Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon. And the United States government used them as a means of execution, the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question from that song. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing.
Most writers who attempt to pen death by rope or other “twisted” cord have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). And that, of course, makes the task a little more difficult, relying on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a human life.
The neck, although looking pretty sturdy perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.
After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. And there’s not a lot of protection surrounding those vital body parts. There’s no bony encasement, such as our ribs, that circle around the interior of the neck. Nope, it’s basically just a little muscle and skin that separates the spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels from harm.
Did you know that hanging is actually a form of strangulation? Well, sometimes hangings may include some spinal cord or bone injury, but basically the death is by strangulation.
Hangings are either complete (the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck), or incomplete (a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor).
A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, separating the head from the body (a separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture).
Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete, external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6′ tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet, or more, before the rope tightens.
The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.
Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death is normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which causes loss of consciousness followed by a loss of muscle tone and finally arterial and airway obstruction. Naturally, other things occur during the time of strangulation, but those are probably of the most concern for writers.
However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts “strangle holds” often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness. The trachea (windpipe) is not compromised during the application of these techniques.
This post-autopsy photo (note the stitching of the “Y” incision) shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left).
The murder weapon was an extension cord, the typical cord found in many homes.