Death comes to many characters in fiction. Some are executed for crimes they have committed: murder, treason, stealing a sheep. Others get murdered, die in battle or are run down by a tram. It may come suddenly, slowly, gruesomely or at the end of a rope. But when it comes, how it comes and how it plays out to its cold finale is yet another plausibility trap. These characters, actors all in fictions great and small alike, must play each death for real, otherwise they are no more than the ‘mechanics of cheap melodrama’, those frauds so despised by Guildenstern in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s play about reality and existence, free will and the meaning of life.
So, let’s look at executions. Everyone – well, nearly everyone – ends up dead.
Beheading is an ancient method, still used today in some countries that retain the death penalty as well as by some terrorist kidnappers and Mexican drug gangs. In the distant past, there was burning at the stake, stoning and crucifixion; stoning sometimes still occurs after impromptu religious trials in one or two places. Pressing under weights was a form of torture cum execution used in Europe when a prisoner refused to plead in a capital case; refusing to plead meant the victim’s property was not forfeit to the state. This method, whereby ever more stones were put on the prisoner’s chest to increase the weight bearing down on them, was employed between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. In 1586, Margaret Clitherow was pressed to death in 15 minutes with 320 kg, while in 1721 William Spigott withstood 180 kg for 30 minutes before pleading. In the case of Major Strangways in 1658, those witnessing this torture sat on the poor man to end his suffering.
Hanging, drawing and quartering was a peculiarly English punishment reserved for high treason, practised between the fourteenth century and the eighteenth. Execution by shooting, gassing and lethal injection still happen in some states in America but electrocution has been abandoned. Electrocution was gruesome as it tended to make the prisoner catch fire or emit smoke where the electrodes made contact with his skin. And sometimes smoke came out his mouth. With three separate jolts of current, it was not a quick death.
There was also sawing in half, from the groin to the neck, the victim being spreadeagled upsidedown on a wooden frame. This was only infrequently used in medieval Europe and in China where sawing horizontally through the middle was an alternative. Boiling alive was another uncommon form of execution, legalised in England by Henry VIII in 1532 for poisoners, while its most recent usage was allegedly in Uzbekistan in the early 2000s. Impaling on wooden stakes was a method favoured by Vlad III, fifteenth-century Prince of Walachia. He was not the only ruler to execute people by this method, however. This slow, painful death was once practised by the Ottomans and the Russians.
Garrotting is probably one of the most ancient methods of all. It was certainly practised in prehistory as shown by Bemmerose Man discovered in a Danish peat bog in 1948. He had been strangled with a slipknot in about the eighth century BCE. The garrotte was used in Rome in the first century CE and was the common method of execution in Spain for several hundred years. One of the last people to be executed by this method was serial killer José María Jarabo in 1959. The last garrottings anywhere in the world took place in Spain in 1974 when two killers of police officers were executed. In its simplest form, the garrotte consisted of no more than a loop of rope slipped over the neck of the condemned person. A wooden bar was often put through the rope and turned to tighten the garrotte and make strangulation of the prisoner that much more efficient. Later, the condemned were tied to a chair attached to a wooden post to which was fixed a metal collar. Once the prisoner was secured in the seat, the collar was placed round the neck and tightened with a crank.
The metal collar method of strangulation was supposed to be instantaneous, hence, a faster method of execution than the rope it replaced. The collar was supposed to dislocate the neck, whereas the rope asphyxiated or strangled the condemned person to death. However, the neck was difficult to compress with the collar and, rather than being instantaneous, death often took several minutes because the prisoner was asphyxiated, suffered dislocation of the neck and cerebral ischemia due to restricted blood flow to the brain. As a means of execution, it was agonising and very distressing. While garrotting was not an especially quick way to kill someone, it has been used for silent killing by some military forces, including the French Foreign Legion; a double loop of wire or rope with handles at each end is particularly effective.
Hanging goes back to prehistory. Tolland Man, discovered in a bog in Denmark in 1950, had been hanged. He died approximately 2,300 years ago (ie about the fourth century BCE). Hanging relied on strangulation rather than on snapping the neck, so it was not quick. Neck-breaking only became the norm for hangings during the latter part of the nineteenth century. Until the 1860s, the short drop was the customary method and that led to death by slow strangulation.
