How Do Hangings Work?

Saddam’s visit to the gallows, explained.

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Saddam Hussein will be executed in February, unless he can convince an appeals court to overturn the sentence handed down on Sunday. According to Iraqi law, the death penalty consists of “hanging the condemned person by the neck until he is dead.” How do they hang people these days?

The same way they hanged criminals 100 years ago. The trick to a successful hanging is to have the victim drop an appropriate distance through a trapdoor before the rope goes taut against his neck. If he drops too far, he’ll have picked up so much speed that the noose might decapitate him. If he doesn’t drop far enough, he could remain conscious as he slowly strangles to death. But if you get the “drop” just right, the knot of the noose will snap against his neck—and either kill him or knock him unconscious.

The last major innovation in hanging occurred toward the end of the 19th century, when executioners first developed a systematic way to calculate the drop. Once these “drop tables” were published, a hangman knew that he’d need 7 feet for a slight, 120-pound criminal, but only about 4 feet for a 200-pounder.

In the United States, only Washington and New Hampshire still perform hangings. These jurisdictions follow now-defunct U.S. Army regulations for the punishment. The military rules demand 30 feet of hemp rope that has been boiled, stretched, and dried. The bottom of the rope should be greased or waxed to make sure that the knot of the noose doesn’t get snagged, and the whole system should be tested with a sandbag dummy before the actual hanging takes place.

The Army even has its own drop table. According to its guidelines, the last man to hang in America—220-pound Billy Bailey—would have required 5 feet of loose rope. On a windy night in 1996, the Delaware guards removed Bailey’s dentures, placed a black hood over his head, and then dropped the noose around his neck. (The hood prevents the prisoner from shifting position at the last second, as the lever for the trapdoor is pulled.) The knot of the noose was placed against his left ear, in the traditional manner deemed most likely to break the neck. The warden pulled a lever, and Bailey dropped through the trapdoor. He was declared dead a few minutes later. (The Delaware gallows were dismantled in 2003.)

The Army drop table turned out to be inadequate for Mitchell Rupe, a Washington inmate who was supposed to hang in 1994. On death row, Rupe refused all exercise and ate junk food nonstop. By the time of his execution he’d reached 409 pounds, well above the table’s maximum listed weight. According to Army regulations, anyone heavier than 220 pounds would get a 5-foot drop. The Washington authorities made an exception and cut Rupe’s planned drop to 3.5 feet. Rupe appealed his case, and a federal judge ruled that the risk of decapitation was still too high. Rupe died in a prison hospital this past February.

Hanging works a bit differently in other countries. In Japan, the gallows come equipped with three trapdoor switches, only one of which is actually connected. Three guards participate in the execution, but no one knows which one is actually responsible. In Iran, hangings are conducted by hoisting criminals slowly from the ground with a mobile crane connected to a nylon noose. Iranian hangings can take half an hour to complete.

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