October 26, 2008
Entrance to HM Prison Manchester (Strangeways) where, in a special execution room, Albert Pierrepoint carried out the famous "quickest hanging" in 7 seconds. (photo credit: Stemonitis)
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, the Pierrepoints, first Henry, then Thomas and finally Albert, were chief executioners for Great Britain, responsible for hanging hundreds of British citizens. After World War II, Albert would hang some 200 Nazis on orders of Field Marshall Montgomery.
by Robert Walsh
"Prisoner at the Bar, you have been found guilty of murder and it is now my duty to pass sentence. It is the sentence of this Court that you are to be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that your body be afterwards cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. Remove the prisoner."
To many British people over a certain age, the name Pierrepoint is an unusual one. Not so much because it is a rare name in Britain (although it's certainly an unusual one) but for what, and often who, it has come to represent. The best known of the Pierrepoint clan, (and subject of a recent biopic simply entitled Pierrepoint) was Albert Pierrepoint, who achieved a large measure of fame (and notoriety) as Britain's chief public executioner or "Master Hangman" as he sometimes called himself.
What many people do not know, apart from those who came to know the Pierrepoint family, is that Albert was by no means the first in his family to have been a public executioner. Both his father and uncle were executioners before him and it was while reading the memoirs of his father when they were serialized in a Sunday newspaper that Albert was first inspired to join what he often referred to as the family business.
The first of the Pierrepoints to become an executioner was Albert's father, Henry. He was chief executioner in the early part of the 20th century and was involved in executing some of the most famous murderers of the time, such as poisoner George Chapman, who was believed by many to also be the notorious serial killer Jack the Ripper. Henry made a number of applications to join "the list" of executioners as it was known before finally being successful and, after his training at the infamous Newgate Prison in London, assisted the then Chief Executioner James Billington at the hanging of Marcel Faugeron in 1901. On Billington's departure, Henry Pierrepoint became chief executioner and went on to hang over 100 prisoners, including the notorious "baby farmers" Sach and Walters ("baby farmers" took unwanted children from unwed or adulterous women, abortion being illegal at the time and sometimes murdered them rather than look after them), the Stratton brothers (the first people in Britain to be convicted and executed as a result of fingerprint evidence) and the Indian martyr Madar Lal Dhingra (who killed Sir Michael O'Dwyer).
Henry had one major failing as an executioner, this being a job that demanded speed, precision and a state of cold sobriety. Namely, he liked to drink and this would prove to be his downfall. Pierrepoint was engaged to act as executioner for a hanging at Chelmsford Prison in 1910 and his assistant was to be John Ellis (later to become chief executioner himself). Pierrepoint apparently arrived at the prison the day before the hanging was due to take place, as per the rules for hangmen, and was, to quote one observer, "considerably the worse for drink." On Ellis's advising him not to drink on the grounds because his drinking made it look as though Pierrepoint had to drink in order to get through the job, Pierrepoint attacked Ellis. (There had been bad feeling between the two for some time.) Pierrepoint was reported to the Home Office and the Prison Commissioners (who employed executioners) for this breach of the rules and his name was promptly struck off the list permanently. But not, however, before initiating his brother Thomas (uncle of Albert) in the fine art of a swift and humane hanging and providing him with a degree of training so good that, when Thomas applied to become a hangman, he was sent home one week into what was normally a two-week course because he was already up to standard.
Thomas Pierrepoint was the longest serving of the family in the role of public executioner. He started his career, having been encouraged to apply by Henry, not with any major ambition to become a hangman but more by default than by conscious decision. He spent 40 years on the list. Thomas hanged approximately 300 prisoners and, like his brother before him, handled some of the most famous murderers of his time such as prostitute Louise Calvert and poisoners Frederick Seddon and Charlotte Bryant. Thomas was a much more sober character than Henry in every sense. Indeed, when Albert assisted him at an execution at Mountjoy Jail in Dublin and tots of whiskey were offered around afterwards he refused for both himself and his nephew, advising Albert that "If you can't do it without whiskey, don't do it at all."
