Curious Facts: Surviving Hanging (Updated)

I came across this rather intriguing clipping from New York Times published in 1884 – apparently more females survived hanging than males. The reason this rather curious fact came across my rather unorganized research path is following: the story of Anne Green who was hanged in 1650 in Oxford and was later revived by Thomas Willis and William Petty, Oxford physicians, opens the new edition of Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of Mind that I have just managed to acquire for mere $50. The most interesting fact about Anne Green’s case is the fact that…

Although the authorities wanted to hang Anne again, Willis and Petty fought in her defense. She had been accused of killing her baby, but the doctors argued that her baby had been stillborn and its death was not her fault. They also argued that her miraculous escape from death by execution was a divine providence proving her innocence. [1]

So, clearly authorities had the case – they tried to hang her, they thought they did it, but she survived, therefore, she must be now rehung properly. I suppose the technics of hanging was still being perfected. On the other hand, the doctor’s expertise showed that she was innocent – other accounts state that she had a premature delivery and the child died – it’s not difficult to show that the appropriate amount of time did not pass from conception to birth. My favorite part, however, is the one about “divine providence” – what kind of unusual circumstances qualify to be considered “divine providence”? Whatever happened to “divine providence” argument these days? Is the fact that George W. Bush, having almost choked on a pretzel, survived and continued to rule in a way most today find to be highly questionable, a sign of “diving providence”? Can this incident be used as a justification of his policies and as a first building block of his “legacy”?

Again, it would be an interesting avenue for someone’s investigation: How many recorded cases of failed hangings are out there? Does the law require on try to hang the criminal and if he escapes, he’s free to go?

PS. Dr. Thomas Willis went on to become a professor of natural philosophy at Oxford and to coin the term neurology. Below is a drawing from his book:


UPDATE: Per Alexei’s suggestion that we are dealing with an example of “trial by ordeal” logic here, there’s a note from an essay I was reading this morning that deals with iudicium dei:

Henry Charles Lea’s Superstition and Force (Philadelphia, 1892), is still the most useful introduction to the subject. Hermann Nottarp’s Gottesurteilstudien (Munich, 1956), covers more recent, particularly German, scholarship. There were many kinds of iudicium dei, the most common for free men being by hot iron, a specified weight being carried nine paces at a solemn moment in the Mass. The most popular early ordeal was the cauldron in which a stone had to be plucked from boiling water. In these cases guilt or innocence was determined by inspection of the hand or arm after a lapse of three days. The unfree were usually tried by immersion in cold water, innocence depending on the manner in which they sank. The ordeal which lasted longest was judicial combat in which, after prescribed prayers and ceremonial, the two parties or their champions fought to a decision. In the ordeal for clergy the accused had to swallow a morsel of bread or cheese, the Anglo-Saxon corsnaed, and if he choked he was considered guilty.

(From Rebecca V. Colman, “Reason and Unreason in Early Medieval Law,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 4:4 (Spring 1974), 571-591.)

10 thoughts on “Curious Facts: Surviving Hanging (Updated)

  1. Hey Mikhail,

    I think the reference to ‘divine providence’ is really an allusion to the trial by ordeal.

    Interestingly, the divine providence issue seems to functin as a kind of absolute ground for the legitimacy of the scientific argument. On the one hand, the scientific evidence proves her innocent; on the other hand, since she survived the hanging, — and God has thus intervened on her behalf — the medical evidence must be right. QED.

    It’s a neat piece of reasoning, if I may say so.

  2. I seem to recall that there is a good book on the subject, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was called, or who the author is. So much for my memory for scholarly sources. But there are a few sources listed at the bottom of the wiki page I linked to in my previous comment. hope that helps.

  3. I think the idea of a trial by ordeal is fascinating too — not least because it makes the miraculous the condition for the possibility of innocence (and thereby normalizes miracles while at the same time ‘extraordinzing’ innocence). Maybe we should get together and propose a joint course at one of them fancy interdisciplinary programs — I get dibs on the metaphysical implications!

    Since you asked (very kind of you, and I appreciate it), things are moving along: through 3 countries, 2 continents, and maybe even a hemisphere, in order to re-establish a home base near friends and loved ones, and a beachhead for educational and instructional incursions. In a word, life is good. A bit busy — a great deal to write and say — but good.

    I haven’t quite decided, though, what’s going on with the blogging thing. maybe it’s just a fallow period, maybe I’m less inclined to share half thought through ideas (and completely thought through ones go off to journals!). I’m obviously still reading a few choice sites, but haven’t felt the need to comment/write in awhile. we’ll see what happens.

  4. If you feel inclined to start blogging afresh, with Shahar’s necessary nod, you’re welcome to join our merry bunch with an occasional post, no pressure.

    I think the whole “political theology” angle that received much attention recently – I’m thinking of that collection by Hert de Vries, Political Theologies, and the general revival of interest in Schmitt – could use a good study of witch trials, and I am pretty sure there is a really good one out there. I’m reading a great book by Mikhail Iampolsky from NYU (unfortunately, it’s in Russian) where he basically traces all the contemporary political-theological ideas from early Middle Ages to Hobbes to Schmitt, a familiar move but done with a great virtuosity and depth…

  5. Thanks, Misha, that’s a very kind offer! Shahar willing, I find the idea rather seductive. Let’s think about it.

    I agree with you, completely, viz the renaissance of political theology. The strangest part of Schmitt’s On the Concept of the Political is his brief mention of miracles, which no one ever really talks about — at least to my knowledge.

    I don’t suppose you want to translate Iampolsky’s book into English for me 😉

  6. Mary Hooper has written a book on the hanging of Anne Green, called Newes from the Dead. It is beautifully written and impossible to put down!
    I’m now really interested in her life e.c.t. does anyone know a site where I could find good information on her?

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