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A depiction of a hanging from a medieval painting (left) and a hangman's noose (right)

A short history of hanging in the UK 

Left: Detail from a painting by Pisanello, 1436–1438 Right:

The reasons that hanging became the preferred method of execution for many countries are grimly practical. In the context of execution, hanging isn’t overly offensive when compared to beheading, for example, and the gallows themselves add dark drama to proceedings: a sort of macabre theatre where the star of the show would appear high on a stage for all to see before their lives were ended in one dramatic, final, act.

But unlike any other form of execution, except for crucifixion, the act of hanging a person can result in death in more ways than just one and there are various gloomy methods to facilitate this.

Who invented hanging?

Hanging a human being doesn’t need anything in the way of extra equipment, outside of a sturdy, upright object and a ligature, which ensures the method is both practical and convenient. Therefore, it’s likely it’s been used as a method of killing for thousands of years. But the first recorded instance of hanging first appears in Persia, modern-day Iran, around 2,500 years ago.

It’s been suggested that the Romans introduced hanging to the UK, though it’s far more likely it arrived from Germanic countries in the 5th century as the Roman form of hanging was more commonly applied as crucifixion. We do know that post-1066, William the Conqueror attempted to ban the practice, but Henry I put it back on the books shortly after.

How does hanging kill you?

There are four ways that hanging can finish a person off. Compression of the air passages, closure of the blood vessels around the neck, vagal inhibition causing baroreceptors in the carotid sinus/body to fail (in short, the nervous system shutting down), and, finally, fracture-dislocation of the upper cervical vertebrae.

Any one of those ways, or a combination of them, will do the job when it comes to being hanged by suspending the victim or dropping them a short/medium distance with an attached noose. However, using a long or measured drop is unique.

  • Suspension hanging - Arguably the cruellest form of execution in the context of hanging and, worryingly, still in use in parts of the Middle East through a crane jib. The condemned is pulled up from the ground and left suspended by the neck until they’re dead. This can take up to 15 minutes, but in some instances much longer.
  • Short drop - The most popular method of execution by hanging in the countries that still practice the death penalty. This would be the method of execution from the Tyburn Tree in London, whereby the condemned would stand on the back of a cart with a noose around the neck before the cart was withdrawn so the victim dangles a foot or two from the ground. They would eventually pass away as the noose tightened around the neck.
  • Standard drop - An improvement on the above, but it’s by no means perfect. The principal was to drop the victim from a height so that they would be knocked unconscious by a sharp blow from the noose knot and spared the inevitable suffering. However, it was an inexact science. Some prisoners suffered the consequences of a short drop, while others were decapitated.
  • Long, or measured, drop - Devised by surgeons in Ireland and introduced by William Marwood, England’s chief executioner between 1872-1883, the measured drop was designed to break the neck of the victim in a fraction of a second, thus prolonging any suffering. Before execution, the prisoner was weighed, and the exact drop was calculated in feet and inches. For example, a 150-pound prisoner required a drop of 5 foot 7 inches to ensure death is caused, almost instantaneously, by dislocating the cervical vertebrae.

Tyburn was one of many execution sites in the UK

In 1571, the Tyburn Tree, a permanent, triangular-shaped gallows, was erected close to the modern-day Marble Arch in central London, allowing for the multiple executions of prisoners. As many as 24 were executed in one go on 23rd June 1649. The site had been established almost 400 years earlier when William Fitz Osbert became the first recorded victim of the gallows at Tyburn in 1196. It remained in constant use in the 18th century and over 1,200 people were hanged and at least four women were burned there.

The last person to be hanged at Tyburn was in 1783. Growing opposition to the spectacle of public executions led to its abolishment in 1868. Almost a century later, on 13th August 1964, Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans were the last people to be hanged anywhere in the UK.

It’s worth noting that Tyburn, with a few exceptions, was used pretty much exclusively for the despatch of general ne’er-do-wells. Pirates, for example, were hanged at Execution Dock on the north bank of the Thames between 1716 and 1726. In those ten years, over 400 pirates were hanged. Captain William Kidd was hanged twice (the rope broke on the first attempt) in 1701.

We forget, that there are dozens of execution sites in London -Smithfield, Tower Hill, Lincoln's Inn Fields, St Paul's Churchyard, Banqueting House, etc- that used other methods of execution in addition to the noose. Outside of London, there were over 70 execution sites that operated across the UK after Tyburn was dismantled.

Famous people hanged in the UK

The list is surprisingly short. Famous/notorious victims of execution were often beheaded or burnt. Being hung, drawn, and quartered, where hanging only served as the starter, was also popular. Guy Fawkes was supposed to face this horrific fate in 1606 but, as he ascended the scaffold ladder, he leapt and fatally broke his neck.

So, we’re left with a situation where people acquired fame because they were hanged, rather than the acts they did to warrant their execution. Why? Because, with a few notable exceptions (such as highwaymen Claude Duval, executed in 1669, and ‘Honest’ Jack Sheppard, 1724) common people were hanged. Ordinary men, women, and in some cases, children. These people weren’t famous. They were just regular folk who paid for their dismal crimes by hanging at the wrong end of a rope. Or ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’ as they used to say.