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.