The sentence of death
the death sentence was mandatory for people found guilty of murder up to 1957 and of capital murder from 1957 - 1964.
Before they were sentenced, the prisoner would be asked if they had anything to say why sentence of death should not be pronounced
upon them. Occasionally a woman would "plead her belly" i.e. that she was pregnant, and up to 1827 men could demand
"benefit of clergy" which was a wonderful excuse cooked up by the church to ensure that clerics could not be executed
for most offences. However if neither of these excuses were available the judge (or his chaplain) would place the "black
cap" - a 9 inch square of black silk, on his head and proceed to pronounce sentence.
The Murder Act of 1752 specified that execution take place two days after sentence, unless the third day was a Sunday
in which case it would be held over until the Monday. From 1834, a minimum of three Sundays had to elapse before the sentence
was carried out. From 1902 this was reinforced and the Home Office suggested Tuesday as the day for execution. In some cases
20th century prisoners spent longer in the condemned cell due awaiting the hearing of an appeal, but many condemned chose
not to appeal and their execution was frequently carried out within the 3 weeks.
a tree was the earliest form of gallows with prisoner being either hauled up manually by the hangman or turned off from
a ladder or the tail of a cart. There are still some hanging trees in existence.
Two trees with a beam between them formed the gallows for 33 year old Mary Blandy's execution at Oxford on April the 6th
1752 when she uttered the famous words "for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don't hang me high". She had been persuaded
to poison her father by her lover, Captain Cranston, who presumably hoped to get her inheritance. He is thought to have escaped
In other places more conventional gallows were built, having either a single upright with a projecting beam cross braced
to it or two uprights and a cross beam where more than one person could be hanged at a time. Both types still required the
use of a ladder or a cart to get the criminal suspended. In many cases these gallows were not permanent and were dismantled
after each execution. In some cases the gallows was erected near to the scene of the crime so that the local inhabitants could
see the outcome.
The first executions on Newgate's "New Drop" took place on the 9th December 1783, when 9 men and a woman were
hanged simultaneously by Edward Dennis and William Brunskill for a variety of offences.
The design of the new gallows was based upon the one used to execute the Earl of Ferrers at Tyburn in 1760. It was on
wheels and was brought out especially for each hanging by a team of horses. It had two parallel beams from which a maximum
of a dozen criminals could be hanged at once. The prisoners stood on a platform, 10 feet long by 8 feet wide, released by
moving a lever or "pin" acting on a drawbar under the drop. They now fell some 12 - 18 inches, roughly to knee level.
The "New Drop" had 96 customers between February and December of 1785, with 20 men being hanged on the 2nd of February
of that year. All of the prisoners were under 30 and not one was convicted of murder.
early executioners used a simple noose, consisting of a loop worked into one end of the rope with the other end passed
This was improved on by James Berry in the 1890's by passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet instead of
just a loop of rope, which made it more free running. The execution rope was formed from a 13 foot length of 3/4" diameter
Italian silk hemp rope, bound with Chamois leather to avoid marking the skin, in later years. It was stretched before use,
by dropping a sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner through the trap and leaving it suspended overnight.
This reduced the diameter of the rope to about 5/8 inch. The purpose of this was to reduce any tendency of the rope to stretch
during the actual hanging which would reduce the force applied to the prisoner's neck. Hemp has always been the preferred
material as it is both soft and strong with a smooth surface. Marwood and Berry, having positioned the noose, allowed the
free rope to loop down behind the prisoner's back.
See picture. Noose1
Marwood had an unfortunate incident through this practice, at the hanging of James Burton at Durham in 1883. As Burton
fell through the trap the rope became entangled in his arm thus shortening the intended drop. Marwood had to haul the unfortunate
man back onto the platform to free the entanglement and then pushed Burton back down into the pit where he was left to die
James Billington used a similar rope to Berry but coiled it up and tied it with a piece of pack thread to leave the noose
at chest level to avoid the prisoner being caught up in it or himself tripping over it as at it lay on the trap doors. This
idea was also found to speed up the process and remained in use to the end.
