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A Curious History of Hanging

Amanda Howard provides details about our relationship with death by rope.

Amanda Howard
Source: Amanda Howard

I’d never heard of the “upright jerker” until I read Amanda Howard’s book, Rope: A History of the Hanged. According to her research, this device, based on a series of weights and pulleys, was used across America during part of the 1800s. In some places, it became the exclusive method for execution. The upright jerker was meant to reduce the need for intricate calculations for the “long drop,” which often went awry, strangling people instead of mercifully breaking their necks.

Take a breath before you read this book. You’ll definitely feel the constrictions described.

The upright jerker created “a sudden upright motion of the prisoner’s body with the mass force against his neck, snapping it suddenly against his own body’s weight in what is known as the hangman’s fracture.” Howard describes how it was used on pirate Charles Gibbs at Ellis Island. The ropes were attached to weights for a total of 560 pounds, far more than Gibbs’ weight. As they were dropped, the theory held, he’d be jerked upward with such force he’d be gone before he knew what hit him.

There’s a reason why this device was eventually replaced.

The image of this execution style made me think of the last hanging in Easton, PA in 1833 on Getter’s Island.

Charles Goetter, now known as Getter, was convicted of murdering his wife, whom the court had forced him to marry because she was pregnant. He was sentenced to be hanged. When the day arrived, thousands of people arrived to witness the event. Getter donned a white suit and was escorted into the streets by the sheriff. They walked a mile to the river’s edge and crossed over to the island where the gallows stood.

Getter had asked to be hanged by a method different from the typical drop-and-break: He wanted to be drawn up from the ground. However, Easton was not yet equipped with the sophisticated upright jerker. Still, the executioner believed he could make it work. If that’s what the condemned wanted, so be it.

The rope was placed around Getter’s neck. The hangman drew it up fast. Getter struggled and kicked, choking, before the rope broke, throwing him to the ground. Unlike some in Howard’s book who escaped such a terrible experience with a reprieve, the execution would proceed. Getter had to wait half an hour for a sturdier rope to be found. (A piece of the actual rope is part of an exhibit of hanging ropes in Easton’s Sigal Museum, and it’s astonishing to see just how thin it was compared to others).

The new rope worked, at least to hold him up. By some accounts, it took Getter fully eleven minutes to die. He surely had time to reconsider his decision, but no way to do anything about it.

Such are the types of stories you’ll find in Rope, along with a sordid history of the various ways that ropes have been used for hanging, from execution to dragging to suicide. You’ll learn about the condemned (some famous, some not, and some innocent), hanging trees, mass hangings, child hangings, various gallows, and several hangmen (as well as a hang-woman). There’s even a chapter devoted to Jack the Ripper, i.e., to Ripper suspects who were hanged. One of them (entirely unlikely) reportedly stated, “I am Jack the­–” before the tightening noose truncated his final words.

Among other famously hanged, whose stories Howard explores, are body-snatchers Burke and Hare, Clutter killers Hickock and Smith, H. H. Crippen, Ned Kelly, and even John Lynch, apparently born to the rope.

One sad chapter is devoted to suicide-by-hanging (with an appendix for suicide prevention resources), and another describes several serial killers who committed suicide once caught. Child molester and murderer Westley Allan Dodd actually requested hanging for his own execution, to match how he had treated one of his victims.

While not exhaustive, Rope is well-researched and provocative. It covers a wide variety of hanging situations and provides a history of hanging mechanics. This book will make you ponder the inventors and executioners as much as the executed – especially those hangmen who pulled on the legs of the dying to hasten the process.

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