Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/July 1878/The Question of Pain in Hanging
By ROGER S. TRACY, M. D.
IN executions it is the custom to drop the condemned man from a height, or (as in New York) to jerk him up from the ground by the fall of a heavy weight, so that there is a powerful concussion of the brain to start with. It used to be a common belief that the necks of 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 to be able at will to stop the experiment. Luckily, some one came into the room and rescued him. Chancellor Bacon has reported the case of a gentleman who took a fancy to find out for himself whether those who are hung suffer any pain. He put a cord around his neck, and hung himself, stepping off from a small bench on which he had been standing, and expecting to be able to mount it again when he wished. This was impossible for him on account of the loss of consciousness, which supervened immediately. The experiment would have had a tragic ending, if a friend had not by chance entered and released him.
In the New Yorker Allgemeine Zeitung for May 14, 1877, was the following item: "In the village of Brunswick, a bet was made, by one of three young fellows, drinking together, that he could hang for a certain number of minutes. A ladder was brought, put against the wall, a noose placed around his neck, and the end thrown over a round of the ladder. A second drew on the rope, while the third stood by, watch in hand. Just then in came a servant-girl, who saw the situation. At her exclamation that the man was blue in the face, the man with the watch said the time was not up. At her shrieks, however, others rushed in, and the cord was loosened. The poor fellow fell insensible to the ground, and was with the greatest difficulty resuscitated."
Although nothing is said in this account about the young man's sensations, it is likely that he became unconscious immediately; for, if he had felt the pangs of suffocation, as ordinarily understood, he would have certainly either grasped the ladder and relieved himself, or in some way indicated to his companions that he was suffering and wished to be let down.
Two remarkable examples are on record of persons who allowed themselves to be hung for the entertainment of an audience. An account of one of them is given in the Lancet of April 17, 1847. The man's real name was John Harnshaw, but he performed throughout England under the high-sounding professional title of Monsieur Gouffe. He was an athlete, and among other feats it was customary with him to exhibit the process of hanging. In this performance he relied for security on the strength of the muscles of the neck and throat. He had a rope with a fixed knot which could not slip, and passed both ends of the loop up behind one ear. The whole act was so adroitly managed that he prevented any pressure of the rope on the windpipe or the jugular veins, and could even sustain a weight of one hundred and fifty pounds in addition to that of his own body.
On three separate occasions Harnshaw mismanaged the rope, and became unconscious, being luckily rescued each time. Dr. Chowne, who writes the account, says very truly: "It cannot be doubted that, as far as sensation and consciousness are concerned, Harnshaw passed through the whole ordeal of dying; and, had he been permitted to remain hanging until actually dead, he would have passed out of existence without further consciousness."
Now, this man stated, not with particular reference to either accident, but as common to all, that "he could hardly recollect anything that happened to him in the rope;" that "he lost his senses all at once; the instant the rope got in the wrong place he felt as if he could not get his breath—as if some great weight were at his feet; could not move only to draw himself up; felt as if he wanted to loosen himself, but never thought of his hands." And he added: "You cannot move your arms or legs to save yourself; you cannot raise your arms; you cannot think." He did not see sparks or light, but had in his ears a rattling sound.
This account is an interesting one, because it shows the absence of physical suffering, even when consciousness is for a short time retained. The benumbing effect of the venous blood on the brain is well shown by his remarks on the confusion of thought and mental helplessness.
In the second instance, which has been fully recorded, the show-man was not so fortunate. He hung himself once too often, and the circumstances of his last exhibition were very singular. He was known as Scott, the American diver, and he, like Harnshaw, had many times hung himself before an audience with safety. The last time, however, the rope slipped in such a way as to compress the throat and bring on asphyxia. He hung thirteen minutes, the spectators thinking that he was prolonging the experiment for their gratification. When he was taken down he was dead. It is just to those who were looking on to state that they thought he was safe, because he was still, and did not raise his feet and stand upon the scaffold, which his legs actually touched. This case shows with peculiar force the insidious manner in which death comes on in asphyxia.