The condemned person had a noose put round their neck while standing on a moveable object, such as a cart, positioned beneath the branch of a tree or the beam of a scaffold, sometimes called the three-legged mare in the eighteenth century because of its three posts linked by cross beams from which the condemned were hanged. The cart was moved away and the prisoner was left suspended by the neck. The drop was sometimes no more than a couple of feet; a few inches would do, however, provided the prisoner’s feet were prevented from touching the ground. Alternatively, the prisoner had to climb a ladder put up against the gallows, or tree, which was then turned aside so that they came off it and were suspended. Sometimes a stool or a chair was used. Prisoners usually had their hands tied in front of them in case they tried to resist. The short drop ensured a slow death because the rope gradually strangled the prisoner rather than breaking their neck. It could take up to twenty minutes to die although usually death was swifter.
Hangings were public spectacles in Britain until 1868. Indeed, it was theatre. The cronies of the condemned would come to see them off. Parents would even bring their children to watch. Beer and food would be on sale. As many as twenty-five thousand from all classes of society might turn out to see someone famous, like the highwayman Jack Sheppard, take the drop. For one hanging in 1767, eighty thousand people are supposed to have attended the execution, and some claim as many as 200,000 lined the streets to witness Sheppard’s journey to Tyburn. It could be a gruesome spectacle because slow strangulation was a dance macabre, although death was not from asphyxiation. Although the trachea was compressed, making breathing difficult, it takes 2.23 kilograms per square centimetre (33 pounds per square inch) of pressure to compress it.
As the rope began to pull and stretch the condemned person’s neck, they jerked about as though struggling but these movements were brief. By the time the carotid artery and jugular veins had been constricted sufficiently to stop the flow of blood to and from the brain, the condemned person was unconscious. Until the nineteenth century, no one was aware of the rapid onset of unconsciousness due to the reduction in blood flow so everyone assumed the hanging person remained aware of what was happening to them until they were dead. Because of the reduced blood flow, the face engorged with blood, turning red, before becoming cyanotic due to lack of oxygen and turning blue. The brain suffered rapid oedema and ischemia, which would have given the victim a severe headache before they passed out about 6 or 7 seconds later. The facial muscles spasmed and contorted grotesquely and the eyes closed. The body of the unconscious victim then went through a series of spasms that gave the impression they were struggling for life but, in fact, were due to muscular reflexes and quite involuntary. The tongue protruded. The heart continued to beat for a few moments but the brain died from hypoxia, usually within no more than 4 minutes of being dropped. In Britain, from about the middle of the eighteenth century, the condemned were hooded just before having the noose slipped over their necks so the spectators could see none of the colour changes or the facial spasms. Brain death occurred in about 6 minutes but the heart continued to beat for about another 10 minutes.
In the belief that the body movements by the victim were signs of their continued struggle for life, some of their friends, family members or even the hangman and his assistants, would sometimes grab the victim’s legs and pull down on them to bring their life to a speedier end. If they did this at the start of the hanging, they would have achieved their aim but once the prisoner had become unconscious it made little difference. The movements after loss of consciousness could be extreme, the body convulsing, the legs being drawn up and released several times, the chest heaving and the arms and hands twitching.
In the short-drop hanging method, the victim’s neck was rarely broken by the drop. In 1866, the standard drop was introduced following a more scientific approach to the problem of how to hang someone efficiently and, indeed, more humanely than the short-drop method. The standard drop was 4–6 feet, calculated as the distance necessary to ensure the neck was broken by the drop; the short drop had been 12–18 inches. However, the spectacle of someone being hanged by this method was no less grisly than the procedure it replaced. Even after the upper cervical vertebrae had been dislocated by the rope in the standard drop, the body still went through similar reflex spasms as those caused by contraction of the arteries and veins in the neck. When the spinal cord had been separated from the brain, the prisoner was dead and that did not always happen with this method.
Within a few years of the introduction of the standard drop, the long drop was adopted instead. With this method devised in the early 1870s by William Marwood, a British hangman, the length of the drop was calculated from the height and weight of the condemned person so that a force of about 5,600 newtons (1,260 pounds force) was applied to the cervical vertebrae when the rope went taught and, thus, broke the neck. This was later reduced to 4,400 newtons to avoid mishaps. To work properly, the long drop also required the knot in the noose be placed correctly on the prisoner’s neck to ensure their head was jerked backwards when the rope went taught. Miscalculations and mistakes were not unknown. If too much force was applied when the rope went taut, because the hangman got his sums wrong, the prisoner was decapitated. As recently as 2007, when Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti, head of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence service, was hanged, his execution was botched and the noose decapitated him. Conversely, when Saddam Hussein was hanged the previous year, the drop broke his neck with an audible crack.
