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One of James Joyce's characters explains, in his book, Ulysses:

The distinguished scientist Herr Professor Luitpold Blumenduft tendered medical evidence to the effect that the instantaneous fracture of the cervical vertebrae and consequent scission of the spinal cord would, according to the best approved traditions of medical science, be calculated to inevitably produce in the human subject a violent ganglionic stimulus of the nerve centres, causing the pores of the cobra cavernosa to rapidly dilate in such a way as to instantaneously facilitate the flow of blood to that part of the human anatomy known as the penis or male organ resulting in the phenomenon which has been dominated by the faculty a morbid upwards and outwards philoprogenitive erection in articulo mortis per diminutionem capitis.

i.e. when a man is hanged with a rope around the neck, this can provoke the corpse to have an erection.

This same idea seems to be wide-spread.

Is this true?

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2  
@Oddthinking, excellent edit thanks! –  MaKo Mar 30 '12 at 4:31
    
Weird... I read about this a few days ago. –  muntoo Apr 1 '12 at 1:45
    
+1 Awesome question, my night is no more boring! –  Zonata Sep 13 '12 at 1:29

2 Answers 2

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Yes. This is known as a death erection or a terminal erection, amongst other names.

Helen Singer Kaplan wrote in 1983, in The evaluation of sexual disorders: psychological and medical aspects (page 167):

Acute cervical spinal cord transection produces immediate erection. Men subjected to capital punishment by hanging and laboratory animals sacrificed with cervical dislocation have terminal erections. The implication is that either central inhibition of erection is released and erection created or that a sudden massive spinal cord stimulus generates an erectile response. There is ample experimental and clinical evidence to support the former supposition.

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Yes, it is possible and has been observed

There is a well cited Wikipedia page on the phenomenon (Death Erection)

The phenomenon has been attributed to pressure on the cerebellum created by the noose.(1) Spinal cord injuries are known to be associated with priapism.(2) Injuries to the cerebellum or spinal cord are often associated with priapism in living patients.(3)

Death by hanging, whether an execution or a suicide, has been observed to affect the genitals of both men and women. In women, the labia and clitoris will become engorged and there may be a discharge of blood from the vagina. In men, "a more or less complete state of erection of the penis, with discharge of urine, mucus or prostatic fluid is a frequent occurrence ... present in one case in three." Other causes of death may also result in these effects, including fatal gunshot wounds to the brain, damage to major blood vessels, and violent death by poisoning. A postmortem priapism is an indicator that death was likely swift and violent.(4)

There is even a published peer reviewed paper on the topic of priapism in acute spinal cord injury.(5) (Note: SCI stands for spinal cord injury).

Priapism that follows acute traumatic SCI is high-flow (non-ischaemic) priapism, that is, the blood within the corpus is arterial in nature. Priapism does not occur in all patients with acute SCI. The literature does not allow us to determine in what proportion of patients priapism occurs. Priapism has been reported following a wide variety of spinal cord pathologies including acute SCI, transverse myelitis and postoperative extradural haematoma. In all patients, priapism is associated with complete motor and sensory (American Spinal Injury Association A) paraplegia. Priapism has been reported following spinal shock. Following traumatic SCI, priapism usually settles rapidly without specific treatment being required. Priapism occurs at the moment of complete motor and sensory paraplegia, it does not occur following a delay. There are medicolegal implications: the presence/absence of priapism assists in determining when the complete spinal cord lesion occurred.

(1) George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle (1900). Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine. Retrieved 2007-01-26.

(2) David Levy, DO. "Neck trauma". eMedicine.com. Retrieved 2007-01-26.

(3) Willis Webster Grube (1897). A Compendium of practical medicine for the use of students and practitioners of medicine. Hadley Co.. Retrieved 2007-01-26.

(4) William Augustus Guy (1861). Principles of Forensic Medicine. London: Henry Renshaw. Retrieved 2007-01-26

(5) Todd, N V. Priapism in Acute Spinal Cord Injury. Spinal Cord 49.10 (2011): 1033-1035.

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