24272311911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12 — HangingWilliam Feilden Craies

HANGING, one of the modes of execution under Roman law (ad furcam domnatio), and in England and some other countries the usual form of capital punishment. It was derived by the Anglo-Saxons from their German ancestors (Tacitus, Germ. 12). Under William the Conqueror this mode of punishment is said to have been disused in favour of mutilation: but Henry I. decreed that all thieves taken should be hanged (i.e. summarily without trial), and by the time of Henry II. hanging was fully established as a punishment for homicide; the “right of pit and gallows” was ordinarily included in the royal grants of jurisdiction to lords of manors and to ecclesiastical[1] and municipal corporations. In the middle ages every town, abbey, and nearly all the more important manorial lords had the right of hanging. The clergy had rights, too, in respect to the gallows. Thus William the Conqueror invested the abbot of Battle Abbey with authority to save the life of any criminal. From the end of the 12th century the jurisdiction of the royal courts gradually became exclusive; as early as 1212 the king’s justices sentenced offenders to be hanged (Seld. Soc. Publ. vol. i.; Select Pleas of the Crown, p. 111), and in the Gloucester eyre of 1221 instances of this sentence are numerous (Maitland, pl. 72, 101, 228). In 1241 a nobleman’s son, William Marise, was hanged for piracy. In the reign of Edward I. the abbot of Peterborough set up a gallows at Collingham, Notts, and hanged a thief. In 1279 two hundred and eighty Jews were hanged for clipping coin. The mayor and the porter of the South Gate of Exeter were hanged for their neglect in leaving the city gate open at night, thereby aiding the escape of a murderer. Hanging in time superseded all other forms of capital punishment for felony. It was substituted in 1790 for burning as a punishment of female traitors and in 1814 for beheading as a punishment for male traitors. The older and more primitive modes of carrying out the sentence were by hanging from the bough of a tree (“the father to the bough, the son to the plough”) or from a gallows. Formerly in the worst cases of murder it was customary after execution to hang the criminal’s body in chains near the scene of his crime. This was known as “gibbeting,” and, though by no means rare in the earliest times, was, according to Blackstone, no part of the legal sentence. Holinshed is the authority for the statement that sometimes culprits were gibbeted alive, but this is doubtful. It was not until 1752 that gibbeting was recognized by statute. The act (25 Geo. II. c. 37) empowered the judges to direct that the dead body of a murderer should be hung in chains, in the manner practised for the most atrocious offences, or given over to surgeons to be dissected and anatomized, and forbade burial except after dissection (see Foster, Crown Law, 107, Earl Ferrers’ case, 1760). The hanging in chains was usually on the spot where the murder took place. Pirates were gibbeted on the sea shore or river bank. The act of 1752 was repealed in 1828, but the alternatives of dissection or hanging in chains were re-enacted and continued in use until abolished as to dissection by the Anatomy Act in 1832, and as to hanging in chains in 1834. The last murderer hung in chains seems to have been James Cook, executed at Leicester on the 10th of August 1832. The irons used on that occasion are preserved in Leicester prison. Instead of chains, gibbet irons, a framework to hold the limbs together, were sometimes used. At the town hall, Rye, Sussex, are preserved the irons used in 1742 for one John Breeds who murdered the mayor.

The earlier modes of hanging were gradually disused, and the present system of hanging by use of the drop is said to have been inaugurated at the execution of the fourth Earl Ferrers in 1760. The form of scaffold now in use[2] has under the gallows a drop constructed on the principle of the trap-doors on a theatrical stage, upon which the convict is placed under the gallows, a white cap is placed over his head, and when the halter has been properly adjusted the drop is withdrawn by a mechanical contrivance worked by a lever, much like those in use on railways for moving points and signals. The convict falls into a pit, the length of the fall being regulated by his height and weight. Death results not from real hanging and strangulation, but from a fracture of the cervical vertebrae. Compression of the windpipe by the rope and the obstruction of the circulation aid in the fatal result. Recently the noose has had imbedded in its fibre a metal eyelet which is adjusted tightly beneath the ear and considerably expedites death. The convict is left hanging until life is extinct.

