The Man They Could Not Hang

Executed Criminals Who Came Back To Life After Their Hanging… And What Happened Next

Public executions in Europe could draw crowds of thousands right up until well the 19th century and still hold a gory fascination to this day – even in places in which the death penalty has long since been abolished.

While executions on the Continent were at times disgustingly creative with the methods by which wrong-doers were dispatched, in England capital punishment was almost always a matter of hanging, although burning and beheading were also used in certain circumstances.

But until the invention of the infamous Long Drop in the 19th century, hanging someone by the neck until they were dead could require rather more physics than the typical early-modern hangman always possessed.

pirate William Kidd

William Kidd

The condemned often took up to 20 minutes to die; ‘dancing the Tyburn jig’, as they swung, kicking and twitching, from the gallows.

In medieval times, bodies might have been left exposed at the site of execution for weeks at a time, displayed as a public warning to all would-be wrong-doers until decomposition set in or family members clandestinely reclaimed their loved one for burial.

But by the 1700s, a sentence of death often also included the chilling addendum that the condemned was to be ‘anatomized’ after execution.

Anatomization‘ meant medical dissection, carried out by doctors for medical students, but often witnessed by crowds of laymen, who packed into arena-like anatomy labs to watch the dissection carried out.

For over 1000 years previously, medical training had relied heavily on ancient, times bizarre, treatises by Greek and Roman medical authorities. But beginning with the Italian Renaissance in the late-1400s, those who wanted to understand the human body had started to move away from venerable texts by dead Greeks and towards the study of their own recently deceased contemporaries.

By the 1700s, the study of the natural world through means direct observation had become one of the cornerstones of what we now consider to be the Scientific Method. But direct observation requires something to observe; to understand the movements of planets, you needed charts and a telescope, to understand the workings of the living body, you needed a fresh corpse.

But although life was cheap in 18th century London, with sudden death commonplace, either through fatal disease, accident or violence, the corpse was sacred. Orthodox Christian theology, as well as folk belief, required the body be kept intact after death.

Death Penalty survivors

Anatomisation was almost as much to be feared as death itself, and as it became a fate associated only with the worst criminals the stigma of dissection became self-reinforcing.

The Murder Act of 1751 formalised the association. Passed by the British parliament as a means of “better preventing the horrid act of murder” it legally forbade burial for executed murderers. Murderers were to be executed within two days of their sentence being passed – unless that day was a Sunday, in which case the sentence would be carried out the following Monday – and after death their bodies were to either hang the gibbet or to undergo public dissection, in order “that some further terror and peculiar mark of infamy be added to the punishment”.

The association between dissection of the body after death and public infamy was so well-established, that in 1832 there was public outcry when the British Government enacted legislation that gave doctors permission to dissect all unclaimed bodies, in particular the bodies of paupers who had died in workhouses, public hospitals or prisons.

The 1832 Anatomy Act was seen by many as punishing the honest poor, by marking the indigent with stigma of criminality in death.

In response to the Act Burial Societies sprung up, whereby even the poorest families could make a small weekly contribution to a communal fund, which would ensure a small payout in the event of death, providing just enough money to keep a loved on from the anatomist’s table; an insurance policy against the stain of a criminal’s fate in eternity.

But what about the rare cases in which a person survived a hanging?


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