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- closing the airway
- closing the carotid arteries
- closing the jugular veins
- carotid reflex (which reduces heartbeat when the pressure in the carotid arteries is high) causing cardiac arrest
As punishment it has been used throughout history. The typical sentence involving hanging is that the condemned person "be hanged by the neck until dead". A more elaborate sentence, once used for particularly heinous crimes (e.g. high treason in England), was for the person to be "hanged, drawn and quartered".
Because of its association with crime and criminals, many consider hanging a method of execution that dishonours the victim, because it is historically associated with common criminals. To give an example, in feudal England peasants were usually hanged for crimes but the nobility were usually beheaded. For that reason the courts in the post-World War II war crimes trials in Germany (the Nuremberg trials) and Japan mandated hanging for war criminals rather than execution by firing squad.
As a form of judicial execution in England, hanging is thought to date from the Saxon period, circa AD 400, although earlier the Persian Empire had used it too. Records of the names of British hangmen begin with Thomas de Warblynton in the 1360s; complete records extend from the 1500s to the last hangmen, Robert Leslie Stewart and Harry Allen, who conducted the last British executions in 1964.
Early methods of hanging simply involved a hangman's noose on a rope placed around the victim's neck, with the loose end thrown over or tied to a tree branch; the hangman then drew up the criminal, who slowly strangled. An early refinement had the victim climb a ladder or stand in a cart that the hangman then removed. The 1800s saw the development of a machine that used weights to draw the victim aloft. A further development had the victim step onto a metal plate, triggering the weights so that it was the victim that effectively started the process. As the number of executions increased, purpose-built gallows, which usually consisted of two posts joined by a crossbeam, replaced trees. Soon virtually every major town and city in Britain had its own gallows.
Until 1808 the law in Britain offered the death penalty for some 200 offences, including:
- attempting suicide
- being in the company of gypsies for one month,
- vagrancy for soldiers and sailors,
- "strong evidence of malice" in children aged 7–14 years old.
A variety of loopholes in British criminal law, together with judicial leniency, tempered the law's tendency to prescribe hanging for what many would today consider minor offences. First-time offenders could escape a capital sentence for some crimes through the benefit of clergy, and of those criminals actually sentenced to death, many were later pardoned. Only about half the death sentences pronounced at common law in the 18th century were carried out, and by the beginning of the 19th century, growing doubt over the appropriateness of capital punishment led to nearly 90% of British capital sentences being commuted to lesser punishments.
- shoplifting goods worth five shillings (£0.25) or less,
- returning from Transportation,
- letter-stealing, and
Although hangmen had introduced the "drop" by the late 1700s, it was initially only a substitute for the ladder or the cart. The first well-known practitioner of "the drop" was William Calcraft, but his successor William Marwood (who was often quoted as saying "Calcraft hanged them, I execute them"), introduced the "long drop". Marwood realised that each person required a different drop, based on the prisoner's weight, which would dislocate the cervical vertebrae resulting in "instantaneous" death. A process of sometimes grisly experimentation led to the discovery that an energy of 1260 foot pounds (1710 joules) would have the desired effect, so one could calculate the required drop by dividing 1260 by the weight of the victim: a person weighing 112 pounds (50.8 kg) required a drop of 11'4" (3.43 m). Over time, Marwood refined this basic formula to take account of the prisoner's age, stature, and physical condition, especially after some early mistakes when too great a drop resulted in decapitation. Marwood also experimented with the positioning of the knot, and discovered that placing it under the left ear or under the angle of the left jaw would jerk the head backwards at the end of the drop and instantly sever the spinal cord and dislocate the cervical vertebrae. Prison governors and staff who were required, following the abolition of public executions in 1868, to witness executions at close quarters, welcomed the development of swift and "clean" methods of hanging.
As time went by, hanging became more of a science than an art. By the mid-20th century the average time between taking a victim from the cell and death was around fifteen seconds – although on May 8, 1951 Albert Pierrepoint conducted the fastest hanging on record when James Inglis, whom a court had only three weeks earlier convicted and sentenced for the murder of a prostitute, was pronounced dead only seven seconds after leaving his cell.
Extra-legal primitive forms of hanging persisted well into the 20th Century in the United States in the form of lynchings where torture and/or mutilation of the corpse often accompanied the hanging.
In the United States, other forms of capital punishment, such as the electric chair and more recently lethal injection, have largely replaced hanging. The most recent hanging in the United States occurred on January 25, 1996 when Delaware hanged Billy Bailey; Delaware has since abolished the method. Hanging remains legal only in Washington State, which last used it to execute Charles Campbell on 27 May 1994. In 1996 the State legislature amended the law to make lethal injection the default death penalty unless the convicted person chooses hanging.
A recent case of capital punishment by hanging is that of Dhananjoy Chatterjee, who was convicted of the 1990 murder and rape of a 14 year old girl in Kolkata in India. Although the Supreme Court of India has suggested that capital punishment be given in rarest of rare cases, Chatterjee was executed on August 14, 2004 in the first execution in West Bengal for eleven years.