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VINE VOICEon 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.
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on 29 August 2012
I ordered this book as I had seen the 'Pierrepoint' film with Timothy Spalding and read the autobiography by the man himself, Albert Pierrepoint. There is simply no end to the saga of hanging and if that's your thing then this book is for you. It's not so much that the book involves you in capital punshment, it embraces you, completely, in a seemingly never ending litany of people being .. well ... hanged ! I had no idea that so many had paid the ultimate price. The perpetrators listed range from wicked to pathetic/tragic to almost farcical. Let's face it, some of them would hardly qualify for the 'brightest cats on the block'. That said, I could hardly put this book down and I came away from it with the notion that, somehow or other, some of the hangmen suffered a slower and more painful death than their 'clients'.
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on 7 October 2010
You have to hand it to Steve Fielding - he knows how to make the most of his material. Having amassed a wealth of information, both on the crimes and the subsequent hangings and hangmen, he has successfully recycled it into a whole range of entertaining books. In this superb offering, we not only get to read about the crimes - which, as has been pointed out, have been largely documented in the public domain and often explained better elsewhere - but also many of the delightful details of the executions themselves. It would be good if Steve had provided references for his sources.

Albert Pierrepoint provided a much-sanitised account of hanging, giving the impression that each execution was a clinical and precise operation carried out by skilled and caring individuals who were inflicting the ultimate penalty with as much speed and dignity as was humanly possible. By contrast, Fielding has no qualms about describing culprits as being dragged to the gallows `semi-conscious' in some cases, and `kicking and screaming' in others. Neither are we spared the drunkenness, aggression, cynicism, and even incompetence of certain hangmen - including one of the Pierrepoints - and the unfortunate cases where death was less than instantaneous.

This is a great book, because you can pick it up, open it at random and be guaranteed a good body count - both from the original offence, and the subsequent hanging - in just about every paragraph. I particularly enjoy the table of hangings in the Appendix, giving both chief executioner and his assistant (or assistants), in much the same way you might see a report of goals scorers over the course of a football club's history. Many of the photographs are well known, but I had not seen the superb portrait of an almost-smiling Les Stewart before - imagine that as your last sight before the white cap descended over your head.

Great stuff, Steve. I doubt I'll need to buy any of the `Hanged at...' series, as I assume they just reproduce the appropriate content from this opus, but I thoroughly recommend this book.
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on 11 March 2013
This isn't quite as good as the Pierrepoint family biography, chiefly because you get to know less
about the executioners and their 'clients'. If you're keen though on the actual mechanics of
hanging, this is fine.

One executioner's assistant, though, offers a classic 'line,' by name William Warbrick:
'It's a nasty drop through the trapdoors, even without a rope around your neck!'
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on 29 July 2016
Interesting background to the names of the men who carried out the ultimate penalty for murder for much of the 20th Century.Not much detail on cases in here,but the review tells you this.Gives interesting reasons why some hangmen left the job,and corrects the misconception that Albert Pierrepoint was the last hangman.Recommended for all students of Capital Punishment.Steve Fielding maintains his usual high standard.
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on 3 January 2008
Steve Fielding really knows his stuff and has managed to bring together a truly comprehensive account of every British executioner of the 20th century. This is not an easy undertaking, since relatively little is known of many of them and organising it by individual story makes for a confusing chronology.

What emerges most clearly - whether or not intentionally - is that the trade attracted many bunglers, blabberers and others who were simply not up to the job and not all of them were weeded out in the application process. There are plenty of snippets to back up my increasing impression that Albert Pierrepoint was a creepy, mean-spirited backstabber with a ghoulish interest in what he did, though his competence was undeniable.

This book probably won't change your mind on the subject of capital pubishment but it is essential if you are interested in how it was applied in Britain in modern times.
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on 11 September 2007
A very interesting and compelling read that serves as a fine companion piece to Pierrepoint's autobiography. It can be and often is a little dry at times, especially when the author goes into detail about the crimes that led many to face their death at the hands of the men the author has meticulously researched. It certainly should be commended for keeping Albert Pierrepoint's career in perspective alongside his colleagues, as the former has been written about perhaps a little too often. Probably worth the price alone for the story of the executioner who, too preoccupied with speed and pace, accidently pushed the lever without checking to make sure his assistant was clear of the trapdoors...
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on 15 July 2010
This book tells the story of mainly working men who had the job of the hangman, highly interesting if you are in to it!
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on 16 August 2013
In the 1960's I read a number of books on the methods of execution, not because of any macabre interest but because of a thesis I was required to write on the subject of capital punishment and method. I come from that part of the UK. that was known for it's executioners, so I was subject to privileged information. The book is correct and is true to fact, (NOT like the film 'Pierrepoint' which is completely miss leading). The book for me jumped about a bit, I prefer to go through events in sequence. My thoughts on capital punishment, now having a more up-to date statistics, have changed since 1969.
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on 23 May 2016
This book is very informative and I would recommend it there are a lot of statistics within theses pages and tells you a lot of British justice and also tells you about some famous murder cases and what happens to the culprit
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