What’s the Difference Between a Short Drop and a Long Drop?

Execution by hanging is arguably one of the more brutal methods for carrying out a death sentence. Though this form of capital punishment is now outlawed in the United States, it was widely relied upon during the 19th century. For the accused, this often meant a long march to the gallows, and then an uncertainty about how long it would take to die and whether it would be painful. This length of time and the level of discomfort for the prisoner often depended upon the executioner’s hanging method. With a hanging, there is more to it than just putting a rope around a person’s neck and letting them fall. Of course, the end result is nearly always the same, but the process can have a few variations.

Short drop. The short drop method of hanging a person was perhaps a condemned’s worst nightmare. Commonly used prior to 1850, it usually involved a cart, horse or stool, which was taken away once the prisoner had a noose around his neck. The drop was typically only a distance of a few instances, so the person slowly strangled to death. The weight of his dangling body and his struggling worked to tighten the noose, which would eventually close the prisoner’s airways and crush his carotid artery. Not only was this a slow death, it was also quite painful.

Long drop. The long drop was developed as a more humane way to deliver death sentences to prisoners. Unlike the short drop, where everyone fell the same distance, the long drop was designed so that a person’s body weight determined the distance of the drop, usually somewhere between six and ten feet. This method also ensured that the neck would be broken rather than the prisoner dying slowly from strangulation. There were, however, some notable cases where the long drop did not work as planned, and the condemned was decapitated. This gruesome event would occur when the rope was too long, and the force of the drop was too much for the victim’s body to sustain. Overall though, the long drop was considered to be a humane advancement in this form of capital punishment. Though the practice is commonly considered to have been “invented” in the 1870s, it was, in fact, used prior to this. One of the first instances recorded where the long drop was used was during the execution of Octavius Barron in Rochester, New York. The year was 1838, and Barron had been sentenced to death for the murder of William Lyman. Lyman was a respected businessman and well-liked around town, so when Barron ruthlessly robbed and killed him, the citizens of Rochester were quick to hand down the harshest punishment possible. On June 7, 1838, Barron stepped onto a trap door that, when opened, would drop him several feet to his death. One reporter observed this new method of hanging and noted that Barron died quickly and without a struggle.

Two other methods of hanging also exist, the standard drop and the suspension hanging. The standard drop is very much like the long drop, with prisoners dropping between four and six feet to their deaths. The primary difference here is that body weight is not factored into determining the drop distance in a standard drop. A suspension drop, on the other hands, works in an opposite manner, hoisting the condemned upwards with a crane or some other lifting device.

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