Hanging is possibly one of the most brutal methods of executing a death sentence. Although this form of capital punishment is now prohibited in the United States, it was widely used during the 19th century. For the accused, this often meant a long march to the gallows, and then an uncertainty about how long it would take to die and whether it would be painful. This period of time and the prisoner’s level of discomfort often depended on the executioner’s method of hanging. With a hanging, there is more than simply putting a rope around a person’s neck and dropping it. Of course, the end result is almost always the same, but the process can have some variations.
Short fall. The short fall method of hanging a person was perhaps a convict’s worst nightmare. Commonly used before 1850, it usually involved a cart, horse, or stool, which was removed once the prisoner had a noose around his neck. The fall was typically only at a distance of a few cases, so the person was slowly strangled to death. The weight of his dangling body and his struggle worked to tighten the noose, which would eventually close the prisoner’s airway and crush his carotid artery. Not only was it a slow death, it was also quite painful.
Long fall. The long fall developed as a more humane way of putting prisoners to death. Unlike the short fall, where everyone falls the same distance, the long fall is designed so that a person’s body weight determines the distance of the fall, usually between six and ten feet. This method also ensured that the neck was broken rather than the prisoner slowly dying from strangulation. However, there were some notable cases where the long fall did not work out as planned and the condemned man was beheaded. This gruesome event would occur when the rope was too long and the force of the fall was too great for the victim’s body to support. However, in general, the prolonged fall was seen as a human advance in this form of capital punishment. Although the practice is commonly considered to have been “invented” in the 1870s, it was in fact used prior to this. One of the first recorded cases in which the long fall was used was during the execution of Octavius Barron in Rochester, New York. It was the year 1838 and Barron had been sentenced to death for the murder of William Lyman. Lyman was a respected and well-loved businessman in the city, so when Barron ruthlessly robbed him and killed him, the citizens of Rochester were quick to impose the harshest possible punishment. On June 7, 1838, Barron stepped on a hatch that, when opened, would drop him several feet to death. A journalist observed this new method of hanging and noted that Barron died quickly and without a fight.
There are also two other hanging methods, the standard drop and the hanging suspension. The standard fall is very similar to the long fall, with prisoners falling four to six feet to their death. The main difference here is that body weight is not taken into account in determining the fall distance in a standard fall. A suspension drop, on the other hand, works in the opposite way, lifting the condemned up with a crane or some other lifting device.