As the title has it: when did hanging emerge as a form of legal execution? The Wikipedia article (linked) has nothing to say about this. I've done the best I can with a search in Google Scholar, but failed to spot treatments of this particular issue.

It's entirely possible it arose spontaneously in different cultures at different times. I'm interested in primary source documentary evidence for its earliest use, wherever that might be.

This question arises from a discussion of the book of Esther on Hermeneutics.SE.

  • this might come handy deathpenaltyinfo.org – Vivekh Aug 5 '14 at 11:20
  • Does it matter what legal authority authorized the hanging? Is hanging at the whim of an autocrat (governmental or in wartime) acceptable? Or do you need merely judicial hanging? – MCW Aug 5 '14 at 14:19
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    Right after rope was invented? – Tyler Durden Aug 5 '14 at 19:56
  • @TylerDurden - Har! ;) Oddly enough, I think you'll find that isn't so, however. – Dɑvïd Aug 5 '14 at 20:04
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    I was going to add an answer saying the Book of Esther mentions hanging, but I now see that you are already aware of that. Aside: As far as I can tell, punishment in ancient times was supposed to be cruel and unusual. Hanging is a rather benign sort of execution compared to some of the nastier corporal punishment techniques used in ancient times. – David Hammen Aug 6 '14 at 21:01

Book 22 of the Homeric Odyssey contains a rather graphic description of how Telemachus hanged his father’s unfaithful maidservants. The Odyssey is of course a work of fiction, but it is reasonable to see this passage as evidence for the use of hanging as a judicial punishment at that time. Current scholarship puts the Homeric poems between 750 and 600 BC.

Here is relevant passage in Butler's translation:

Then when they had made the whole place quite clean and orderly, they took the women out and hemmed them in the narrow space between the wall of the domed room and that of the yard, so that they could not get away: and Telemakhos said to the other two, "I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

So saying he made a ship's cable fast to one of the bearing-posts that supported the roof of the domed room, and secured it all around the building, at a good height, lest any of the women's feet should touch the ground; and as thrushes or doves beat against a net that has been set for them in a thicket just as they were getting to their nest, and a terrible fate awaits them, even so did the women have to put their heads in nooses one after the other and die most miserably. Their feet moved convulsively for a while, but not for very long.

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    Thanks! That's what I'm looking for. Very interesting, too, that the concept needs to be explained. The account gives the impression of describing something unfamiliar. – Dɑvïd Aug 6 '14 at 16:29
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    There is absolutely consensus that the Homeric poems are no earlier than the eighth century. It might not be important to the question at hand, but it is an egregious error that shouldn't be in a top answer on a history site. – user12566 Jan 29 '16 at 16:01
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    Of course not. Someone will always misinterpret the evidence. For example, I didn't write that there was absolute consensus, but that there absolutely was consensus. It's a nuance that shouldn't be glossed over. But maybe one person will dispute that, killing any chance of absolute consensus. – user12566 Jan 30 '16 at 5:13
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    @Antrim As a scholar in the field, I can assure you that there is no controversy. I mean, if you want to say that some stories and traditions derive from earlier sources, then you're in good company. But that does not influence the date of the Iliad as a whole. Nagy, Janko, West all agree that the Iliad is at least ninth century. Nagy in fact would have it down to the sixth century, and perhaps even later in the Alexandrian period, though he's nigh alone there. – user12566 Feb 4 '16 at 14:41
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    @Antrim No "verses" come from 1200 BCE. That's simply linguistically impossible, considering that Mycenaean Greek was very different than the Ionic of the Iliad. At best certain formulas survive and are changed as the language changes. – user12566 Feb 4 '16 at 17:18

The first recorded use of judicial hanging is in the Persian Empire approximately 2,500 years ago.2 [New World Encyclopedia]1

(Aside: Note that the reference is to " Richard Clark"The process of judicial hanging", Capital Punishment U.K. Retrieved April 15, 2007.", which is not currently available; you might want to check the wayback machine)

Mosaic Law codified many capital crimes. In fact, there is evidence that Jews used many different techniques including stoning, hanging, beheading, crucifixion (copied from the Romans), throwing the criminal from a rock, and sawing asunder. PBS

PBS does not attach a date to "Mosaic Law"

The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain "hanging". wikipedia

I suspect, based on the OED reference in wikipedia and on the two quotes listed that hanging goes back as far as human law, but the definition of hanging might not be precise.

Update OP clarified that he is looking for primary source material.

Eyewitness to history cites

This eyewitness account appears in: de Saussure, Cesar, A Foreign View of England in the Reigns of George I and George II (1902), reprinted in: Charles-Edwards, T. and B. Richardson, They Saw it Happen, An Anthology of Eyewitness's Accounts of Events in British History 1689-1897 (1958); Gatrell, V.I.C., The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (1994).

The Proceedings of the Old Bailey documents the hanging of Jack Sheppard in 1724. This is the earliest primary source I've found so far.

  • Thanks for this - unfortunately, each of these makes assertions without citing any sources. The Wayback Machine does retain a copy of the dead Wikipedia link - it's no better, sadly. I believe these assertions are based on assumptions. I know of no "evidence" for hanging (as we understand it) in antiquity. There appears to be convergence on 10C A.D. for hanging in Britain, but can't even find documentary sources for that. Thanks for input, though. – Dɑvïd Aug 5 '14 at 12:54
  • I'm confused; I cited a source for each. Or are you stating that my sources are tertiary sources and that we don't have a primary source? – MCW Aug 5 '14 at 12:56
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    Yes - that's a good clarification. None of the sources you cite themselves give any evidence for their assertions. It's the evidence I'm after, which is why I phrased it as I did in my question. – Dɑvïd Aug 5 '14 at 13:01
  • @Davïd well, anyone who was there when the first hanging was performed is no doubt long dead and very likely didn't write about it. And any legal proceedings (if any, if it wasn't summary justice using whatever was available at the time which happened to be a tree and a rope) of those days is no doubt long lost as well... – jwenting Aug 5 '14 at 14:12

Primitive Norse and Germanic Cultures used ritual hanging to dedicate prisoners to the Gods, Odin or Wotan.

From Wikipedia: Odin

Worship among the Germans

Human sacrifices were very frequently offered to Odin, especially prisoners taken in battle. The most common method of sacrifice was by hanging the victim on a tree; and in the poem Hdvamfil the god himself is represented as sacrificed in this way. The worship of Odin seems to have prevailed chiefly, if not solely, in military circles, i.e. among princely families and the retinues of warriors attached to them. It is probable, however, that the worship of Odin was once common to most of the Teutonic peoples.

Owing to the very small amount of information which has come down to us regarding the gods of ancient England and Germany, it cannot be determined how far the character and adventures attributed to Odin in Scandinavian mythology were known to other Teutonic peoples. From Woden also most of the anglo-Saxon royal families traced their descent.

  • Thanks for pointing this out - it would be wonderful if you could add a pointer to a primary source for it. – Dɑvïd Aug 7 '14 at 7:17
  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_bog_bodies includes 3 people who were strangled or hanged, probably ritually. Borremose Man is dated to 700BCE. – bgwiehle Jan 29 '16 at 20:14

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