They saw him struggling and being done. He seemed to stop breathing with no vital signs of being “alive and kicking” any longer. They saw it all, they thought him dead up there on the scaffold, suspended for 50 good minutes on a sturdy rope tied around his neck on one cold November afternoon of 1740. Then this presumably dead man came to life as soon as a penal surgeon put a surgical knife on the body laid on a slab for anatomical dissection. This really happened, and so it did. Hence the phrase, “Dead or Alive.” The subject of this incredible case was 16-year old William Duell, condemned for the rape and murder of a servant girl.
This incredible cheating of death spawned doubts on the effective way of enforcing deference value of the penal law, religious musing on a possibility of divine intervention, and dilemmas of what should be done with this resurrected convict. It was concluded that Duell was to be transported for life to North America discreetly lest his survival should stir up any public imbroglio that would result in a call for abolishment of execution by hanging deemed to be ineffectual and thus inoperative in enforcing authority of the capital code in society. Accordingly, there are no known records of Duell’s transportation to North America and his after-life therein. What a chance of life he was given despite his cardinal sin!
Then how did it all happen? It was due to a miracle of our human body that will make the reader’s head swivel in wonderment: the fact that the execution was carried out in cold winter increased Duell’s chance of survival because the brain must have triggered the body’s survival mechanisms when in traumatic comatose. That is, the body in its own biological defense against such trauma lets the brain reduce the temperature and keeps the heart and lungs alive by maintaining optimum oxygen levels to prevent major brain damage in a trauma, such as Duell’s being hanged in the winter cold.
It’s a cracking case of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not,”which is worth the knowing if the reader is keen on uncanny things. But then nothing is more wondrous than our own human form. To the agnostic skeptics, it’s science of the body that works a divine feat of miracle in the sense that it can fight back threats from the outside and even death, such as being manifested in Duell’s incredible dead-alive illustration. On the other hand, as not all hanged men did return to life, it would be supercilious to conclude that only science rules in this strangely curious case, for there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our modern rational mode of reasoning.