Until his retirement in 1946, when he was deemed simply too old and slow to carry on at the age of 76, Thomas was renowned for the breathtaking speed with which he dispatched his "clients" as he referred to them. Unlike an execution in the United States, where the process can take many minutes to carry out, British hangings were normally completed in a matter of seconds. The prisoner had his arms strapped behind his back in his cell to forestall any attempt to resist, and was led to the execution chamber, which was usually positioned next door to or across the hall from the condemned prisoner's cell. Then, once the prisoner was positioned carefully on the exact center of the trapdoors (a chalk "T" marked the spot) the assistant would strap the prisoner's legs while the chief executioner drew a white hood over the prisoner's head and carefully positioned the noose under the left jaw line so it would immediately snap the neck when the prisoner dropped. By the time the chief executioner had done this, the prisoner's legs would have been strapped together and both hangmen would get off the trap as quickly as possible. Then the lever would be pushed over as fast as possible, the prisoner would drop and be dead instantaneously.
And the standard time for a British hanging? Any more than 12 seconds (for a single hanging) or 20 seconds (for a double when two inmates were hanged at the same time) was considered unacceptably slow. Often the chiming of the prison clock signaled the start of a hanging and the prisoner would be hanging dead on the gallows before the clock had finished chiming at either 8 or 9 a.m., depending on at which prison the execution was being carried out. Things became even faster when Albert took the job of chief executioner. It was one of Albert's little boasts that he could light one of his habitual cigars, leave it burning in an ashtray when he left his room to carry out the hanging and be back having finished the job to find his cigar was still alight.
Thomas and his son Albert were to work closely together. Albert applied for the post of assistant executioner in 1932 and, having passed a preliminary interview, reported to Pentonville Prison (site of many notable executions, including those of Dr. Crippen and John Christie, the mass murderer of 10 Rillington Place) for training. He was deemed to be up to the job and was sent home to await an invitation for his first "job" as he called it. He was to wait for almost a year before his father (who had a private arrangement with the Irish authorities that allowed him to appoint his own assistants) invited him to Mountjoy jail in Dublin to assist at his first execution. The execution went without flaw and Albert was thus "blooded" as a professional hangman. However, while Albert's conduct at his first execution had been perfectly satisfactory according to the Irish authorities, the British authorities insisted on seeing him work in person at a British prison. This he did perfectly well and he was to work as chief executioner for both the British and Irish authorities until his resignation in 1956.
Albert was to work as an assistant executioner for some nine years before carrying out his first job as principal hangman. This came in 1941, when Antonio "Babe" Mancini, a noted London gangster who had killed a rival in a gang feud, came to meet his Maker. Pierrepoint was watched closely on his first full execution, right from the moment he arrived at the prison, through his working out of the precise drop to give Mancini, his preparation of the gallows and right through the execution itself. He is said to have displayed a great skill, perhaps not surprising given his years of experience in what he referred to as "the firm of Uncle Tom and Our Albert," and Mancini went to his death unconcerned and uncomplaining. The job was over in a matter of seconds, the prison authorities were duly satisfied with his performance and his position as "Number One" was secured.
Albert always pursued his work with great diligence and respect for the rules of what he called the craft of execution. He was a highly conscientious hangman, the consummate professional, a perfectionist when it came to the art and science of administering as quick, clean and gentle a hanging as was humanely possible. As has been mentioned earlier, he was proud of the remarkable speed with which he took the condemned on his or her last journey and was noted, unlike many executioners, for the surprising degree of compassion and respect with which he treated what he called his "customers." His attitude towards the condemned was one of dispassionate professionalism (he never allowed any personal feelings to show regarding an execution) while simultaneously offering them the best death he could give them. He was also noted, again unlike some of his predecessors, for the considerable degree of discretion he adopted regarding his official duties. He was careful to maintain as low a profile as possible and to attract as little public attention as he could. All this was to be in vain, however, when he was engaged after the end of the Second World War to execute a large number of Nazi war criminals.