The positioning of the eyelet under the angle of the jaw is very important as it is vital that the head is thrown backwards
by the rope so that the force is transmitted into the neck vertebrae rather than being thrown forward and the force taken
on the throat which tends to cause strangulation. It is also crucial that the noose is put on the right way round so that
it rotates in the correct direction with the eyelet ending up under the jaw.
See picture. Uk3
over the last 300 years it has been customary to hood the prisoner with a white hood. Nobody is entirely sure why white
was the chosen color. In Tyburn and Newgate days the "hood" was an ordinary nightcap rather than a purpose made
execution hood, and as these were generally white, presumably this became the traditional color. It would seem that the nightcap
was optional and provided by the prisoner to hide their face from the crowd. When the prisoner had finished praying the hangman
simply pulled it down over their face. In some cases women might chose a bonnet with a veil instead and in other cases the
prisoner possessed or chose neither. From around 1850 a white cotton hood was provided by the authorities, which was similar
to a small pillow case and was applied as part of the execution process. This was included in the execution box sent to county
prisons from Pentonville in the 20th century
Typically the prisoner was hooded only at the last moment before the noose was put round their neck and adjusted. Although
they had been able to see the gallows, the trap, the executioner and officials and the noose dangling before them but this
was found to be better than hooding them earlier and trying to lead them to the gallows as they were more frightened by not
knowing what was happening. Both ideas have been tried but hooding immediately prior to the noose became normal.
In England the prisoner's hands were typically pinioned in front of them until 1892. In the days of public hangings at
Tyburn and Newgate the prisoner's wrists were tied with a cord and often a second cord passed round the body and arms at the
elbows. This was done to allow them to pray on the gallows, however this made it easier for them to resist and fight at the
end so pinioning the wrists at the sides to a leather body belt became normal in the 1850's - an idea invented by Calcraft
and used by Marwood and Berry. Billington introduced the idea of pinioning the prisoner's wrists behind their back using a
double buckle leather strap, and this became the standard method until abolition. It also significantly reduced the time taken
in the pinioning operation.
With the advent of the long drop the prisoner's legs were normally pinioned with a leather strap around the ankles to
prevent them getting their feet onto the sides of the trap when the doors fell. Previously the legs had been left free in
short drop hangings at Tyburn and Newgate, although it was normal to tie the legs of female prisoners to prevent their skirts
billowing up and exposing their underwear!
Where a prisoner was in a state of collapse at the end they were sometimes tied to a chair and both they and the chair
sent through the trap, as happened to 21 year old Jane Scott who was hanged on March 22nd 1828 at Lancaster Castle for the
poisoning of her father and mother. The chair is still on display there.
The Condemned Cell
Here is a drawing of the condemned cell in Newgate prison in the late 1800's. newgatcc.jpg
One can see that it comprises two standard cells knocked into one and has fairly minimal facilities. The average time
a prisoner would have spent here was two to three weeks and they would have been looked after round the clock by teams of
two or three warders.
The drawing of the 20th century condemned cell block at Holloway shows the arrangement of the prisoner's living quarters,
visitor's area and proximity to the gallows.
(See drawing) hollow.jpg
The living area was normally two or three standard cells knocked into one and were usually no more than 15 feet from the
gallows itself. Having the condemned cell on the first floor obviated the need for the pinioned prisoner to climb steps to
the gallows. The wardrobe concealed the door to the execution chamber and was pushed out of the way by a warder at the last
moment. Not all British prisons had the condemned cell in such close proximity to the gallows, however. Oxford for instance
required the prisoner to walk some distance down a corridor to it.
Places of execution.
Prior to 1800 almost anywhere could be used as a place of execution and it was not unknown for the court to order that
the hanging be carried out as near as possible to where the crime was committed, presumably so that "justice could be
seen to be done" by the local people, as there was very little media in those days. However, most executions were carried
out in recognized places, often on market days in the county towns, so as to draw the biggest audience. In London, Tyburn
and Newgate are the most well known execution sites although other places such as Kennington Common (near Camberwell, in what
was then Surrey), Smithfield and Putney Common were also used for public hangings and burnings. Tyburn was first recorded
as a place of execution in 1196 and continued until 1783 when traffic congestion and complaints form nearby residents forced
the move to Newgate. Between the 9th December 1783 and the 13th November 1799, no fewer than 540 men and 20 women were to
die in front of Newgate. A total of 1118 men and 49 women were put to death at Newgate between December 1783 and its closure
in May 1902. Of these, 606 were executed between 1800 and 1902. Between 1800 and 1830, 25 men were hanged at "Execution
Dock" in Wapping (on the north bank of the river Thames), mostly for murder or piracy, after conviction in the High Court
of the Admiralty. Their bodies were left on the shoreline gallows until three tides had washed over them. What the advantage
of this was is unclear - perhaps the water cleansed their souls?
