Friday, July 8, 2022

Hanging around


This blog is a bit gory. I’m sure you’ve now all decided to read on with the anticipation of an Andrex puppy after a toilet roll (British cultural reference there).

Within about three minutes of meeting a total stranger, when we should have been discussing lower back pain and kettlebells, we were actually discussing the probability of decapitation during hanging. It’s not a natural or logical sequence of a conversational exchange I agree, but it did provoke some thought on both sides.

Having a qualification in Forensic Medical and Legal Science, I thought I was pretty good on trauma to the neck that causes death. Unlike DNA and crime scene analysis, trauma to the neck doesn’t change. Within a known set of variables manual strangulation tends to break the hyoid bone, whereas ligature strangulation tends not to. The marks left on the neck are very different, fingertips and pressure marks as opposed to the fibre pattern of the rope.

When you add a suspensory element, other factors come in to play. In Britain, judicial hanging was always done with the knot at ten o’clock or two o’clock if the back of the spinal chord is at  twelve. And a calculation was made re the body weight and drop so that death was basically neurological rather then by asphyxiation. A broken neck if you will.

In my day job, we do try to avoid breaking people’s necks. It’s an occupational hazard, and something that we have picked up in the clinic, usually by over enthusiastic manipulation carried out previously ( and elsewhere!!)  on a cervical spine fragile to withstand it. I’ve no idea how that happens as the red flags will be there, waving out from the case history.

The anatomy of the upper neck is incredibly well designed. There’s a ring of bone with a peg sticking upwards. On top of that is another ring of bone with two kidney shaped articular surfaces. And on top of that sits the skull, which can swivel on that central point. This allows the huge range of movement the human head has – especially in to rotation, while the spinal chord sits well protected in a bony canal with the extra protection  of the bony peg at the back. However, there is a very strong ligament across the front of the peg that helps to hold it all together and that ligament can be weakened by some disease processes and some medications. It is possible to walk about quite happily with the ligament snapped, even the peg snapped, ( as long as it doesn’t dislodge)  but your rugby playing days are over. And turning to reverse your car into a very tight space might give you an uncomfortable tingle in the hands and the feet – best avoided.


The gentleman I was talking to had made the comment that decapitation during hanging happens when the rope is too long, and I thought what’s that got to do with the price of cheese? That was something I didn’t know. And, being very nosey, I don’t like it when I don’t know things. In various conversations over kettlebells, he sent me the link to the Wikipedia page that had caught his attention.

I was somewhat comforted that it was Wikipedia and that they used the word ‘burglarised’.

I’ve summarized the story below, but it did lead me on to an article in a prominent forensic journal about how rare decapitation is in hanging, and the factors that can bring this about. It’s a simple mechanical issue of momentum and physics, more body weight, very thin rope, too much drop so there’s greater momentum- that’s where the rope too long scenario came from. And a neck that his very little muscular protection.


The Wikipeadia page is all about Thomas Edward Ketchum – Black Jack – who died on the 26th of April 1901. The article clearly states that he was decapitated during his hanging because the rope was too long. This happened in Clayton New Mexico. The poor victim of the botched hanging had gained a significant amount of weight in jail and his head came off as he went through the trap door. He seemed to have been sentenced to death for a train robbery, his final words were ‘goodbye, please dig my grave very deep. Alright, hurry up’. Afterwards they sewed his head back on for public viewing.

You may also recall a blog I wrote years ago about a friend who was a forensic archaeologist. She was once working on a case, a skull had been found lying on the ground in a  city centre space that was enclosed by hoardings for a few years awaiting planning permission. When the initial builders went in to clear the site of vegetation and debris, they made the macabre discovery. Toothmarks reveal that the skull had been moved, probably by a fox.  There were a few young trees in the area, one had fronds of rotted rope hanging from a lower branch. Nothing in the grass underneath was immediately apparent, until they saw a pile of bones and cloth. The poor soul had been hanged, then the body had dropped when the rope rotted and had concertinaed into a small package of shins on the ground, thighs on top of the shins, abdomen on top of the thighs. The face would have been on the ground just in front of his knees, his arms alongside his shins. Probably the  most compact shape a human body can fold itself into.

At the time of writing this, I believe they still have not identified him. Which is maybe the biggest tragedy of the story.


  1. Do you know how often the hyoid bone fractures. My impression is that it occurs in a minority of manual-strangulation cases, although it’s a nice forensic find in books and movies.

  2. I've been asked that question a lot, as some sources suggest it's a bit of a myth. But the two forensic pathologists in Glasgow say it's true. But it all depends on circumstance.