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Unlucky 13

Posted by RRC on January 17, 2010 at 19:40

In Reply to: Unlucky 13 posted by GoForThisWorld on January 17, 2010 at 10:20:

: : I would like to add. Regarding the explanations that date back to biblical times or earlier, Merriam Webster makes an interesting point: "But if written references are any indication, the phenomenon isn't all that old (at least, not among English speakers). Known mention of fear of thirteen in print dates back only to the late 1800s. By circa 1911, however, it was prevalent enough to merit a name, ...'treiskaidekaphobia'." Given this argument (that the phenomenon dates back to only the late 1800s), I am inclined to believe the origin implied by this sentence by Mickey Spillane: "Thirteen steps, and thirteen loops that made the knot in the rope. Were there thirteen thousand volts in the chair too?" (last para of Chapter 3 of 'One Lonely Night'). Here's an elaboration of "[a hangman'!
: : s] thirteen steps, and thirteen loops":

: : A hangman seeks to break the neck, not to strangulate and not to severe the head. Strangulation is cruel and prolonged; severing of the head is messy. If there are too many loops in the noose, the friction causes it to tighten slowly resulting in a strangulation; if there are too few loops, the noose tightens rapidly resulting in the severing of the head. The number of steps in the platform is based on the height of the platform. I believe it turned out that given the physical attributes of the rope used and of the condemned prisoners, the hangmen ended up needing 13 loops and 13 steps most of the time.

: PS (to my recent comment on unlucky 13): Here's an elaboration on the "optimal" height of the platform: if the body has dropped too little when the noose starts to tighten, death is likely to be by strangulation; if the body has dropped by a large distance when the noose starts to tighten then death is likely to be by severing (since the body will be accelerating by a large amount as it resists the noose and so will be pulling down against the noose by with a large, sudden force). It is likely that the choice of 13 steps to the hangman's platform combined with the ability to alter the length of the rope allowed use of the same platform for condemned prisoners with varying physique; using less than 13 steps might have prevented the use for some physiques; 13 steps sufficed for any physique; and having more than 13 steps would not add to the types physiques that could be hung.

I see no reason to trust a mystery writer as an expert on the history and traditions of execution methods. A quick Google finds many pictures of gallows and nooses that are quite short.