British executions: how so quick?

I read somewhere that the record for the fastest British execution was less than thirty seconds (or thereabouts) from the condemned man leaving his cell to being pronounced dead.

Given that the method of execution was hanging, how was the system set up to allow such a speedy execution? Where in relation to the cell were the gallows? Was the condemned blindfolded and had his hands tied? If so, was this done in the cells prior to him being led out or was it done on the gallows?

Someone with more expertise will soon clarify, but I was pretty impressed with how they depicted it in the film Let Him Have It and 10 Rillington Place. If anybody’s done it more humanely, I’ve never heard of it. Instead of a long, tortuous walk to the gallows, they kept you in a nice room with simple, comfortable furniture, including a armoire closet against the wall. Everything was low-key and quiet, until the executioner would suddenly enter. Everyone then popped to attention, including, instictively, you the condemned. Somebody gave you a shot of whisky while two others moved the closet to reveal a hidden room with the noose and trap. They had you in there and down the trap before the whisky had evaporated in your throat.

Not sure how much of an urban legend this is but it was said that the hangman would shake the condemned person’s hand tin order to estimate their weight and calculate the length of rope/drop corectly to ensure a broken neck rather than slow strangle.

How do you get someone’s weight by shaking their hand?

Did you hear about this anywhere besides Elvis Costello’s song “Let Him Dangle?”

Carnival weight guessers grasp your upper arm while shaking to get a sense of muscle tone. That and experience enable them to be pretty darn accurate.

I remember reading something similar to what **Slithy Tove ** said, IIRC it was in a memoir by Britain’s last surviving executioner.

The day before the execution the condemned was moved from his normal cell to a special one, which was adjacent to the room with the trapdoor and noose.

The condemned had his last meal, saw his vistors, confessed to the priest etc in the cell, and was then whisked through the door and hanged before he knew what was happening.

Hanging was designed to be painless and instant, and the hangman would calculate the length of rope required to break the neck on a case by case basis. However, everything was set up beforehand, so there was no waiting around on the gallows.

And, of course, the British had lots and lots of practice, which allowed them to refine the job into a very efficient process. There was a time when you could be hanged for petty theft, so there was lots o’hanging.

Well, yes, but the kind of scientific hanging behind closed doors that’s being discussed here was a fairly recent development, no earlier than Victorian times. I once read a very strange book, titled something like “The Hangmen of England”, that set out the development in a lot of detail. As I recall, the hangman who developed the process said something like this about his predecessor “He strangled men. I execute them.”

The Tyburn Tree


The hangman was Albert Pierrepoint . His father and uncle had done the job before him. I read the whole story years back but can’t remember the book’s title.

They measured and weighed the condemned man (occasionally woman) well before the execution, and used a detailed table to calculate the length of drop required. The knot of the noose was at an angle, so the spine would snap (but the drop wouldn’t be so long that the head was severed). As already noted, the prisoner was led from a cell just a few yards from the gallows.

Compared with the shaving and strapping down (and ‘give him another kolt - pity about the burning smell’) of a prisoner being put in an electric chair, or the strapping down and several minutes’ deep breathing of the gas chamber, it was very quick. Compared with shooting, it was clean. Compared with lethal injection, we can be pretty sure there was little physical suffering involved (there are suspicions that people are conscious when being killed that way - cite ). It’s odd that in the US it’s considered outdated or inhumane in comparison. Presumably, it has an old-fashioned image.

First of all, what an appropraite name for this thread.

Secondly, should I decide to go on a killing spree (still weighing the pros and cons) I believe I will head for one of the few states that still has hanging as an option. For all the reasons you mentioned. And the fact that our modern fixation on leathal injection and gas seem to have less to do with being “humane” than with making it seem less likewhat it is and more like a medical or scientific procedure. Better it was what it was.

Oh, and, I’ve always thought if there was an indication that we are not a truely civilized nation (other than the fact that we still have capitle punishment) it’s the fact that we won’t give the guy a shot of whiskey before we send him off. Heavens, wouldn’t want to corrupt him now would we?

Hey Bmax & Argent Towers I did put in the caveat it might be an urban legend! Obvioulsy the Elvis Costello line sticks in your head but I know I’ve seen it mentioned elswhere (probably an article about hanging when ‘Dance with a Stranger’ came out but I can’t cite). I think This Year’s Model might have it, you shake the guy’s hand with your right and grasp his upper arm with your left ?

For the sake of completeness, here is a run-down of a typical British execution in the 20th century.

Minor details would vary from prison to prison, but all condemned cells and execution rooms were to the same pattern: a larger-than-average cell containing a standard prison bed, a table and three chairs (two guards were with the prisoner constantly in the time before the execution), the usual cell door into the corridor, and a double door in another wall, leading into the execution room. If the prisoner asked about the double doors, he would be told that the cell he was in had originally been a store room (which was often true – several prisons were built before the system of execution was formularised).

