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The Table of Drops: The Science of the Noose

© 2017 - Stephanie Hoover, All Rights Reserved

Black Jack Ketchum's execution
"Black Jack" Ketchum's 1901 execution proved the dangers of using too long a drop. He was decapitated rather than dying instantly from a broken neck.

The title "The Table of Drops" seems so innocuous when you first hear it. It could mean medical dosages or maybe even a rain gauge. It is only when you fully study these rows and columns, so spartanly arranged, that the uncomfortable realization sinks in. These are not medicinal prescriptions - they are mathematical calculations to determine rope lengths verses human weight. The Table of Drops, you see, is a reference guide for conscientious executioners carrying out judicial hangings.

The Table of Drops was first published by the British Home Office in 1888. The United Kingdom (and indeed other nations) had witnessed a number of botched hangings, unfortunate not only for the condemned but also for the public who attended these spectacles with astonishing regularity. The key to successfully and quickly hanging a prisoner lay in the length of rope. Too short and the doomed criminal would struggle for minutes on end until the slow process of strangulation concluded. Too long and the human neck simply could not recoil from the jolt. Decapitation was not an unusual result of a bad hanging.

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Even if consulting The Table of Drops, one had to be careful to use the most current weight of a prisoner. If an executioner was unaware of an inmate's gain or loss of weight while incarcerated, the result could be merciless.

Contrary to what one might suspect, hangmen were quite open about their services. William Calcraft, "Finisher of the Law" as he was known, served as the Queen's executioner from 1828 to 1874. Calcraft owned a cobbler shop but the sign for it actually included both professions. It read: Boot and Shoe Maker, Executioner to Her Majesty.

Hangman James Berry, a merry, outgoing man, was something of a celebrity in his day. Often, upon arrival at the place of execution, he was feted by locals as if royalty himself. In one instance, the night before he was to hang two men in Hereford, he even took the stage to perform for the party. A complaint regarding the inappropriateness of this behavior merited only a tepid response from the Home Office. It seems no one, including the Prison Commissioners, had authority over Berry or any other executioner. In 1885 sheriffs were informed that the preferable requirement would be to force executioners to reside within the prison prior to the hanging, but that mandate was never enforced.

Martha Needle's Rope Length

In 1892 Berry published an autobiographical work entitled My Experiences As An Executioner. In it he discusses The Table of Drops, or, as he described it, "a scale showing the striking force of falling bodies at different distances." The book's release came only weeks after Berry tendered his resignation. It was precipitated by interference in one of his hangings by the medical attendant at Kirkdale Jail in Liverpool. Berry had arranged for a drop of three feet six inches. On arriving at the prison, however, he found that the rope had been lengthened to six feet eight inches. Berry warned the doctor that if the prisoner was decapitated he would never be party to an execution again. Despite Berry's insistence, the medical officer demanded his own measurement be used. As Berry predicted, the prisoner's head was heaved from its body.

True to his word, Berry never again conducted or assisted in another execution. He instead spent his remaining days lecturing throughout the U.K. and the states, freely admitting his antipathy toward Capital Punishment - odd for a man who had himself hanged 193 men and assisted in the executions of hundreds of others. Two reforms credited to Berry do, however, support his professed aversion to judicial execution. It was Berry who abolished the steps leading to the scaffold saying that they only inflicted unnecessary suffering on the condemned; and, it was he who added a spring to the trap door to prevent prisoners' heads from being battered by the closing scaffolding floor boards. But of all of England's executioners, it is William Marwood who is most remembered for his contributions to the science of the noose. It is he who successfully proved that mathematics and physics had their place in hangings.

Born in 1820, Marwood - like Calcraft before him - was a cobbler by trade. Unlike Calcraft, however, Marwood's business card left no doubt as to which profession took precedence:

Church Lane,
Horncastle, Lincolnshire
N.B. All orders promptly executed.

Marwood believed that leaving prisoners to choke to death was inhumane regardless of their crimes. He had heard about doctors in Ireland who successfully calculated drop lengths based on body weight. The proper rope length, they asserted, could ensure that death was instantaneous rather than torturous.

Wax likeness of James Berry

Marwood took it upon himself to conduct a study of human anatomy, specifically the neck, and his experiments convinced him that the Irish physicians were right. It was possible, he concluded, to scientifically induce the "hangman's fracture" - a break between the second and third vertebrae. In 1872 Marwood got the opportunity to put the theory to practice. Using his own "long drop" calculation, Marwood hanged convicted wife-killer William Fred Horry. The man died instantly and the efficacy of The Table of Drops was proven. Yet, for all of the suffering Marwood's efforts averted, it seems the weight of his duties eventually took its toll.

Like James Berry, Marwood was memorialized with a wax likeness in Madame Tussaud's famous museum. But unlike Berry who demanded payment for his sittings and clearly took pride in his work, Marwood often arrived carrying his own glass of gin and water - and an obviously heavy heart. He occasionally interrupted his sittings to wander through the museum's Chamber of Horrors and visit the wax sculptures of men he had hanged.