(See picture) wapping.jpg
Outside London, hangings would take place at large open spaces, such as Penenden Heath, near Maidstone in Kent, which
was about a mile from the prison. The same was true in most other towns up to the early 1800's. Executions prior to then were
generally carried out outside the town on a prominent piece of open ground, often at a major cross roads.
From the early 1800's, as the number of executions began to decline, hangings were moved to county prisons and the gallows
was brought out from the prison and erected, when required, in front of it, or on the roof. At Aylesbury the iron balcony
on the upper floor of County Hall was used as there was a suitable open space in front of it, a similar arrangement being
used at Killmainham gaol in Dublin. At the Surrey County Prison in Horsemonger Lane the gallows was erected on the roof above
the main gates, as was also the case at Stafford prior to 1817, when Ann Statham became the last prisoner to be hanged on
top of the Lodge gateway there. 28 year old Ann was to suffer for the murder of her infant daughter, but as she knelt in prayer
on the platform the scaffold gave way. Ann, the chaplain and other officials fell onto the roof below. The scaffold was repaired
to allow the execution to take place, but a new portable gallows was used subsequently.
Most other prisons erected the gallows outside the main gate where it could be easily protected by soldiers and pike-men.
York, Shrewsbury, Maidstone, Hertford and Dorchester, for examples, continued with this until the end of public hangings in
1868. Both Durham and Nottingham executions were carried out on the steps of the neighboring court house.
The processes of judicial hanging
There are four main forms of hanging.
• Short or no drop hanging where the prisoner drops just a few inches, and their suspended body weight and physical
struggling causes the noose to tighten, normally resulting in death by strangulation or carotid or Vagal reflex.
• Suspension hanging where the executee is lifted into the air using a crane or other mechanism. Death is caused
in the same way as with short drop hanging in modern suspension hangings, although America used weights on the end of the
rope to jerk the prisoner into the air which sometimes resulted in breaking the neck.
• Standard drop hanging where the prisoner drops a predetermined amount, typically 4 - 6 feet, which may or
may not break their neck. This was the normal method adopted in America in the later 19th nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
• Finally, measured or long drop hanging as practiced in Britain from 1874, where the distance the person falls
when the trap doors open is calculated according to the weight and physique of the person and is designed to break the neck.
This method was adopted in British Colonies and by some other countries who wished to make executions more humane.
Each of these processes are examined in detail below.
How hanging causes death.
Short drop and modern suspension hanging - Hanging with little or no drop usually causes death by strangulation (asphyxia)
due to the weight of the person's body on the noose, causing it to tighten, so constricting the trachea (air passage). The
condemned typically struggle for some time after suspension due to the physical pain caused by the noose, 1 - 3 minutes being
normal. However death can also come from sudden stoppage of the heart due to pressure on the carotid arteries which can cause
a lethal reflex or from Vagal reflex (pressure on the Vagal nerve) which causes unconsciousness very quickly.
Standard drop hanging - Where the standard drop proves inadequate to break the neck, the prisoner seems often to suffer
a more cruel death than where little or no drop is used. The force generated by of a drop of 5 or 6 feet is very considerable
and does great damage to the skin, muscles and ligaments of the neck but does not necessarily induce asphyxia any sooner.
This description of a hanging at San Quentin prison in California is from Clinton Duffy who was the warden there from 1942
to 1954 and relates to the execution of Major Raymond Lisemba on May 9th 1942. "The man hit bottom and I observed that
he was fighting by pulling on the straps, wheezing, whistling, trying to get air, that blood was oozing through the black
cap. I observed also that he urinated, defecated, and droppings fell on the floor, and the stench was terrible". "I
also saw witnesses pass out and have to be carried from the witness room. Some of them threw up."
