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Hanging is quite possibly the oldest execution method still in practice in the modern world. Up to the 1890s, hanging was the primary method of capital punishment in the U.S. Today, only two states, Washington and New Hampshire, retain hanging as an execution option.

The process begins with a pre-execution weight-in and a test run using a sandbag. The length of the drop is determined by the weight of the condemned inmate. The goal is to achieve a relatively instantaneous death in which there is rapid and severe trauma to the cervical spine. If the fall is too short the result may be strangulation which can take up to 45 minutes. If the fall is too long the force exerted on the body can result in decapitation.

A modern hanging is carried out on a raised platform called a scaffold or gallows. Immediately prior, the hands and legs are bound and their face is covered. A noose, attached to the scaffold, is placed around the neck with the knot placed behind the left ear. When a trap door, underneath the inmate’s feet opens, they fall through. Ideally, the prisoner dies quickly, but any complication, including a muscular neck or a short drop, can result in strangulation. The physical manifestations of strangulation can be gruesome and may cause the face to engorge, eyes to protrude, uncontrolled defecation, and the limbs to flail violently.

Death is usually caused by one or a combination of the following medical conditions:

  • Cervical spine trauma including fracture, dislocation or even decapitation
  • Obstruction of blood flow to and/or leaving the brain
  • Extreme pressure in the carotid arteries, which can cause cardiac arrest
  • Asphyxiation

It is likely that more humans have been killed by hanging than any other execution method. The last hanging execution in the United States was performed in Delaware in 1996.

Note: Hanging execution protocols may vary depending on jurisdiction.

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Execution Methods

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