The execution room had a large double-doored trap in the centre of the floor, operated by a lever (similar to a railway signalman’s lever) to one side. Across the ceiling above the trap was a heavy wooden beam with a large hook in it, centred above the trap.

On the day before the execution, the executioner and his assistant (who were drawn from a small pool of officially trained part-time freelancers) would arrive at the prison. They would be given the prisoner’s height, weight and age, and would be allowed to discreetly observe the condemned man to gauge his build (which may have some bearing on the drop).
At some point that afternoon, the prisoner would be taken from his cell for exercise. During that time, the executioners would make their preparations: the trapdoor would be tested and the length of drop set up using a table of calculations first formulated by Victorian hangman James Berry which set the length of drop based on the person’s weight to ensure a clean break of the neck. The rope was a 3-4 feet length of hemp with metal eyelets woven into the ends – one end was passed through the eyelet at the other to form the noose. The part of the rope which went round the prisoner’s neck was sheathed in soft leather to ensure smooth running through the eyelet and to prevent tearing of the skin. The other end of the rope was attached to a length of chain which was hung from the hook in the beam – it was the chain which governed the length of drop. Finally, a sand bag of the same weight as the prisoner was attached to the rope, dropped through the trap, and left to hang for several hours to stretch the rope.

That evening, the executioners would return to the execution cell (quietly – the condemned man was back in his cell next door by now) and remove the sandbag, re-set the trap, and coil the rope loosely, tieing it with thin pack thread to the overhead beam so that the noose hung at head height.

On the morning of the execution the prisoner would be brought breakfast, given a glass of spirits (traditionally rum) and receive a visit from the prison chaplain. Shortly before 8 am, the executioners and witnesses to the execution would gather outside the condemned cell. As the clock struck eight, the witnesses would proceed into the execution cell, while the executioners would enter the condemned cell. The prisoner would be sitting at the table in the cell, with his back to the door from the corridor. He would be asked to stand, and the executioner would pinion his arms behind his back with a leather strap around the elbows. He would ask the prisoner to follow him, and lead the way through the double doors into the execution room which had been opened by the prison officers as he entered the cell. Within a few steps, the prisoner would be standing on the centre of the trap. The executioner would fit the noose around his neck, with the eyelet under the left angle of his jaw, and put the hood (a plain white cloth bag, lined with black material to make it opaque) over his head – his assistant meanwhile, was fitting another leather strap around the prisoners ankles. As soon as the hood was in place, the executioner would step to one side and operate the lever to drop the prisoner through the trap.

After a few minutes, a doctor who was one of the witnesses would go down the flight of stairs into the room below, test the hanged man’s heartbeat and pronounce him dead. The body was left to hang for another hour to ensure extinction of life.

While thirty seconds from leaving the cell to being pronounced dead sounds improbable (I doubt the doctor would be in that much of a rush, and it would probably take longer than thirty seconds to ensure the lack of a heartbeat using a stethoscope), the whole process was indeed very quick. Thirty seconds from the executioner entering the condemned cell to the prisoner dropping through the trap would probably be normal, but there were occasions when it took less than ten.

Well, according to this link the fastest British hanging was seven seconds between leaving the cell and being pronounced dead by Albert Pierrepoint in 1951.

Yes, well – I suspect that the article is inaccurate in that respect. Other accounts of that execution give the timing as seven seconds from Pierrepoint entering the cell to the opening of the trap, which is fast enough, God knows. I believe this is the occasion when the prisoner was so prompt in following Pierrepoint that one of the prison officers remarked afterwards that he thought he was chasing him.

All other accounts of executions that I’ve read time the execution from the entrance of the executioner into the condemned cell, rather than from the condemned man leaving it, and given that the official pronouncement of death was by a doctor who had to open the shirt of a corpse hanging by its neck from a rope, and then check with an old-fashioned stethoscope for the absence of a heartbeat, I doubt that it would be possible to pronounce the prisoner dead within seven seconds of first putting the stethoscope to his chest, never mind his leaving the cell.

It’s worth bearing in mind that while the drop and fast noose caused a fracture-dislocation of the cervical vertebrae (usually the second and third, or fourth and fifth) and ruptured the spinal cord, and that death (or at least unconsciousness) was reckoned to be virtually instantaneous, heart and lung action could apparently continue for up to fifteen minutes, and that death could not be officially pronounced until that time.

urgh A little queasy after reading all that…

I think the book title that some here were grasping for is Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind by Howard Engle. I found it a fascinating, if somewhat creepy read.

I think I started a thread related to that, how in rather mundane accidents someone can be dead instantly but often planned executions can be such bloody drawn out affairs.

Well, not what I was grasping for. That book sounds creepy enough, but mine was much weirder, and was only about English executioners.