Albert had always conducted himself with discretion and was very unhappy with the way in which his appointment as chief executioner (and honorary lieutenant colonel) in the British Army was handled. He wrote in his excellent autobiography (Executioner: Pierrepoint) about the fact that Field Marshal Montgomery (who appointed him) had wanted to make a show of the way in which British executions (as compared to those so badly bungled by the U.S Army hangman at Nuremberg) were the best in the world. So a press release from the British headquarters in Germany was passed to British news outlets and soon Albert found himself a public figure, an unwilling celebrity and viewed by many of the British people (especially those who had lost friends and relatives during the war) as a kind of People's Avenger. He was vastly uncomfortable with his now public role, believing (as he always had) that the role of executioner and the identity of those who performed that duty should always remain strictly confidential and anonymous. But there was nothing to be done about that once the press got hold of the story and Albert found himself, like it or not, a public figure.
The executions he performed for the British Army in Germany were astounding in their own way, if only for the sheer numbers Albert carried out and the sheer notoriety of some of the people he hanged. Albert never gave a precise figure of the total executions he carried out, taking that particular secret to his grave, but reports suggest he executed somewhere in the region of over 200 in Germany alone. Notable executions included members of the staff of Belsen concentration camp (including commandant Josef Kramer and female guard Irma Grese, known together as the "Beast and Beastess of Belsen") and a number of those Gestapo members involved in the murder of 50 recaptured prisoners of war after the famous "Great Escape" from the Stalag Luft III POW camp in 1944, later immortalized in a (somewhat inaccurate) Hollywood film.
The number of Nazis Albert hanged was unusual, but the way they were dispatched in batches was even more unusual. Albert admitted that on one occasion he hanged 13 prisoners in a single day, while on another occasion he hanged a further 27 prisoners, again in a single day. Even Albert himself was surprised, and somewhat strained, by his experiences in Germany and the multiple hangings he carried out there. He was unaware that he would be required to hang so many prisoners and do the job in large groups, but he went ahead and, by all accounts, displayed his customary professionalism and humanity towards every one he executed. The executions he carried out in Germany were in addition to his normal workload in Britain, which came in addition to his regular employment which all executioners needed, as the role of public executioner in Britain and Ireland was not a salaried position and hangmen were paid for an individual execution rather than drawing a regular wage.
One of the more gratifying aspects of Albert's work abroad was that he was able to successfully export the British method of execution to other countries. Albert worked in nine different countries during his career, and was perhaps justifiably proud of the fact that he was able to advance and improve the execution procedure in all of them during that time. Of course, hanging as a method of execution has been with us for millennia, but what became known as the "English Method" was a highly specialized affair demanding the utmost skill on the part of those chosen to carry it out. It was one of Albert's predecessors as chief executioner, a shoemaker named William Marwood, who first began to experiment with the "long drop" method of hanging. Marwood's predecessor, an ex-convict named Thomas Calcraft, was fond of using what was known as the "short drop" or "standard drop" (complete with the old-fashioned and unreliable "hangman's knot," disparagingly referred to by Albert as the "cowboy's coil"), which brought the prisoner to a slow and extremely painful end by means of strangulation. Marwood was somewhat sickened by Calcraft's crude methods and resolved to experiment with the long drop nowadays used by all executioners who employ the gallows. The long drop is calculated using the prisoner's weight, height, build and a simple mathematical equation that gives the precise drop (in feet and inches) to the nearest half inch. This enables the hangman to set up the gallows so that the prisoner will be dropped too far to strangle, just far enough to break the neck (ensuring instantaneous death), but not so far that the prisoner's head is pulled off, as happened in the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq not so long ago. British executioners also had a "Table of Drops" to refer to when setting up a gallows, devised by Victorian executioner James Berry. The table of drops was really more of a rough guide than a hard and fast rule, as Albert in particular rarely referred to it, preferring to use his own vast experience and the mathematical equation to set the drop for each prisoner. Marwood adopted a scientific and precise approach to his job quite unlike that of Calcraft. As Marwood would often say of his former mentor "Calcraft hanged them. I execute them."
