Defying Common Sense: Partially Suspended Hangings

If I asked you to picture a hanging in your mind I’d bet most of you would conjure up something out of a western movie with the bad guy hanging from a gallows or Sycamore Tree. Hopefully, you don’t have any other point of reference. The imagery of a person “swinging” from a rope can be quite powerful and I understand why novelists choose to use it. But you might be surprised to know that a majority of such deaths are not what we call “full suspension” but rather “Partial suspension”. Put simply, a partial suspension is one in which the victim’s feet (or any portion of their lower body) is in direct contact with the ground.

To many, this defies belief. How could a person die from hanging if all they have to do is stand up? You’re not alone. It was quite a shock to me on my first case as well, but the history is well documented. The images in this post are from a French text book entitled La Pendaison, La Strangulation, La Suffocation, La Submersion by P. Brouardel and published in 1897. Death by hanging is not dependent on full suspension. Any ligature that constricts airflow or blood flow can lead to death.

In fact, if I were to find someone fully suspended in a home I would be a little suspicious. CSIs would certainly have to entertain the idea that the scene may have been staged (although the full suspension would not, in and of itself, support a finding of staging) and look for other evidence that seemed out of place. There are other clues that support or refute a finding of suicidal hanging but I’ll get into those in another post.

So if you’re writing a scene involving a hanging you don’t need to have the victim fully suspended. In fact, it might seem a little suspicious to an experienced investigator. Partial suspensions are much more common. They do defy common sense though, so you can use that in your character development. Whether a defense “expert”, family member, or District Attorney, they may challenge your protagonist regarding the manner of death and leave your reader wondering until the very end.

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About forensics4fiction

Hi there. Thank you for visiting my BLOG for crime writers. I hope you will find it interesting. I would love to hear your questions and thoughts regarding forensics and criminal investigations. I hope that the information here will help answer your questions or ignite your imagination. I am a retired senior criminalist with 15 years of forensic experience. I have served as the president of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, Rocky Mountain Association of Bloodstain Pattern Analysts, and the Rocky Mountain Division of the International Association for Identification. I am triple board certified in forensic related fields and one of only 40 board-certified bloodstain pattern analysts and 80 board-certified footwear examiners worldwide In addition to writing over 60 scientific papers, I have worked as the editor of the Journal of the Association for Crime Scene Reconstruction, been interviewed by and consulted for television, books, magazines, and newspaper articles including documentaries on the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Posted on November 14, 2011, in The Crime Scene, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Wow, Tom, I never knew this. I wonder, if it is so common, why I didn’t.

    Very clear and informative post. I really like the sketches of partial strangulation here too. As a matter of fact it clears up a question I have had for decades regarding the death of my father.

    As usual, you rock!

  2. Hi Sandra! Glad to hear from you again. Very sorry to hear about your father. I HOPE the reason you aren’t aware of these type of events is that, like most people, you don’t go to a lot of suicide scenes. Asd ascinating as this profession has been there are certain things I won’t really miss. I’m glad you found the post informative.

  3. Tom, many people would likely be surprised that most jail cell suicides are also partial suspensions. There are also those deaths ruled as suicide that might stem from other motives, such as autoerotic asphyxia. It doesn’t take much pressure on the neck (including trachea and carotid) to restrict both oxygen and blood flow to the brain, bringing on unconsciousness.

    Interesting post. Thanks for sharing the info and the illustrations.

  4. Thanks for the comments Silver. You have reminded me I need to do one or more postings on autoerotica and some of the things you might find associated with those events.

  5. Glad to be of service. :-)

  6. Hi there,
    Thank you for this, the visual helped me also. My father too passed away like this.


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