Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 13.djvu/364

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criminals were broken by this means, and that the pressure of the fractured vertebræ on the spinal cord shortened the period of suffering. It is now known, however, that this rarely occurs, and the criminal dies of asphyxia or apoplexy, usually the former. In some persons, particularly in heavy or aged ones, the sharp and sudden violence of the shock is sufficient to burst some blood-vessel, and the gush of blood into the brain-substance renders the criminal immediately unconscious. But apoplexy rarely kills suddenly; even such persons really die of asphyxia. In feeble persons, the simple concussion of the brain may be sufficient to bring on insensibility, like a stunning blow on the head, without any visible lesion of the organ; so that, in a certain proportion of persons who are executed by authority of law, it is probable that insensibility is instantaneous.

Some men, however, with strong necks and coarse organizations, do not become unconscious from the shock of the fall, and suicides generally have no fall; so that, in such cases, death supervenes by asphyxia. But even here the process is not a simple one. It is complicated by a congestive apoplexy; i.e., such an overfilling of the blood-vessels of the brain as to produce unconsciousness by pressure on the brain-substance, but without the actual rupture of any artery. And in these cases, too, insensibility comes on so rapidly that death is really painless.

The fact that executed criminals suffer little has been known for a long time. Morgagni quotes Cesalpinus as saying that persons who have been hung and have not died have declared that "they were overcome with stupor at the instant of the tightening of the rope, to such a degree that they felt nothing." And he adds: "As for myself, I have learned from a sober and truthful man that a thief, whom the cord of the hangman had not killed, for the same reason that prevented the deaths of those individuals mentioned by Gardani in the Sepulcretum, told those who questioned him, that he at first saw sparks before his eyes, and soon after saw nothing and felt absolutely nothing, as if he had been asleep."

I once witnessed an execution at the Tombs, and observed the victim carefully, watch in hand. After the body fell to the length of the rope, it remained perfectly motionless, so far as I could see, and I was not more than twenty-five feet away. It swayed a little in the currents of air, and at the end of a minute and ten seconds there were three very slight drawings-up of the feet, and a peculiar quivering of the hands. Then all was still, and remained so until the body was taken down. In this case the neck was not broken, and death took place by asphyxia. It is probable that the shock of the fall caused an apoplexy, or the convulsions would have been more pronounced. It seemed evident to me at the time that the death of the victim was painless.

Devergie says: "A friend of Fodéré, after a long discussion with him on the phenomena of asphyxia, hung himself from his door, expecting