Albert was able to export the English Method by demonstrating it successfully and then training foreign executioners in its use. In fact, he was considered such an expert that the executioners in Austria, who had previously used a standard drop for all prisoners which required them to go beneath the gallows and pull hard on the prisoner's legs to shorten their suffering, threatened to strike unless the English Method were adopted immediately. Albert commented in his autobiography that an executioner's strike must have been a very rare thing and certainly not one that he had encountered either before or since.
Albert's career was notable in other respects as well. He executed Ruth Ellis (the last woman to be hanged in Britain) in 1955 and Derek Bentley in 1953 (public opinion of both cases was to be instrumental in the abolition of the death penalty in Britain) but no case caused Albert quite as much trouble as that of the unfortunate Timothy Evans who Albert executed in 1950. Evans, a rather simple young Welshman with learning difficulties, had been convicted of the murder of his wife and child while they were living at the now infamous address of 10 Rillington Place in London. Of course the owner of the property (and star prosecution witness at Evan's trial) was none other than John Reginald Halliday Christie, serial killer and necrophile. He also, assisted by Syd Dernley, was responsible for the fastest execution on record. In 1950 he hanged a murderer named James Inglis at Strangeways Prison in a shatteringly fast time of seven seconds exactly. The execution was over so quickly that all the witnesses and even Albert and Dernley were shocked by it.
Albert, by now well-known to the British press, was pestered unmercifully when Christie's crimes were discovered. The execution (according to Albert's assistant that day, Syd Dernley) had gone perfectly well and without a hitch, but the fact that an innocent man might have been executed (Evans was later given a free pardon) caused the tabloid press in particular to hound Albert for some time in their quest for a story. Dernley noted (in a telephone conversation with Albert) that he was very unhappy at all the attention and at the thought that he might have hanged a man in error, which brings us to Albert's attitude to the administration of the death penalty in Britain.
Albert firmly believed that he was simply a man doing a job. A very skilled, difficult and possibly dangerous job, granted, but just doing his job all the same. He said in a radio interview with the BBC during the 1970's that he regarded British justice as the finest and fairest system the world had to offer (bearing in mind that this was before Evans's pardon, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven) and that, once the jury had decided a prisoner's guilt and the judge had passed sentence, then Albert himself was merely doing the job and carrying out the sentence as mandated by law. He managed to distance himself from the reality of what he was doing and why he was doing it and take refuge in what he regarded as the impartiality and faultlessness of British justice. He seldom commented on his personal opinions regarding the people he executed, stating that an executioner should have no personal feelings either for or against the condemned, that they had to die and all he could do was grant them the best and most humane death possible with that in mind. His faith in British justice was seemingly unshakeable, but his faith in the way in which he and his colleagues were treated by his immediate employers, the Prison Commissioners, was to be tested to breaking point.
That point was reached in 1956 when Albert was engaged to carry out an execution at Strangeways Prison in Manchester. He arrived in January 1956 to set up the gallows and calculate the precise drop to give the prisoner, a murderer named Thomas Bancroft. Albert calculated the drop, set up the gallows and then, less than 12 hours before the execution was due to be carried out, a reprieve arrived. Executioners in Britain were paid per execution, as has been mentioned before, but in English prisons (Scottish and Irish prisons paid in full regardless of whether a prisoner was executed or reprieved) the executioners were only paid if an execution were actually carried out. Furthermore, the weather that year was unusually harsh and Pierrepoint suffered the additional inconvenience of having to find a hotel for the night at his own expense. Given that fees paid to executioners were very small, Albert was left distinctly out of pocket and appealed to the Prison Commissioners to intercede with the under sheriff of Lancashire, the county in which Strangeways Prison resides, to get him his prescribed fee and the price of his unscheduled hotel bill. The under sheriff of a county was the official who selected the chief executioner, while the Prison Commissioners selected the assistant executioner. The Prison Commissioners refused to get involved and the under sheriff only offered Albert four pounds in full and final settlement, leaving him out of pocket by some 12 pounds.
