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How humane the hangman’s fracture is, is only perhaps how well the complex permutation of factors fit together each time the state orders the death of an individual, as Vicky Yang finds out

The long drop and the hangman’s ritual

By Vicki Yang

The sandbag. The boiled hemp rope. The lubricated knot. The white hood. These may be the things Singapore’s only hangman, Darshan Singh, lays out before the actual execution of a judicial hanging.

The rituals of a judicial hanging in Singapore are shrouded in secrecy, enshrined in Singapore’s Official Secrets Act, effectively sealing the lips of Singh and other employees at the gaol. Thus, not much is known about the process of hanging conducted in the recesses of Singapore’s Changi Prison, except the method employed for execution here – believed to be the long drop. It is a grim legacy of a punishment method inherited from the British. The ensuing details in this article rely on research on such a method of employment, and on the customs of Changi Prison.

A sandbag is first procured, necessarily of the same weight as the condemned. This inanimate substitute rehearses with the noose, allowing the hangman to calculate as accurately as possible the distance that the inmate must eventually fall.  The hangman utilizes the Official Table of Drops, a manual developed by the British in the late 1800s to assess the exact distance of the fall corresponding to the convicted individual’s statistics of weight and height for an efficient delivery by long drop hanging. The rope can be up to three centimeters thick, extending up to nine meters long. It has been boiled and stretched, to prevent any springing and coiling when the deed is performed. Wax or soap perform their lubricating function on the knot for a smooth and swift uppercut delivery to the neck.

While the hangman deliberates over the mechanism of death, the inmate on death row is called up. Twenty-four hours before the execution, Changi Prison Services organizes a strange photoshoot of sorts. The convict is made to strike up more than ten poses of a variety, enacting fictitious scenes no longer to be realized, for instance posing as if in an office and working. Presumably, the shoot is meant to document photographically the last of the condemned, and this product so thoughtfully passed on to the family of the prisoner thereafter.

The last smile documented, the hangman readied, the condemned prisoner is called to the noose. His hands are manacled behind his back. The hangman meticulously places the eyelet of the noose just below the left ear of the prisoner, well placed for a jolt of the rope to break the neck immediately. If the prisoner has not collapsed in the face of the impending death, the last of all that he or she sees is then obscured by the white hood pulled over the head. “I’m going to send you to a better place than this. God bless you,” are reportedly Singh’s last words to the condemned. [1]

The hangman opens the trapdoor. The inmate drops.  According to this website, “If the eyelet is positioned under the left angle of the jaw it rotates the head backwards, which combined with the downward momentum of the body, breaks the neck and ruptures the spinal cord causing instant deep unconsciousness and rapid death.” The force of the body weight with relation to the drop distance and gravitational force wrenches the knot and fracture-dislocates the neck violently with 1260 foot-pounds of force. “This causes a fracture-dislocation of the upper neck vertebrae, ideally between the C2 & C3 vertebrae, which crushes or severs the spinal cord leading to immediate unconsciousness.” Paralysis results. Blood pressure and blood supply to the brain descend rapidly, knocking the prisoner unconscious within seconds. Death is by comatose asphyxia.

Remove the hood. A discoloured, protuberant face stares back. Eyeballs on the edge of their sockets, the tongue thrust out of the orifice, a mixture of vomit and drool dribbles down the side of the mouth, a foul smell in the air from sudden excretion as the body’s sphincter muscles are involuntarily relaxed.

Yet the Grim Reaper must still wait, there is no swift taking of the convict. The loss of consciousness and instantaneous death cannot be equated as the same sort of effect. Continued beating of the heart and complete death can take up to twenty minutes, during which the prisoner may still feel sensation from the skin above the dislocated neck.

Few things are left to chance but the hangman’s extensive deliberations over the process can belie the accuracy of the 2, 500 year old science of hanging. Miscalculations can occur, resulting in a more macabre demise. Extend the rope, and the head can be torn right off the body, arteries dangling. Shorten it, and a long painful drawn-out process of strangulation takes place instead, possibly extending up till forty-five minutes. Misplace the noose just slightly, and dislocation of the neck and the resulting death will not be clean and swift, the inmate flailing in the air for several minutes.

Give the hangman the benefit of the doubt, and say that his preparation of instruments are reliable and accurate. The accuracy of this science of killing, however, also depends on the individual anatomy of the prisoners; for instance the strength of the neck muscles and neck size. How humane the hangman’s fracture is, is only perhaps how well the complex permutation of factors fit together each time the state orders the death of an individual. When that happens, the hangman readies himself on the dawn of a Friday. The instruments of judicial punishment by death are laid out. The condemned is led to the gallows. And the noose is tightened.

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References:

[1] Ravi, M. Hung At Dawn. Singapore: Orion Books, 2005. Print.

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