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At the End Of Their Rope
on 16 August 2009
Some years ago I worked in the civil service with a man who had applied to be added to the list of public executioners. He was disappointed when capital punishment was abolished before his application was considered. Having read this account of those who carried out the duties of public executioner I am far from convinced that his easy going personality would have been suited to the task.
Even the SS found there was only so much direct killing one could carry out without being sickened by it. Many executioners found their task equally as sickening. A number plied themselves with drink before undertaking the task. John Ellis, who had been present at two hundred hangings, was so disturbed by the distressed state of Edith Thompson when she was executed in 1923, that he drank heavily and attempted suicide the following year. He finally succeeded in taking his own life in 1932.
Albert Pierrepoint developed a reputation for speed and efficiency that few could match, although many tried. In 1926 William Willis was so anxious to get an execution over with that he almost noosed one of the prison guards. He was removed later that year having been characterised by the Governor of Pentonville prison as being "offensive, over-bearing, ostentatious and generally objectionable in his manner".
Rivalries were fierce and in 1909 Henry Pierrepoint was sacked for assaulting John Ellis while both were on duty at Chelmsford prison. In addition, there were numerous complaints from those appointed about not getting their "fair share" of executions.
Hangmen were very poorly paid and were always complaining about being out of pocket in performing their public duty. Indeed, expenses was the issue on which Albert Pierrepoint resigned in 1955, although Fielding suggests it was to enable him to write his memoirs for a Sunday newspaper. However, Pierrepoint's autobiography did not appear until 1974 and when it did there were none of the sensational criminal last minute confessions expected.
Pierrepoint is often referred to as The Last Hangman although that dubious honour belongs to Harry Allen and Robert Stewart who simultaneously executed Gwynne Evans at Manchester and Peter Allen at Liverpool respectively on August 13 1964. Had not hanging been abolished current lifers such as Ian Brady and Harry Roberts would surely have followed.
In 1890 Samuel Herbert Dougal applied to become an executioner (a post that did not exist in law as all executions were the responsibility of the local sheriff). He was turned down because of his criminal record. Thirteen years later he had a first hand encounter with the rope when he himself was hanged.
The book itself was depressing. Not because of the accounts of the hangmen (no women were employed) but because of the continuous catalogue of crimes which they were ordered to punish. Some of the crimes are well known others have been dragged up from the depths of forgotten history as a none too glorious example of humankind's disregard for the sanctity of life.
Fielding sets his study in historical context, noting that the last public execution took place as recently as 1868. However, although the names of executioners and their assistants are provided from 1900 onwards and the book is full of interesting and fascinating stories it lacks an index which, given the substantial content, is a major omission.
Over the years there have been numerous attempts to characterise hanging as an uncivilised way of dealing with crime. None have ever come close to matching George Orwell's brief essay "A Hanging" which remains, even after almost seventy years, a classic statement for the abolition of the death penalty.