Mystery & True Crime • News, Features & Interviews
Table of Drops:
The Science of the Noose
Reprinted from Fall 2014 issue of Prose ‘n Cons™ Mystery Magazine
The title “The Table of Drops” seems so innocuous when you first hear it. It could
mean medical dosages or might even signify a rain gauge. It is only when you fully
study these rows and columns, so Spartanly arranged, that the uncomfortable realization
sinks in. These are not medicinal prescriptions – they are mathematical calculations
to determine rope lengths verses human weight. The Table of Drops, you see, is a
reference guide for conscientious executioners carrying out judicial hangings.
The Table of Drops was first published by the British Home Office in 1888. The
United Kingdom (and indeed other nations) had witnessed a number of botched hangings,
unfortunate not only for the condemned but also for the public who attended these
spectacles with astonishing regularity. The key to successfully and quickly hanging
a prisoner lay in the length of rope. Too short and the doomed criminal would struggle
for minutes on end until the slow process of strangulation concluded. Too long and
the human neck simply could not recoil from the jolt. Decapitation was not an unusual
result of a bad hanging.
Even if consulting The Table of Drops, one had to be careful to use the most current
weight of a prisoner. If an executioner was unaware of an inmate’s gain or loss of
weight while incarcerated, the result could be merciless.
Contrary to what one might suspect, hangmen were quite open about their services.
William Calcraft, “Finisher of the Law” as he was known, served as the Queen’s executioner
from 1828 to 1874. Calcraft owned a cobbler shop but the sign for it actually included
both professions. It read: Boot and Shoe Maker, Executioner to Her Majesty.
Hangman James Berry, a merry, outgoing man, was something of a celebrity in his
day. Often, upon arrival at the place of execution, he was feted by locals as if
royalty himself. In one instance, the night before he was to hang two men in Hereford,
he even took the stage to perform for the party. A complaint regarding the inappropriateness
of this behavior merited only a tepid response from the Home Office. It seems no
one, including the Prison Commissioners, had authority over Berry or any other executioner.
In 1885 sheriffs were informed that the preferable requirement would be to force
executioners to reside within the prison prior to the hanging, but that mandate was
In 1892 Berry published an autobiographical work entitled My Experiences As An
Executioner. In it he discusses The Table of Drops, or, as he described it, “a scale
showing the striking force of falling bodies at different distances.” The book’s
release came only weeks after Berry tendered his resignation. It was precipitated
by interference in one of his hangings by the medical attendant at Kirkdale Jail
in Liverpool. Berry had arranged for a drop of three feet six inches. On arriving
at the prison, however, he found that the rope had been lengthened to six feet eight
inches. Berry warned the doctor that if the prisoner was decapitated he would never
be party to an execution again. Despite Berry’s insistence, the medical officer demanded
his own measurement be used. As Berry predicted, the prisoner’s head was heaved from
True to his word, Berry never again conducted or assisted in another execution.
He instead spent his remaining days lecturing throughout the U.K. and the states,
freely admitting his antipathy toward Capital Punishment – odd for a man who had
himself hanged 193 men and assisted in the executions of hundreds of others. Two
reforms credited to Berry do, however, support his professed aversion to judicial
execution. It was Berry who abolished the steps leading to the scaffold saying that
they only inflicted unnecessary suffering on the condemned; and, it was he who added
a spring to the trap door to prevent prisoners’ heads from being battered by the
closing scaffolding floor boards. But of all of England’s executioners, it is William
Marwood who is most remembered for his contributions to the science of the noose.
It is he who successfully proved that mathematics and physics had their place in
Born in 1820, Marwood – like Calcraft before him – was a cobbler by trade. Unlike
Calcraft, however, Marwood’s business card left no doubt as to which profession took
N.B. All orders promptly executed.
Marwood believed that leaving prisoners to choke to death was inhumane regardless
of their crimes. He had heard about doctors in Ireland who successfully calculated
drop lengths based on body weight. The proper rope length, they asserted, could ensure
that death was instantaneous rather than torturous.
Marwood took it upon himself to conduct a study of human anatomy, specifically
the neck, and his experiments convinced him that the Irish physicians were right.
It was possible, he concluded, to scientifically induce the “hangman’s fracture”
- a break between the second and third vertebrae. In 1872 Marwood got the opportunity
to put the theory to practice. Using his own “long drop” calculation, Marwood hanged
convicted wife-killer William Fred Horry. The man died instantly and the efficacy
of The Table of Drops was proven. Yet, for all of the suffering Marwood’s efforts
averted, it seems the weight of his duties eventually took its toll.
Like James Berry, Marwood was memorialized with a wax likeness in Madame Tussaud’s
famous museum. But unlike Berry who demanded payment for his sittings and clearly
took pride in his work, Marwood often arrived carrying his own glass of gin and water.
Occasionally he interrupted his sittings to wander through the museum’s Chamber of
Horrors to see the wax sculptures of some of the men he had hanged. PnC