Know Your Enemy

Everything you wanted to know about hanging but were too afraid to ask

So when Yakub Memon was sent plunging, the forces that shut down his body were the results of a brainwave.

 |  Know Your Enemy  |  5-minute read |   31-07-2015
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If the prisoner weighs more than 91kg, he should be given a drop of six feet. If he weighs less than 45kg, drop him eight feet. If you're in the business of hanging people in a prison, you probably don't need an arithmetic reckoner from time to time on how much gravity you require to send someone packing. But jail manuals in every state of our country dutifully note the measures that must be embraced for death by hanging to come. If you really want to get into it, the method we in India use to dispatch death row convicts is called the "long drop", an evolution over the "suspension" and "short drop".


The latter two types of hanging were frowned largely out of existence because death came slowly, painfully and mostly through strangulation following a series of excruciating neck column fractures you could pretty much hear. If your mental picture right now is a body thrashing and flailing like a stuck fish, you're with me. The way we do it in India, depending on how heavy you are, they measure out a length of rope and drop you just enough for the jerk to break your neck before it goes all dark. No thrashing.

So when Yakub Memon was sent plunging (somewhere between six and 6.6 feet) under the supervision of jail superintendent Yogesh Desai in Nagpur early last morning, the forces that shut down his body were the results of a brainwave that struck legendary English executioner William Marwood nearly 150 years ago. The drop was designed with almost loving precision: lively enough to break a neck, but not such a jolt that it rips the fellow's head right off. You'd think a century and a half of "long drops" and well-thumbed jail manuals would mean death without any fuss. Not always.

Just eight years ago, Saddam Hussein's half brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti was "long dropped" so long that his head was ripped right off his body. No such thing in Nagpur yesterday. Memon's body, we should be happy to note, maintained its structural integrity. As with all hangings so far in India, the only likely blemishes on the terrorist's body were cervical fractures in the upper spine, a throttled jugular vein and closed carotid arteries. Pretty clean.

It's been a heavy week. Morbid too. A great time to rise above the life-or-death debate and see hanging for what it is: an induced series of biological traumas that lead to the human system shutting down. The popular online encyclopaedia HowStuffWorks helpfully throws light on how "In some cases, the hangman jerks up on the rope at the precise moment when the drop is ending in order to facilitate the breakage. This is the ideal situation in a long drop". "Ideal". You can almost smell the Dettol.


While Saddam's poor half-brother lost his head when they hanged him, Saddam's own execution was said to be a textbook long drop; all witnesses heard the terrific crack of his neck snapping. That long drop was on its way to legendary status until a video emerged indicating that it hadn't been as clean as all that.

A year before the bungled hanging of Saddam's half-brother, a contributor to the Yahoo! Answers page on whether people feel pain when they are hanged, replied, "It's all in the position of the knot. If it is to kill quickly the knot is a little to the side to break the neck and kill instantly. If the knot is lined with the spine then the person is slowly choked to death."

Hanging has a rich and amazingly worldwide heritage. The long drop we use in India actually leaves in its wake a wondrous abundance of variations, some of which remain in practice in some clearly sentimental parts of the world. Iran, for instance, hangs death row convicts by slowly hoisting them with a mini-crane before crowds of fenced-off citizens.

This glorious and time-tested method doesn't bring death instantaneously, but rather gives the subject his most intimate interaction with his body weight, allowing it to slowly, strangulate him.

The beauty of course is that the helpless thrashing and flailing multiples the effects of that body weight. If you manage to stay still (nobody does), you'll be alive a few minutes longer. Then there's a personal favourite: the upright jerker, that embodies all the subtlety of the early 20th century. In this method, the noose around a man's neck would be yanked upwards with a terrific jolt by a machine.


American gangster Gerald Chapman was famously dispatched using the method in 1926. Largely abandoned for not consistently snapping people's necks, it remains sweetly preserved by Iran, which sometimes gets a crane to do the jerking. It's reassuring there's respect at least somewhere for these painstakingly fashioned methods.

It's bad enough that the lost art of flaying remains alive only in Game of Thrones. In April last year, after the botched execution of the American death row convict Clayton Lockett by lethal injection, we should all be proud that the Washington Post listed hanging as one of "Four horrible forms of capital punishment more humane" than the drugs that, far from killing Lockett with humanity, rendered him a frothing, flailing mass for a full 43 minutes before a heart-attack inelegantly finished him off.

Go now. Chin up. Chest out. Face the world proudly. And if they ask, tell them I sent you.


Shiv Aroor Shiv Aroor @shivaroor

Editor (Output) at India Today TV. Interests: Military, marine biology, boxing, metal, videogames, horror, hypocrisy.

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