Albert had long been dissatisfied by the amounts executioners received and the way in which their fees were distributed. One of his first actions on becoming chief executioner was to have fees increased to 15 pounds for the chief and four pounds for the assistant, an increase of 50 percent in both cases. He was also dissatisfied with the fact that only half the fee was payable upon completion of a successful job with the other half being paid two weeks later and only then if an executioner's work (and discretion thereabout) had been judged to be satisfactory. This was an old policy instituted during the days when executioners were a rough bunch who would frequently head for the nearest tavern immediately after an execution and drunkenly regale the tavern regulars with tales about what they had just done and the rule had never been rescinded.
Albert was disgusted by what he felt was the shabby and dismissive way in which he, a highly skilled, vastly experienced and highly loyal servant of the government, had been treated. He felt this was too grievous an insult to his integrity to ignore. For Albert, it was a long-held complaint and also a point of principle. He promptly sent a letter to the Prison Commissioners, resigning his position as chief executioner with immediate effect. The Prison Commissioners, while not offering him the payment he felt he was owed, replied and asked him to urgently reconsider coming back on the list, the first and only time an executioner was requested to reconsider as normally it was official policy never to do so. But Albert was adamant, and his resolve never to carry out another execution was granted.
After Albert resigned as chief executioner for Britain and Ireland, the decision was made that, instead of their only being one chief executioner, there should now be two appointed. This was to expand the pool of people willing to do the job and to make sure that at least one chief executioner would be available if two executions at different prisons were scheduled for the same day, as was often the case. This policy continued right up to the abolition of the death penalty in 1965, the two last hangings in Britain taking place in August 1964 at two different prisons on the same day at the same time (the practice of double hangings, at which two prisoners were hanged at the same time on the same gallows, having been halted).
Albert rarely took advantage of his fame (or notoriety) after he had resigned. When going on holiday with his wife, Anne, they would sign hotel registers with an assumed name and never used the same name twice. Almost the only time Albert was to exploit his fame was in 1974 when he published his excellent and informative memoir Executioner: Pierrepoint. In the book Albert rarely mentions individual executions by name except those whose crimes made them public figures. He also goes to great lengths to correct many rumors and prurient stories about him. Contrary to some reports, the pub he owned in Manchester (the somewhat ironically named "Help the Poor Struggler") never had a sign that said "No hanging around the bar" and he never owned a restaurant named "The Last Drop." In fact, he never owned a restaurant at all.
Albert seems to have had a somewhat wavering attitude towards the death penalty in his later years. In his memoir he states that: "I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge." However, this countered by a radio interview with the BBC in the early 1970's in which he appears to recant this view, citing the rise in violent crime and murder since capital punishment was abolished. And his recantation of his apparent opposition to the death penalty is counterbalanced by a rather prurient report in a Sunday tabloid only a few weeks before his death in 1992. In this report, Albert is reported as living in a nursing home, and was said to have developed an obsession with knots, insisting that his shoes be laced as tightly as possible and is further alleged to repeatedly put his head in his hands and wail disconsolately "I've done for many." The final conclusion is that only Albert himself really knew the truth.
After his death, the name of Albert Pierrepoint slipped again into obscurity until 2005, when a biopic, simply entitled Pierrepoint, was released. Starring Timothy Spall as Albert and Juliet Stevenson as his wife, Anne, the film is an intimate and, surprisingly for the film world, largely accurate portrayal of Albert Pierrepoint, his life, work and times and is well worth watching. It has been suggested that the plotline in which Pierrepoint is required to hang a friend and regular drinker at his pub was added for dramatic effect. It was not, as the prisoner's name was James Corbitt, the two knew each other well enough to drink and sing duets together in the pub and he was executed by Albert at Strangeways Prison. The fact that Corbitt knew perfectly well who Albert was and what he did on his trips away from the pub may or may not, taken in isolation, contribute to Pierrepoint's own belief, as stated in his book, that capital punishment provides no deterrent to future murders. After all, if being personally and knowingly acquainted with the person who will ultimately kill you is no deterrent, then what is? Pierrepoint himself summed up his career thus: 'I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.'