True-crime author Amanda Howard has a new book coming out — Rope: A History of the Hanged. She explores the history of the death penalty worldwide, from the 18th century B.C. through the present day. She also presents the mechanics of hanging itself, the different types of hanging executions — long drop, short drop, standard drop — and shares stories of specific hangmen and executed criminals. It’s a fascinating read, detailing an obscure history of this punishment practice in a clear and readable way.
Here are nine things we learned from reading Rope: A History of the Hanged.
- Only 10 to 20 percent of hangings result successfully in the ideal “hangman’s fracture,” where the neck is snapped quickly and humanely. The rest result in often torturous, slow strangulations.
- The 18th-century punishment for treason in England wasn’t just hanging. After the drop, the hangman would take the body down, quarter the body, remove the head, remove the entrails from the corpse and throw them into a fire. The dismembered pieces of the body were then often publicly exhibited.
- In 13th-century Germany, Jews who were being executed were hung by their feet or legs instead of their necks. On either side, a dog or wolf was also hung by their hind legs, so that they would claw and snap at the condemned person while trying to right themselves. One of the goals of this treatment was to get the Jew to convert to Christianity. If they did convert, they could then be offered the mercy of being hung in the upright position.
- Jack Ketch was a 17th-century English executioner. In addition to hangings, he was also charged with beheadings, at which he was notoriously awful. Lord William Russell was sentenced to a beheading, for which Russell tipped Ketch ten guineas to make a quick, clean job of it. Ketch struck his ax nine times, variously hitting Russell’s shoulder, ear, neck, but never severing his head. He eventually used a saw to finish the job. Ketch had similar trouble with future executions, and became known for his botched jobs. Somewhat oddly, many subsequent hangmen took Ketch’s name as a professional pseudonym.
- In 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts, 13 women were hanged for the crime of witchcraft, during what’s known as the Salem Witch Trials. They were not burned at the stake as is popularly believed.
- You’d be surprised how many pigs have been sentenced to death by hanging for various crimes they’ve committed — at least 15 or so over the years. The earliest recorded instance was in 1266, when a pig was hanged for eating a child. In 1379, a whole herd of pigs was to blame for knocking over and killing a man, but only three of them were determined to be the instigators, and they were executed for his murder.
- In 1916, an elephant, Mary, was horribly and torturously hung in Tennessee for the murder of five people, including her trainer.
- In the 16th and 17th centuries, it wasn’t unusual for the animals to be hung along with the human perpetrators in instances of bestiality crimes.
- Murderer Victor Feguer was hung on March 16, 1963 in Iowa. For his last meal, he requested a single olive with the pit inside hoping an olive tree would grow from his remains.
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