"[Full name of prisoner] you are sentenced to be taken hence to the prison in which you were last confined and from there to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until dead and thereafter your body buried within the precincts of the prison and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul".
Traditional Capital Sentence from an English Court
Hanging is a form of execution (or occasionally suicide or homicide) based on killing through suspension by the neck. The similar sounding hanging in chains was actually either a way of displaying the body following execution, or a form of exposure, depending on context1.
For simplicity, hanging can be divided into two basic categories - long drop and short drop:
The Long Drop is probably one of the quicker and more humane forms of capital punishment - the offender has a noose placed around their neck attached to a significant length of rope and they are then pushed or dropped from a platform to fall a significant distance. Done properly, the prisoner's neck is cleanly broken and death is almost instantaneous. Too much drop may involve the condemned's head being pulled off (to much the same effect, but far messier), whilst too little turns it into a short drop hanging. A significant amount of effort was put into developing various systems of calculating the optimum distance to drop the condemned - the British "standard drop" being one of the most prominent.
The Short Drop is the amateur night version - and the older, and less humane method. Basically, this involves dropping the executee through a distance that isn't long enough to break their neck - or hoisting them into the air by a noose, which amounts to the same thing. Death usually occurs by strangulation and may take a considerable time - in many historical cases the condemned's friends and relations were seen to pull on the offender's legs so that death was less prolonged. Where both forms of hanging exist, the long drop may be used for "ordinary, decent criminals" and the short for those who have particularly offended the court. Where the short drop is still too humane, the offender may be hung, drawn and quartered instead. For a variety of reasons (including opportunity and technical competence) most suicide and a good many homicide hangings are of the short drop variety.
Hanging is distinguished from garrotting by the aspect of suspension.
Once the hanging is complete, folklore generally ascribes supernatural utility to various items associated with it - the hand of a hanged man (sometimes only that of a thief or a murderer) is used to create a hand of glory, the rope has a variety of suspected uses (not least for witches and/or hags), including a surprising number of medicinal ones, the dead man's clothes might be used in some protective amulets and …various bodily fluids … released by the dead were said to give rise to mandrakes. Some workings required a suicide hanging, whilst others would need judicial execution or a murder.
"Father had only gone out to ransom Petyr Pimple. He brought them the gold they asked for, but they hung him anyway."
"Hanged, Ami. Your father was not a tapestry."
A Feast For Crows George R. R. Martin
Game and Story Use
- In the pre-modern world, hangings, usually of the short drop variety, were a common public entertainment in many cultures. Modern hangings tend to be invitation only.
- Note that, certainly in the medieval period, hanging was for commoners only - the nobility had the privilege of being beheaded instead. Later the nobility were granted the privilege of a silk rope once beheading had been abolished - although what difference this might have made is unclear.