One consequence of the sudden tightening of a rope round the neck was priapism, known as angel lust and death erection. The force exerted by the rope on the spinal cord caused an involuntary response in the penis but a similar effect also occurred in the labia and clitoris when women were hanged. The erection was often accompanied by a discharge that resembled an ejaculation. This phenomenon was well known and was often commented on by observers at public executions, as well as being noted by scientists in the nineteenth century. When the highwayman, Jack Sheppard, was hanged, he had such an erection. He was hanged for 15 minutes before being cut down. In Principles of Forensic Medicine published in 1844 when the short drop was still in use, William Guy noted that priapism
affords a sure proof of violent death by hanging … [and] in other forms of violent and sudden death, as in fatal gun-shot wounds of the brain, and of the large vessels, and in poisoning by prussic acid.
Lynchings and suicides by hanging are worse than executions as the victim is slowly and painfully strangled. In lynchings, the victim was not always dropped but dragged off the ground by a crude noose, while in suicides a range of different methods have been used, none of them guaranteed to break the suicide’s neck. Yet some people have actually survived being hanged both in executions and as suicides. Burglar John Smith was hanged at Tyburn on Christmas Eve 1705 but was cut down after 15 minutes because the mob demanded his reprieve. He was still alive.
When I was turned off [hanged] I was, for some time, sensible of very great pain occasioned by the weight of my body and felt my spirits in strange commotion, violently pressing upwards. Having forced their way to my head I saw a great blaze or glaring light that seemed to go out of my eyes in a flash and then I lost all sense of pain. After I was cut down, I began to come to myself and the blood and spirits forcing themselves into their former channels put me by a prickling or shooting into such intolerable pain that I could have wished those hanged who had cut me down.
Hanging, drawing and quartering was not removed from the statute books until 1870 although the last men to suffer this fate had been Jacobites captured during the 1745 rebellion. Whether ‘drawing’ referred to be drawn through the streets to the place of execution, as some argue, or whether it refers to being disembowelled is unclear. The condemned man was drawn behind a horse, sometimes tied to a hurdle or simply dragged behind the animal. If the mob did not care much for the prisoner, they would beat him or throw things, including rotting vegetables and excrement. William Wallace was whipped and subjected to ordorous indignities as he was dragged through the streets of London in 1305, while Thomas Pritchard, a catholic priest executed in 1587 was so badly beaten by the mob on his final journey they nearly cheated the executioner. A chaplain followed the condemned man demanding that he repent his wickednesses. When the execution party arrived at the gallows, the prisoner had the charge of high treason read out – the King’s Commission. The prisoner was then allowed to address the crowd but if the sheriff decided what he had to say was inappropriate he could expedite matters and instruct the hangman to proceed with haste.
The man was then stripped to the waist and hanged. Hanging was supposed to strangle the prisoner to near death after which he was cut down. Sometimes the hanging was a little too effective and the prisoner died on the end of the rope. It was not unheard of for the hanging man to be hastened on his way by friends pulling down on his legs so he died before the next part of the process began. This happened to the catholic priest John Payne, executed in 1582. On the other hand, if the prisoner was especially unpopular he might be cut down before the noose had done its job of nearly killing him so that he would be fully aware of the next part of the execution and experience agony as it was carried out. Such was the grisly fate of fanatical puritan William Hacket, executed in 1591 for claiming Elizabeth was not the rightful queen of England. He was cut down almost as soon as he had been dropped.
Having been cut down, the condemned man was now publicly emasculated and disembowelled. The man’s entrails were thrown on a fire that had been lit for the purpose. Then, his heart was cut out and burned. If being disembowelled did not kill him the removal of his heart most certainly did. There was no prescribed method for disembowelling. That was down to the executioner so he might use any instruments he thought fit, anything from an array of knives to butcher’s tools, and proceed as he felt inclined. Some executioners had never carried out this sort of punishment before and made a thorough botch of things. The condemned man was often conscious when he was disembowelled and remained so right up to having his heart cut out, despite the agony of what was being done to him. The corpse was decapitated, then quartered, probably with an axe. The quarters were then parboiled to preserve them so that they could be displayed on spikes for a long time without rotting. The head was stuck on a spike on London Bridge as a warning to others contemplating high treason.
