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J Neurosurg Spine. 2011 Feb;14(2):198-208. doi: 10.3171/2010.10.SPINE09805. Epub 2010 Dec 24.

Hangman's fracture: a historical and biomechanical perspective.

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  • 1Department of Neurosurgery, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan 48201, USA.


The execution technique of hanging, introduced by the Angle, Saxon, and Jute Germanic tribes during their invasions of the Roman Empire and Britain in the 5th century, has remained largely unchanged over time. The earliest form of a gallows was a tree on which prisoners were hanged. Despite the introduction of several modifications such as a trap door, the main mechanism of death remained asphyxiation. This created the opportunity for attempted revival after the execution, and indeed several well-known cases of survival following judicial hanging have been reported. It was not until the introduction of the standard drop by Dr. Samuel Haughton in 1866, and the so-called long drop by William Marwood in 1872 that hanging became a standard, humane means to achieve instantaneous death. Hangmen, however, fearing knot slippage, started substituting the subaural knot for the traditional submental knot. Subaural knots were not as effective, and cases of decapitation were recorded. Standardization of the long drop was further propagated by John Berry, an executioner who used mathematical calculations to estimate the correct drop length for each individual to be hanged. A British committee on capital sentences, led by Lord Aberdare, studied the execution method, and advocated for the submental knot. However, it was not until Frederic Wood-Jones published his seminal work in 1913 that cervical fractures were identified as the main mechanism of death following hanging in which the long drop and a submental knot were used. Schneider introduced the term "hangman's fracture" in 1965, and reported on the biomechanics and other similarities of the cervical fractures seen following judicial hangings and those caused by motor vehicle accidents.

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