Well, a lot of Mystery Writers of America members look to Doug Lyle, MD for answers. You remember D.P. Lyle when we featured his book, Stress Fracture on Women In Crime Ink not too long ago? Today, we welcome him back as a guest editor to answer a question he received on his own blog, The Writer's Forensics Blog, and this particular query is about hanging. Here's Doug's answer to this question:
Doug Lyle: In hangings, death results from asphyxia, which is the reduction of oxygen to the brain. Asphyxia in hangings results from the compression of the airways and the carotid arteries (the arteries on either side of the neck that carry blood to the brain) by a noose or other ligature that is pulled tight by the body weight. Thus, the victim must be completely or partially suspended.
Except for judicial (legally directed) hangings, fractures of the cervical vertebrae (spinal bones of the neck) are uncommon. The reason is that these fractures require that the body drop a sufficient distance to break them. How far is this? The answer depends upon several factors. Individuals who are obese, have small neck musculature, or who have arthritis of the cervical spine may suffer neck fractures quite easily. Just the opposite is true for muscular, thick-necked persons. In judicial hangings, these factors are considered in gauging the distance of the drop. Too little drop and the condemned person is strangled to death, too far and he could be decapitated.