Burning at the stake was reserved for women guilty of high treason to preserve public decency since hanging, drawing and quartering necessitated the prisoner being stripped to the waist. Both female and male heretics were also put to death this way. The Greeks, the Romans and the Celts all executed people by burning them to death. The condemned person was not necessarily killed by the flames, however. Carbon monoxide and a lack of oxygen sometimes killed them although this rather depended on the magnitude of the fire: the bigger the pyre, the greater the chances of dying this way.
Sometimes, death could be slow and painful but the pain would have been mitigated after the layer containing the nerve endings had been burned away. In some instances, the condemned person was painted with an accelerant such a resin or pitch before being set alight which may have increased the agony but certainly hastened their death from asphyxiation before the flames could do most damage. It is certainly the case with people who have been caught by napalm. The oxygen is consumed by the fire and the victim suffocates before they are burned to death. Often, the flames burned up the body from the feet to the face while the prisoner was still alive and this might take some time. Death came from heat stroke, loss of blood and shock. Sometimes, the prisoner was hanged for a while before being burned.
The instrument of decapitation was usually an axe, a sword or the guillotine, although some terrorist kidnappers use a knife to cut through the neck, a brutal bloody process. A form of guillotine had been used in Germany long before its infamous use in the French Revolution. In Japan, a saw was sometimes the instrument of execution. In 1570, an assassin – probably a Buddhist monk – tried to kill Oda Nobunga by shooting him. The attempt failed and the would-be assassin was caught. As punishment, he was buried up to his neck in the ground and his head was sawn off over several days by anyone who fancied a go with the bamboo saw provided for the purpose. It is unlikely he remained alive for as long as it took to remove his head, however. When the carotid arteries were severed, he would have quickly expired had he not died already.
The beheading technique employed by an executioner differed according to whether he was wielding an axe or a sword, the latter method of execution being popular in mainland Europe, Germany in particular. When the instrument of decapitation was an axe, the condemned person knelt or lay with their neck on a shaped block and the executioner swung the curved blade down towards the block. When the instrument was a sword, however, the prisoner knelt in an upright position or sat on a stool or chair and the executioner swung his sword more or less horizontally, although the Japanese tended to use a more diagonal cut. An efficient execution depended on the blade having sufficient weight to it and a sharp edge. It also required some skill on the part of the headsman to ensure he cleaved the neck in one strike. Alas, a clumsy executioner could make a ghastly hash of the job. In 1541, the Eighth Countess of Salisbury, a catholic, was beheaded in a very clumsy execution that is reputed to have taken ten strokes, while the head of the Second Earl of Essex needed three before it was separated from his neck in 1601. Mary Queen of Scots was also struck three times before she was successfully decapitated in 1587.
Margaret Pole, the Countess of Salisbury did not go quietly to her death, it seems. She knew of her execution barely an hour beforehand, yet had been imprisoned in the Tower for more than two and a half years. The executioner was inexperienced and his first blow hit her across the shoulders which no doubt caused her so much pain she moved involuntarily so that when he struck again, he missed her neck again. Some claim that she had to be dragged to the block and that she resisted having her neck placed on it which was why the executioner missed with his first blow. There is little evidence to support this, however. Whatever the truth of it, there is no question that the 150 witnesses to her execution were appalled by how the executioner hacked at her neck before he successfully decapitated her.
When Mary Queen of Scots was executed, the first blow struck the back of her head. It is likely that this blow killed her since the weight and force of the strike would have ensured the blade penetrated her skull and her brain. She was supposed to have let out a loud groan when the blow struck her but it was probably involuntary. The second blow all but severed Mary’s head from her neck, only some skin and sinew remaining. In Japan, seppuku required a trusted friend to decapitate the samurai as he disembowelled himself, yet leave the head connected to the neck by some skin to prevent it from rolling towards the witnesses which was considered bad taste.
Anne Boleyn was beheaded with a sword. Since no one in England was experienced with this mode of execution, a swordsman was brought over from France. He cut her head off in one strike. But as with executions with an axe, beheadings with swords could go horribly wrong. In 1625, a volunteer offered to behead a condemned man with a sword but clearly had no idea what he was doing as it reputedly took him twenty-nine attempts. Yet, in 1501, an executioner is supposed to have beheaded two condemned men with the same blow.
