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  • Surviving Hanging June 20, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback










    Beachcombing has a file on ‘failed executions’: men and women who were sent to meet their maker but whom, thanks to chance, and, more often than not, the stupidity of their executioners, lived to die another day. Of course, survival rates were always small but the odds of making it through depended on the form of execution. Garrotting, beheading, being drawn and quartered not to mention death by elephant (really it happened…) left no room for hope. But if the prisoner had a handful of four-leafed clovers and was shot, stoned or hung then there was just the slightest, slightest fraction of an outside chance that he or she might wake up on this side of the walls of eternity. Beachcombing being a patriotic sort – actually it was just the biggest part of the file – thought that he would begin with Britain’s preferred method of death, hanging.

    Now hanging, ‘death by suspension by the neck,’ can essentially be split into two types. First we have the dangle where a chair or stool is kicked away from under the criminal’s feet. And, second, we have the drop where the criminal is dropped down through a trapdoor a distance depending on his weight and height. If you, the reader, are ever given a choice then Beachcombing implores you to go for the second that results in an instantaneous broken neck. The first can go on for minutes while the criminal’s blood vessels occlude and is reputedly rather unpleasant.

    The canonical case in hanging survival (and the only surviving dropper that Beachcombing knows of) was the Briton John Lee who 23rd February 1885 was hung for the murder of Emma Keyse. Beachcombing writes ‘hung’, actually Lee was placed, noosed up, on the trapdoor three times and each time the trapdoor refused to open – though the door opened easily enough when Lee was not standing there. An act of God? The then British home secretary William Harcourt decided not to take any risks and commuted the sentence to life imprisonment: Lee was eventually set free in 1907 still proclaiming his innocence.

    With the danglers there are two difficulties – (i) ruling out botched executions that were immediately ‘put right’ and (ii) separating fact from fiction. Botched executions might include, for example, that old warhorse George Robert Fitgerald who, in Ireland in 1786, was hung three times. On the first occasion the rope broke and Fitzgerald was catapulted thirty feet into the crowd announcing ‘You seem I am once more among you again unexpectedly’.* The second time the rope was too long and Fitgerald fell injuring himself severely. And on the third occasion Fitzgerald actually had the decency to die.

    As to fiction there are many stories of men who survived hanging using various tricks. Beachcombing has read of wires attached to the criminal’s sides protecting the hangee from the jerk and even – and surely this would have been ineffective? – a silver tube inserted into the throat. One William Gordon, a highwayman may actually – the evidence is reasonable to good – had, in 1738, a hole inserted in his windpipe. In any case, he dangled a little too long and did not survive.

    When we come to danglers who certainly survived death and where botched executions were not corrected and where there is no question of fiction there are depressingly few instances – all British (hurrah!). One John Smith was, in 1705, cut down and returned to life and then later returned to crime being transported to Virginia in 1727. Half-hanggit Maggie Dickson escaped from a hanging in 1724 to give birth ten months later – think about it. Sixteen year old William Duell survived a hanging in 1740 and was transported.

    And just to show that Beachcombing is not constantly stuck in the past: ‘On 2 December 2008, an unnamed man was hung for murder at Kazeroun Prison [in Iran], just moments before he was pardoned by the murder victim’s family. He was quickly cut down and rushed to a hospital where he was successfully revived’. Then a personal favourite from the same country is sixteen-year-old Sina Paymard whose last wish, when about to be hung in 2007, was to play a flute tune. The family of the victim was so moved that they allowed Paymard’s relatives to pay compensation instead of having their young one killed.

    (Dislaimer. Lest any of the last paragraph be taken as criticism of the Islamic republic’s ability to kill its citizens efficiently it should be noted that in both cases  the criminals survived because of interventions on the part of the victim’s families rather than the incompetence of the state. There are though some worrying stories of stoning victims in the country surviving…  Is Iran losing its edge?)

    Beachcombing wants to point his readers in the way of the extraordinary blog www.executedtoday.com – one of those electronic worlds in which you could wander for hours and that is witty to boot (a remarkable achievement given the subject matter). A perusal of ET helped correct several errors in Beachcombing’s own files: he is duly embarrassed and contrite.

    Any other hanging survivals? Please contact a grateful Beachcombing: drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom

    *With some bitterness Beachcombing must note that this phrase is contested. It certainly sounds too good to be true.


    Beachcombing was thrilled to just get an email from Richard Clark, author of Capital Punishment in Britain (Ian Allen 1999). Beachcombing has not yet read this work but was encouraged to see that the foreword is written by that marvel of God, Anne Widdecombe and will immediately order his own copy…

    Anyway, RC – ‘ we are not worthy, we are not worthy…’ – in his second chapter, much of which is quoted in the email, not only gives a definitive description of how death by hanging takes place when there is no drop. He also gives a list of the five British survivors that are known of from the pre-drop era. Beachcombing does not want to abuse RC’s extraordinary generosity in sharing this information by offending copyright restrictions (either in law or spirit) so will just give the highlights – though these are direct quotations. Three names are new for the list.

    ‘On 14 December 1650, 22 year old Anne Green was led into the Castle Yard at Oxford Castle to be hanged for concealing a birth… Although Anne’s execution occurred before 1752, the law required the bodies of those executed at Oxford to be given to the university for dissection.  There three doctors, William Petty, Thomas Willis, Ralph Bathurst were to carry out the dissection and upon opening the coffin noticed that the Anne’s body appeared to be still breathing…  Once she was fully recovered Anne was reprieved and set free, it being decided that she had suffered sufficiently, although theoretically she could have been hanged again.

    Maggie Dickinson September 1724… A while [after the hanging] her family stopped for refreshment in the village of Peffermil, leaving the coffin outside the inn. Two passers by were no doubt horrified to hear noises coming from the coffin and alerted the family who immediately opened it to find a very much less than dead Margaret… Unlike the situation in England, Scottish law did not require Margaret to undergo her punishment for a second time and as she had been hanged once she was now free.

    John Smith was hanged at Tyburn on Wednesday 24 December 1705 for the crime of housebreaking.

    On Monday, 24 November 1740… William Duell.

    …Inetta de Balsham was hanged on 16 August 1264 for harbouring thieves, but having been suspended for only a minute or so a reprieve arrived and she was immediately cut down…’

    There are six then and Beachcombing suspects that this will be a final number. However, there are bound to be examples from other countries: for example, Jack from Red Deer put Beachcombing onto Joseph Samuel, a hanging survivor in Australia. How did Beachcombing miss JS?

    9 July 2011: SY writes in with a possible example of surviving hanging. The year is 1678. ‘The clothed remains of the four hanged Shaws, were cast into a hole purposely dug for them in Greyfriars’ Kirkyard, at Edinburgh. But on the following morning the corpse of the youngest of them, who was barely sixteen could not be found. ‘Some thought’ writes Lord Fountainhall, ‘that being last thrown over the ladder ad first cut down, and in full vigour, and not much earth placed upon him, and lying uppermost, and so not so ready to smother, the fermentation of the blood and the heat of the bodies under him might cause him to rebound and throw off the earth, and recover ere the morning and steal away, which, if true, he deserved his life, though the magistrates deserved a reprimand. But others, more probably thought his body was stolen away by some chirurgeon or his servant to make an anatomical dissection on.’ Macgregor, the Buried Barony, p. 65. Thanks SY!

    7 Oct 2016: Southern Man with an almost hung man: William Appletree, in 1579.