jesus and peace. At 12.04 a.m. a blind was then drawn down over the top window. Against it, the witnesses saw the silhouettes of one of the executioners strapping Dodd's legs and placing the black hood over his head, while the other put the six coil noose around his neck, adjusting it tight under the left ear. At 12.05 a.m., a red button was pushed, operating the electromagnetic release mechanism, so releasing the trap-door on which Dodd stood. He dropped seven feet into the room below and his hooded body spun slowly anti-clockwise at the end of the rope. A press witness reported the hanging as follows - "I will never forget the bang of the trap-door and the sight of his body plunging through it". Another observer reported: "It (the body) appeared lifeless from the moment it fell into view. There was no dancing at the end of the rope, no gruesome display". "There was no violent movement or noticeable twitching", another reporter confirmed. Although some of the witnesses thought they detected an almost imperceptible movement in the body's abdomen as Dodd dangled before them, most put this down to involuntary muscle contractions and agreed he could not have been conscious at the time. At 12.06 a.m. a curtain was then drawn across the lower window and at 12.09, Dodd's death was confirmed by a physician. (This occurring when there are no vital signs present at all and that the prisoner is therefore clinically dead). The Washington execution protocol is detailed in a 12 page manual issued by the Department of Corrections with extracts from the American Military Manual. The traditional hangman's' noose having six coils of 3/4 inch diameter hemp rope is used and runs through a large metal eye in the ceiling of the execution room, over the trap. The prisoner stands on a small rectangular area marked out on the trap which when released causes him to drop into the room below. There are windows for the witnesses to view the execution in both upper and lower rooms. The autopsy, carried out by Donald Reay, King County medical examiner, was published and reported that Dodd died from separation of his cervical vertebrae and strangulation but that no bones were broken, contrary to Reay's prediction. Dodd probably suffered pain for no more than a moment and died within two to three minutes, Reay said. The second hanging in Washington was that of Charles Rodman Campbell on May 27th 1994. Campbell had been convicted of killing 3 women, Renae Wicklund, her neighbor Barbara and Renae's nine year old daughter. Campbell committed these murders while serving a prison sentence for the sexual assault of Renae Wicklund. At the time of the murders he was on work release. Campbell was unable to stand in the execution chamber so his legs were strapped to a collapse board (visible in the photo of the Walla Walla gallows) to keep him upright on the trap. Billy Bailey is the only other person to have been hanged since 1977 - he was executed in Delaware on January 25th 1996.

How hanging causes death.

Hanging with no or insufficient drop typically produces death by strangulation (asphyxia) due to the weight of the person's body pulling down on the noose, causing it to tighten and constrict the trachea (air passage) and applying pressure to the large blood vessels in the neck. The condemned person usually struggles for some time after suspension, due to the physical pain caused by the noose. It can take up to 3 minutes for the person to lapse into unconsciousness in this form of hanging, as the rope occludes the jugular veins and carotid arteries but the vertebrae protect the vertebral and spinal arteries which also supply blood to the brain. However these arteries go outside the fourth vertebrae instead of inside it, which subjects them to blockage if the pressure on the neck is high enough (usually about 40-50 lbs. for a normal person) and this can cause the loss of consciousness in less than 15 seconds. Death can also come from sudden stoppage of the heart due to pressure on the carotid arteries which can cause a lethal carotid sinus reflex or from Vagal reflex (pressure on the Vagal nerve) which causes unconsciousness very quickly. This form of hanging is typical in suicides and it quite normal for the inquest to find that the victim died from heart failure rather than strangulation. After suspension the face may become engorged and cyanosed (turned blue through lack of oxygen). The tongue may protrude and rippling movements of the body and limbs may occur which are usually attributed to nervous and muscular reflexes. There exist many pictures of actual hangings, both judicial and suicide, which seem to show that the person died quickly and quite peacefully. In death, the body typically shows marks of suspension, e.g. bruising and rope marks on the neck and in some cases traces of urine, semen and feces. Male prisoners sometimes have penile erections and even ejaculate while hanging. This form of asphyxial death is known, medically as anoxia as the brain becomes starved of oxygen. Whole body death results usually within less than twenty minutes.
Where a measured drop is used, it takes between a quarter and a third of a second for a person to reach the end of the rope after the trap opens. The force produced by the prisoner's body weight multiplied by the length of fall and the force of gravity, coupled with the position of the knot is designed to cause a virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death by comatose asphyxia. Typically brain death will occur in around 3 - 6 minutes and whole body death within 5 - 15 minutes. The cause of death is still asphyxia but the condemned person is deeply unconscious at the time due to dislocation of the cervical vertebrae and the crushing or separation of the spinal cord. The face may come engorged and then cyanosed and the tongue may protrude. Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur and are attributed to spinal reflexes. The prisoner may urinate and/or defecate as their muscles relax. The heart can continue to beat for as long as 25 minutes after the drop.

Does the prisoner feel pain after the drop?

Obviously no one can be sure but it is generally held that if they do feel pain, it is only during the instant that their neck is broken. The witnessed hangings of Westley Allan Dodd (see above) in Washington and Billy Bailey in Delaware did not indicate any obvious signs of conscious suffering. It is probable that many people black out as they fall through the trap and are already unconscious before they reach the end of the drop. However, according to Harold Hillman, a British physiologist who has studied executions, "the dangling person probably feels cervical pain, and suffers from an acute headache, as a result of the rope closing off the veins of the neck. It had been generally assumed that fracture-dislocation of the neck causes instantaneous loss of sensation. Sensory pathways from below the neck are ruptured, but the sensory signals from the skin above the noose and from the trigeminal nerve may continue to reach the brain until hypoxia blocks them". In the opinion of Dr. Cornelius Rosse, the chairman of the Department of Anatomy at the University of Washington School of Medicine, the belief that fracture of the spinal cord causes instantaneous death is wrong in all but a small fraction of cases.

Botched hangings

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