It was long considered essential that executions, like trials, should be public, and be carried out in a manner calculated to impress evil-doers. Partly to this idea, partly to notions of revenge and temporal punishment of sin, is probably due the rigour of the administration of the English law. But the methods of execution were unseemly, as delineated in Hogarth’s print of the execution of the idle apprentice, and were ineffectual in reducing the bulk of crime, which was augmented by the inefficiency of the police and the uncertainty and severity of the law, which rendered persons tempted to commit crime either reckless or confident of escape. The scandals attending public executions led to an attempt to alter the law in 1841, although many protests had been made long before, among them those of the novelist Fielding. But perhaps the most forcible and effectual was that of Charles Dickens in his letters to The Times written after mixing in the crowd gathered to witness the execution of the Mannings at Horsemonger Lane gaol in 1849. After his experiences he came to the conclusion that public executions attracted the depraved and those affected by morbid curiosity; and that the spectacle had neither the solemnity nor the salutary effect which should attend the execution of public justice. His views were strongly resisted in some quarters; and it was not until 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c. 24) that they were accepted. The last public hanging in England was that of Michael Barrett for murder by causing an explosion at Clerkenwell prison with the object of releasing persons confined there for treason and felony (Ann. Reg., 1868, p. 63). Under the act of 1868 (31 & 32 Vict. c. 24), which was adapted from similar legislation already in force in the Australian colonies convicted murderers are hanged within the walls of a prison. The sentence of the court is that the convict “be hanged by the neck until he is dead.” The execution of the sentence devolves on the sheriff of the county (Sheriffs Act 1887, s. 13). As a general rule the sentence is carried out in England and Ireland at 8 a.m. on a week-day (not being Monday), in the week following the third Sunday after sentence was passed. In old times prisoners were often hanged on the day after sentence was passed; and under the act of 1752 this was made the rule in cases of murder. A public notice of the date and hour of execution must be posted on the prison walls not less than twelve hours before the execution and must remain until the inquest is over. The persons required to be present are the sheriff, the gaoler, chaplain and surgeon of the prison, and such other officers of the prison as the sheriff requires; justices of the peace for the jurisdiction to which the prison belongs, and such of the relatives, or such other persons as the sheriff or visiting justices allow, may also attend. It is usual to allow the attendance of some representatives of the press. The death of the prisoner is certified by the prison surgeon, and a declaration that judgment of death has been executed is signed by the sheriff. An inquest is then held on the body by the coroner for the jurisdiction and a jury from which prison officers are excluded. The certificate and declaration, and a duplicate of the coroner’s inquiry also, are sent to the home office, or in Ireland to the lord-lieutenant, and the body of the prisoner is interred in quicklime within the prison walls if space is available. It is also the practice to toll the bell of the parish or other neighbouring church, for fifteen minutes before and fifteen minutes after the execution. The hoisting of the black flag at the moment of execution was abolished in 1902. The regulations as to execution are printed in the Statutory Rules and Orders, Revised ed. 1904, vol. x. (tits. Prison E. and Prison I). The act of 1868 applies only to executions for murder; but since the passing of the act there have been no executions for any other crime within the United Kingdom. (See further Capital Punishment.)

In Scotland execution by hanging is carried out in the same manner as in England and Ireland, but under the supervision of the magistrates of the burgh in which it is decreed to take place, and in lieu of the inquest required in England and Ireland an inquiry is held at the instance of the procurator-fiscal before a sheriff or sheriff substitute (act of 1868, s. 13). The procedure at the execution is governed by the act of 1868 and the Scottish Prison Rules, rr. 465–469 (Stat. Rules and Orders, Revised ed. 1904, tit. Prison S).

British Dominions beyond the Seas.—Throughout the King’s dominions hanging is the regular method of executing sentence of death. In India the Penal Code superseded the modes of punishment under Mahommedan law, and s. 368 of the Criminal Procedure Code of 1898 provides that sentence of death is to be executed by hanging by the neck.

In Canada the sentence is executed within a prison under conditions very similar to those in England (Criminal Code, 1892; ss. 936-945). In Australia the execution takes place within the prison walls, at a time and place appointed by the governor of the state. See Queensland Code, 1899, s. 664; Western Australia Code, 1901, s. 663; in these states no inquest is held. In Western Australia the governor may cause an aboriginal native to be executed outside a prison. In New Zealand the only mode of execution is by hanging within a prison (Act of 1883).

United States.—In all the states except New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, North Carolina, Mississippi, Virginia, and Ohio (see Electrocution) persons sentenced to death are hanged. In Utah the criminal may elect to be shot instead.

The only countries, whose law is not of direct English origin, which inflict capital punishment by hanging are Japan, Austria, Hungary and Russia. (W. F. C.) 

  1. See Pollock and Maitland vol. i. 563. The sole survival of these grants is the jurisdiction of the justices of the Soke of Peterborough to try for capital offences at their quarter sessions.
  2. In most counties in Ireland the scaffold used (in 1852) to consist in an iron balcony permanently fixed outside the gaol wall. There was a small door in the wall commanding the balcony and opening out upon it. The bottom of the iron balcony or cage was so constructed that on the withdrawal of a pin or bolt which could be managed from within the gaol, the trap-door upon which the culprit stood dropped from under his feet. The upper end of the rope was fastened to a strong iron bar, which projected over the trap-door. There were usually two or three trap-doors on the same balcony, so that, if required, two or more men could be hanged simultaneously. (Trench, Realities of Irish Life (1869), 280.)