It took ten minutes for the condemned man to die. When he was taken down and the cap removed, "big hunks of flesh
were torn off" the side of his face where the noose had been, "his eyes were popped," and his tongue was "swollen
and hanging from his mouth. His face had turned purple." Fortunately not all standard drop hangings were so gruesome
and many prisoners did not show any signs of physical suffering.
The long drop- It takes between a quarter and a third of a second for a person to reach the end of the drop 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 noose is designed to cause a virtually instant fracture-dislocation of the neck which leads to death
by comatose asphyxia. It is thought that brain death will occur in around 6 minutes and whole body death normally within 10
- 15 minutes. It is very variable however, with official reports of from 3 - 25 minutes for total death to have occurred.
Death is still ultimately caused by asphyxia but the condemned person is deeply unconscious at the time due to dislocation
of the cervical vertebrae and the crushing and/or separation of the spinal cord. The face may still become engorged and then
cyanosed and the tongue may protrude. Some slight movements of the limbs and body may occasionally occur but are almost certainly
due to spinal reflexes. The prisoner may also still urinate and/or defecate as their muscles relax in death.
Does the prisoner feel pain where the drop is sufficient to break their neck?
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 which can be measured in milliseconds.
Those who witnessed modern British hangings never described any obvious suffering on the part of the prisoner and the
two post-mortem reports that are available do not seem to indicate anything but a quick death. The independently witnessed
hangings of Westley Allan Dodd (see below) in Washington and Billy Bailey in Delaware did not indicate any obvious signs of
It is also probable that some 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. In this he is certainly right, but the point is whether it causes instantaneous loss of consciousness, which seems
Surviving the gallows.
It is sometimes possible to revive a person hanged using a short drop as the next two cases illustrate.
An Iranian man identified only as Niazali, was hanged in February 1996 but survived after the victim's relatives pardoned
him. He told the Iranian daily newspaper "Kayhan" what it had felt like.
"That first second lasted like a thousand years. I felt my arms and legs jerking out of control. Up on the gallows
in the dark, I was trying to fill my lungs with air, but they were crumpled up like plastic bags," Niazali said, describing
his hanging which lasted 20 minutes. Another man in Iran survived suspension for four minutes on November 16th 2001 after
his victim's relatives also pardoned him. Ramin Tshaharleng was taken to hospital and his condition was described as "satisfactory".
Under Sharia law the family of the victim have the power to pardon a murderer even after the execution has begun.
his was the ultimate punishment available in English law for men who had been convicted of High Treason. Women were burned
at the stake instead, apparently for the sake of decency.
The full sentence passed upon those convicted of High Treason up to 1870 was as follows : That you be drawn on a hurdle
to the place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck and being alive cut down, your privy members shall be cut
off and your bowels taken out and burned before you, your head severed from your body and your body divided into four quarters
to be disposed of at the King’s pleasure.”
As you will see from the sentence it should properly be called drawing, hanging and quartering as the condemned was drawn
to the place of execution tied to the hurdle which was dragged by a horse. This is confirmed by contemporary law books. Drawing
does not refer to the removal of the intestines in this context and remained part of the sentence for High Treason long after
the disembowelling and dismemberment had ceased. The hurdle was similar to a piece of fencing made from thin branches interwoven
to form a panel to which the prisoner was tied to be dragged behind a horse to the place of execution. Once there, the prisoner(s)
were hanged in the normal way (i.e. without a drop to ensure that the neck was not broken) but cut down whilst still conscious.
The penis and testicles were cut off and the stomach was slit open. The intestines and heart were removed and burned before
them. The other organs were torn out and finally the head was cut off and the body divided into four quarters. The head and
quarters were parboiled to prevent them rotting too quickly and then displayed upon the city gates as a grim warning to all.
At some point in this agonising process the prisoner inevitably died of strangulation and/or haemorrhage and/or shock
and damage to vital organs.
It has to be one of the most sadistic forms of execution ever invented, which it was in 1241, specifically to punish William
Maurice who had been convicted of piracy.
|A prayer said by the bell-ringer outside the condemned cell.