Hanging Themselves was the Only Way to See How Hanging Works

FelixRenaud/iStock via Getty Images
FelixRenaud/iStock via Getty Images

Hanging is a pretty simple way to kill someone. All you really need is a length of rope, someone who can tie a decent knot, and something from which to hang the victim. If you're having a fancier execution, you can dress things up with gallows and use the victim’s height and weight to figure out how much slack the rope needs to kill them, but not take their head clean off—a common occurrence until British hangman William Marwood developed the “long drop” in 1872. It’s no-nonsense and versatile. Hanging has been a favored method of execution for everyone from lynch mobs to governments since at least the fifth century (edit: BCE)(when the Persian noble Haman was hanged in the Bible’s Book of Esther).

Here’s the thing, though. For as long as we’ve been using it, we don't know what makes hanging work so well.

Sure, we have a general idea of what’s going on. Suspension hanging and short drops strangle the victim, and standard drops and long drops break the neck. Medically speaking, though, that’s a little vague. We don’t always know what specifically is happening to the neck when it comes to a sudden stop at the end of a noose.

Rarely does it even appear to be the same thing from person to person. With some longer drops, one or more of the cervical vertebrae is severely fractured. With others, they’re barely damaged. Sometimes the spinal cord or the vertebral arteries are crushed and sometimes they aren’t. With some shorter, strangling drops, the airway is closed or crushed. Sometimes it’s spared, but pressure on the carotid artery causes an arterial spasm, starving the brain of blood.

Suddenly, hanging doesn’t seem so simple anymore.

Fortunately for the morbidly curious, a number of scientists have embraced the grim job of studying hanging, some even going so far as to experiment on themselves. A group of researchers formed The Working Group on Human Asphyxiation (WGHA) in 2006, and have since reviewed historical and medical texts (the best stuff comes from between 1870 and 1930, when hanging was very in vogue in the U.S. and Europe), looked at the data from animal experiments, and even analyzed filmed human hangings, all in an effort to get to the bottom of what makes hanging so effective.

A little gruesome? Sure, but the WGHA doesn’t have anything on Nicolas Minovici. For his 238-page “Studies on Hanging” (1905), the Romanian forensic scientist analyzed 172 hanging suicides and executions and then, to really get a feel for it, hanged himself.

Then he did it 11 more times.

At first, Minovici took a few practice runs with a non-contracting noose to “get used to” the sensation of staring down death. Then he went for the real deal—12 rounds with a regular contracting noose that left him dangling several feet off the ground. While he was apologetic that he “could not take the experiment any longer than three to four seconds,” Minovici’s study did make one big leap in the science of hanging. His self-experimentation revealed that a person who is hanged usually loses consciousness not because of strangling but from disrupted bloodflow. Minovici also studied tattooing among Romanian citizens and convicts. No word on whether he got some prison ink of his own as part of it.

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Did the Northern Lights Play a Role in the Sinking of the Titanic? A New Paper Says It’s Possible

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The sinking of the RMS Titanic on April 15, 1912, is the most famous maritime disaster in history. The story has been retold countless times, but experts are still uncovering new details about what happened that night more than a century later. The latest development in our understanding of the event has to do with the northern lights. As Smithsonian reports, the same solar storm that produced an aurora over the North Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank may have caused equipment malfunctions that led to its demise.

Independent Titanic researcher Mila Zinkova outlines the new theory in a study published in the journal Weather. Survivors and eyewitnesses from the night of the Titanic's sinking reported seeing the aurora borealis light up the dark sky. James Bisset, second officer of the ship that responded to the Titanic's distress calls, the RMS Carpathia, wrote in his log: "There was no moon, but the aurora borealis glimmered like moonbeams shooting up from the northern horizon."

Zinkova argues that while the lights themselves didn't lead the Titanic on a crash course with the iceberg, a solar storm that night might have. The northern lights are the product of solar particles colliding and reacting with gas molecules in Earth's atmosphere. A vivid aurora is the result of a solar storm expelling energy from the sun's surface. In addition to causing colorful lights to appear in the sky, solar storms can also interfere with magnetic equipment on Earth.

Compasses are susceptible to electromagnetic pulses from the sun. Zinkova writes that the storm would have only had to shift the ship's compass by 0.5 degrees to guide it off a safe course and toward the iceberg. Radio signals that night may have also been affected by solar activity. The ship La Provence never received the Titanic's distress call, despite its proximity. The nearby SS Mount Temple picked it up, but their response to the Titanic went unheard. Amateur radio enthusiasts were initially blamed for jamming the airwaves used by professional ships that night, but the study posits that electromagnetic waves may have played a larger role in the interference.

If a solar storm did hinder the ship's equipment that night, it was only one condition that led to the Titanic's sinking. A cocktail of factors—including the state of the sea, the design of the ship, and the warnings that were ignored—ultimately sealed the vessel's fate.

[h/t Smithsonian]