While death in such cases has been supposed to occur in consequence of the lack of air, there are good reasons for believing, as previously stated, that it may be largely if not mainly due to the congestion of the vessels of the brain. Fleischmann tried some experiments on himself with the object of throwing light on this question. He says: "If a person puts a cord around the neck between the hyoid bone and the chin, he can draw it tight at the back or side, without the respiration being sensibly interfered with, and can for a long time continue to inspire and expire naturally enough, because in this situation compression is not made on any part of the air-passages. Notwithstanding this, the face grows red, the eyes become a little glaring, the head becomes hot, there comes on a feeling of weight, dizziness, a sort of distress, and then all in an instant a hissing and roaring in the ears. This last symptom should be especially noticed, for it is time then to stop the experiment. I confess that a second time I should hardly dare to push it so far. The same symptoms follow the application of a cord to the larynx. It seems to me, though, that then they come on more promptly, and that the respiration is a little interfered with. I have been able to prolong the first experiment for more than two minutes, while in the second trial a half-minute had barely passed when the noise in the ears and a peculiar sensation in the brain, difficult to describe, warned me to stop the experiment."
In the first experiment Fleischmann was on the very border of unconsciousness, and, as he himself says, did not stop a moment too soon. In the second, when the effects of asphyxia and cerebral congestion were combined, the result was reached much more rapidly.
Devergie states plainly, after considering all the facts, that hanging is a pleasant way of dying. His words are: "In suicide, at the moment of the application of the cord, or a few moments after, a feeling of pleasure manifests itself; then supervenes disordered vision; bluish flames appear before the eyes, and the loss of consciousness soon follows."
All the evidence goes to show that death by hanging is painless, and there is positively no fact or well-founded opinion to the contrary. If this be the case, then, what is the explanation of it? Simply this: That in every form of strangulation the blood-vessels of the neck are compressed, as well as the air-passages. A large part of the blood is returned from the head by the external jugular veins, which are very near the surface, and in which the current can be checked by slight pressure. Most of the blood from the brain itself comes back through the internal jugulars, which lie near, but a little outside of, the carotid arteries. The walls of veins are lax and yielding, so as to be easily compressed, while those of the arteries are firm and elastic, and it requires considerable force to approximate them. Pressure, then, which is sufficient to close the jugular veins only crowds the carotids a little farther inward, and the blood is still poured through them into the brain, whence it cannot escape. When this pumping process is going on at the rate of seventy strokes a minute, it is easy to understand how the engorgement of the vessels of the brain, in a very brief time, reaches a degree which causes insensibility. To explain why this congestion causes unconsciousness would involve a technical discussion which would here be out of place. It must suffice to say that it does; so that, as the cerebral congestion in a hanged person brings on insensibility within a minute, while the physical agony of suffocation does not begin until later, it follows that the victim does not feel any of the pangs of asphyxia. He first becomes insensible, with accompanying pleasurable feelings, from cerebral congestion, and then is choked to death while unconscious.
Drowning and hanging, then, are painless modes of dying, because the asphyxia which causes death is complicated by other circumstances which render the dying man so soon unconscious that the pangs of suffocation are unfelt. And the insensibility which results from hanging is so insidious and painless in its approach, that experiments on the subject are very dangerous for any one to make alone. It is probable that many persons, who are supposed to have committed suicide in this way, had really no intention of bringing about their own death. Some have been led, like the two gentlemen mentioned by Morgagni, to try the experiment out of curiosity. Others may have done it out of pique. It is not impossible, nor perhaps improbable, that high-spirited boys or girls, after a degrading punishment, should rush off, as we read of their doing, and hang themselves. The child puts a cord around his neck, and steps off from a chair, expecting to be followed, found choking, and released, by the anxious parents. If he is not followed and his absence not noticed, nothing can be easier for him than to step up on the chair again, loosen the rope, and no one will ever know of his folly. In the first case he would obtain his childish revenge for the wrong he had received, and in the second case he would lose nothing, for he is his only accomplice. But the laws of Nature are too stern. He experiences the fate of poor Scott, above related. Utterly ignorant of his danger, and intending only a prank of childish folly, he steps from his chair into eternity. Such a possibility should make us charitable, and in cases of suicide by hanging lead us to remember that, although the case may be evidently one of suicide, and the hanging plainly intentional, nevertheless the death may have been undesired and unlooked for.