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Hanging is one of the forms of capital punishment which has been used as a method of execution throughout history. One typical sentence was for the perpetrator to be 'hanged, drawn and quartered'. Another was for the person to be 'hanged by the neck until dead'.

As a form of judicial execution, hanging in England is thought to date from the Saxon period, c. 400 AD, although it had earlier been used in the Persian Empire. British hangmen are recorded from Thomas de Warblynton in the 1360s, with complete records 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 slip knot on a rope placed around the victim's neck, with the loose end thrown or tied to a tree branch; the criminal was then drawn up and slowly strangled. Early refinements were to make the victim climb a ladder or stand in a cart which was subsequently removed. In the 1800s another method was developed where a machine drew the prisoner aloft using weights -- a further development of this machine was where the process was begun by the prisoner stepping onto a metal plate which triggered the weights so that the prisoner effectively "executed himself". As the number of executions increased, the tree was replaced by a purpose-built gallows which usually comprised of two posts joined by a crossbeam -- virtually every major town and city in Britain had its own gallows.

Until 1808 the death penalty was inflicted in England for some 200 offences, including:

  • 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.

Between 1832 and 1834 Parliament abolished the death penalty for:

  • shoplifting goods worth five shillings or less,
  • returning from Transportation,
  • letter-stealing, and
  • sacrilege.

In 1861 the number of capital crimes was reduced to four:

  • murder,
  • treason,
  • arson in Royal Dockyards, and
  • piracy with violence.

Public hangings were stopped in 1868, and the hanging, beheading, and quartering of traitors was abolished in 1870.

Although by the late 1700s the "drop" had been developed, 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. By a process of (sometimes grisly) experimentation it was discovered that a force of 1260 foot/pounds would have the desired effect, so the required drop was determined by dividing this figure by the weight of the prisoner: a person weighing 112 pounds would be executed by a drop of 11.25 feet. The basic formula would be refined as time went on to take account of the prisoner's age, stature, and physical condition, but there were some early mistakes when too great a drop was provided and a decapitation resulted. 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. The development of swift and "clean" methods of hanging were welcomed by prison governors and staff, who were required to witness executions at close distance after the abolition of public executions in 1868.

As time went by, hanging became more of a science than an art, and by the mid-twentieth century the average time between taking a prisoner from his cell to his death was around fifteen seconds, although on 8th May 1951 Albert Pierrepoint conducted the fastest hanging on record when James Inglis, who had been convicted and sentenced for the murder of a prostitute only three weeks earlier, was pronounced dead only seven seconds after leaving his cell.

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