Unconsciousness occurs within seconds of the head being cut off due to the ‘rapid fall of intracranial perfusion of blood’ and death soon follows because the brain has been separated from the spinal cord, although it may take up to 60 seconds. Until consciousness is lost, however, the victim probably experiences severe pain, if only for a moment. There are accounts of eyes moving in the heads of guillotined people, although whether these movements were due to conscious intention by the victim or involuntary action is hard to determine. Blood certainly spurted from the neck as soon as the carotid arteries and jugular veins were severed. This was caused by the release of normal blood pressure in the body. Such spurts would have been up to about eighteen inches lengthways and may have lasted several seconds, causing a massive outpouring of blood.
Death by firing squad is no less uncertain than any other mode of execution. The condemned person is shot through the chest, rather than the head, presumably because the latter would be messier rather than because the target was too small to hit. The object was to shoot the prisoner in the heart and kill them instantly. A single marksman might be capable of the feat, especially given the short range involved, but the uncertainty of achieving a kill shot with one bullet was too great to permit this. And there is the question of the psychological impact such an action would have on the executioner, although no one worried about psychological impact when it came to a hangman carrying out his duty. Thus, a firing squad of several marksmen shot the prisoner. Gary Gilmore was shot at a range of 6 metres (20 feet) in January 1977 by a squad of five.
Military firing squads usually included a larger number of shooters. In 1916, the British 21st Division executed one soldier with a squad of eighteen comprising one officer, one sergeant and sixteen men but squads of one officer and ten men were more usual. There was no standard size for a firing party, however. The officer loaded each rifle with a live round but one rifle was left empty or loaded with a blank. The psychology behind this was rather flawed as no soldier would have failed to notice his rifle had not been loaded with a live round when he fired. The condemned man was blindfolded and tied to a post or restrained in a chair so that he did not fall when he was shot. Often, the firing party came from the same battalion as the condemned man and some certainly knew who they were shooting. Orders to the firing party were not verbal but a series of prearranged signals. The officer was armed with a revolver for the purpose of delivering the coup de grâce should it be necessary. Mostly, it was not. After all, being struck by nine bullets in the region of the heart was likely to result in death.
Irrespective of how death is brought about, it is rarely instantaneous. ‘Acute dying proceeds through a number of stages, irrespective of the agent which causes it.’ So wrote Harold Hillman, reader in psychology at the University of Surrey in an article ‘An unnatural way to die’, published in New Scientist in 1983. Defining the moment when life becomes extinct and the person is dead is problematical. Whereas in past times, cessation of the heart, lack of a pulse or signs of breathing were used to define death, in the modern era when techniques of resuscitation can revive someone who might well have died in the past, brain death is usually the yardstick for deciding whether someone has died. In other words, the brain has to show no electrical activity for someone to be declared dead. But even this definition is not without its difficulties.
Dying is not necessarily quick. Death may be described as instantaneous but often it is not and the injured person takes a few seconds to die. Indeed, about the only truly instantaneous death is obliteration by an explosion. Dying has been classified into several distinct categories: instantaneous death when the person does not go through a process of dying but passes from being alive to being dead in a split second; acute dying when the person takes seconds or minutes to reach the point of death; dying through shock which may take minutes or hours due to untreated blood and fluid loss which leads to multiple organ failure; and progressive dying which may take minutes or hours and is typically due to illness rather than trauma.
In the case of blood loss due to injuries that are not immediately fatal, blood pressure rises at first, while breathing rate and heart rate also increase, all of which is the body’s attempt to compensate for the ever reducing level of oxygen being carried in the blood to the brain and the body’s tissues. This is shock. As more blood is lost, however, and the ability to transport oxygen round the body is consequently further reduced, blood pressure falls and a state of hypoxia is eventually reached. Disorientation is common due to the reduced level of oxygen reaching the brain, along with a rising weariness. Unless something is done to halt this process, death will eventually follow. No one dies quietly, irrespective of the pain level. The primordial instinct is to survive and this triggers a flight response so that the dying may physically struggle. All this may happen in less than a minute, depending on the rapidity the blood loss.
And one final word. When someone is critically ill by whatever agency, whether it be disease or violence, they know if they are dying. It is a primordial sensation. The sensation of life diminishing is unknown to the healthy but instantly recognisable to the dying.