The Last Hangman

LEAVING law and morality aside, the best argument against bringing back hanging is that the hangmen themselves are all dead. A final Home Office list of official executioners was printed up in February 1964, and made obsolete when capital punishment was suspended the following year. Those six whose names appeared on it have long since gone to their own graves. There is nobody left in this country with the relevant training or experience to operate a gallows, which was in the end a more complex piece of equipment than it looked.

Albert Pierrepoint was not on that particular list, having resigned from his post as Official Executioner of Great Britain almost a decade before the death penalty was last enforced at 8am on August 13, 1964, when 2 men swung at the same time for their parts in a single murder. He was not, then, The Last Hangman, which was the original title of director Adrian Shergold’s new film about him, until it was changed to the more succinct, accurate, and eponymous Pierrepoint. He remains, however, the most famous individual to ever tie a noose, and this film, which will receive its British premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival next week, can at least show you why.

“The fascinating thing about Pierrepoint,” says Shergold, “has to do with the idea that a person can disassociate themselves from the horror of what they’re doing. When Albert went into the death chamber, he wasn’t Albert any more. He was the King’s Executioner.” Between 1931 and 1956, Pierrepoint carried out up to 600 judicial hangings in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and post-war Germany, becoming the most prolific executioner in history. Although he later expressed the opinion that this tally in itself was “nothing to boast about”, he was proud of his speed and technique.

In refining the craft of the gallows to engineer “instantaneous death”, Pierrepoint made it his business to minimise the suffering of the condemned. On one occasion at Strangeways Prison, he led a convicted murderer through the process so quickly that the man, James Inglis, was pronounced dead on the end of the rope within 7 seconds of leaving his cell.

“It is I who have looked them last in the eyes,” he wrote in his memoir, titled Executioner: Pierrepoint. “There is only a final relationship which matters: this is my brother or sister to whom something dreadful must be done. I have tried always to be gentle with them, and to give them what dignity I could.”

At the time, there were legal codes which could explain why these men and women had to die, but nothing to say that Pierrepoint had to kill them. The job had been open, and he had applied for it. Like every other executioner, he must have had his own reasons. Who were these men? What were those reasons?

First published in 1974, nearly 20 years after he quit the job, and a decade after capital punishment had been effectively ended by the Murder Act of 1965, Pierrepoint’s memoir remains the most profound available insight into the mind of a hangman. And it closes with the conclusion that all his work, and every one of those deaths, had been for nothing.

“All the men and women I have faced in that final moment,” he wrote, “convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. Executions do not solve anything. They are an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge.” That most professional of opinions, coming from a man of such experience, might be considered the most damning testimony ever made against the death penalty. Adrian Shergold, who is “utterly opposed” to capital punishment, insists that his film is not about this issue itself.

When the floor was opened to questions after a screening of Pierrepoint at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, its makers were asked about the ethics of executing war criminals, and the record of George W Bush, whose enthusiastic rubber-stamping of lethal injections has made him the most powerful modern-day equivalent of a hanging judge.

“Obviously, the subject has a certain political impact, but we didnt really want to get into that,” says Shergold. “This film is not about that. Its about one man’s emotional journey. And I would hope that anyone who watches it will be horrified to see what he went through.”

Timothy Spall is the perfect character actor for the part, conveying fathomless kindness and sadness as he stares into the eyes of one imminently doomed soul after another. All of Pierrepoints notable executions are reconstructed here, against a moveable backdrop of British social history – he reached the peak of his career, and the reluctant height of his celebrity, when he was commissioned to hang the German military prisoners, male and female, who had operated the Nazi death camp at Belsen. Later, when the spirit of the Blitz had exhausted itself, he came to be regarded with much greater ambivalence as a lethal symbol of the state.

“Albert had always tried to keep his job under wraps,” says Adrian Shergold. “He was shocked when he became a hero for a time, then he was equally surprised when the whole abolitionist movement swept the country and made him into a hate figure.”

Pierrepoint personally applied the noose and white hood at those notorious executions which raised critical doubts about capital punishment through the early 1950s. He hanged Derek Bentley, the mentally deficient teenager who supposedly incited his friend Chris Craig to murder a London policeman (Bentley was already under arrest when the fatal shot was fired, but Craig was too young to be sentenced to death). He hanged Timothy Evans, who was then posthumously proved innocent of killing his wife and daughter (Pierrepoint subsequently executed the real murderer, Evans’s landlord John Christie). And he hanged Ruth Ellis, the young single mother who had shot her abusive boyfriend, even while songs and howls of protest went up outside Holloway Prison.

Popular films have been made about all of those cases – Let Him Have It (1991), 10 Rillington Place (1971), and Dance With A Stranger (1986) respectively – and Pierrepoint has appeared as a character in each of them, if only for the final scene.

Now the same unfortunate figures play small but crucial parts in the screen version of their executioner’s own story. Bentley whimpers a little, Evans pleads and Ellis gives an enigmatic smile as their last moments are choreographed to Pierrepoint’s routine. “He was a fastidious man,” says Shergold. “The particular way that he would walk into the cell, spin the prisoner around, pinion them, and lead them out to the gallows, became like a weird dance of death. There was a music to it, a kind of waltz, which all became a part of our approach to this story.

“In the first week of making the film we shot all the major executions. For 5 straight days, we were basically hanging people at Ealing Studios. It started to haunt me. I couldn’t escape from it. And now I have very mixed feelings about the real Albert Pierrepoint. I’m not sure whether I like him or hate him.” As a work of biography, Shergold’s film is relatively kind to its subject. But it can barely even begin to explain why Pierrepoint, or anyone else, would want to be an executioner in the first place.

Opinion polls vary. A Mori survey conducted last month indicated that at least 23% of the British public would support the reinstatement of the death penalty for murder, 38% for the murder of a police officer, and 43% for the murder of a child. But even if those figures were higher – and similar polls have more often put supporters in the majority – no UK government could bring back hanging under prevailing legislation. Suspended in 1965 and later limited to such archaic crimes as piracy with violence and arson on the Royal Dockyards, the death penalty was finally and formally abolished in this country on January 27, 1999, when Home Secretary Jack Straw signed protocol six of the European Convention Of Human Rights.

Meanwhile, 86% of the worlds population currently live in countries where local law still extends to the use of gallows, firing squads, lethal injections, beheading swords, or other, more ad-hoc methods. In Yemen, for example, the prisoner is laid on the ground and riddled with bullets by a single machine-gunner. Peter Hodgkinson is director of the Centre For Capital Punishment Studies, a London-based project with a remit to gather all available information on the death penalty from those countries, and suggest “effective, proportionate, and humane alternatives, which meet the needs of the casualties of crime.”

Everyone involved in judicial execution comes within the scope of the centre’s research – the victims, the condemned, both sets of families, and agents of the state. “And of all those groups,” says Hodgkinson, “by far the least is known about the motivation of the executioners themselves, and the effects of that work on their own lives and personalities. There is anecdotal evidence of stress, disruption, and post-traumatic symptoms, but there hasn’t really been an empirical study.”

Most of the Centre’s data comes from the USA, where 38 of the 50 states currently apply the death penalty, usually in the form of a lethal injection, which is administered by prison guards on a voluntary, rotational basis. Out of curiosity, says Hodgkinson, he once asked a team of guards why they would put themselves forward for that duty. “I didn’t really get a straight answer, but I got the impression that it was just another part of their prison experience.”

In 2002, the US Supreme Court clarified the position of juries in capital cases – only they can decide whether the maximum sentence is appropriate. These “death- qualified” juries have since been less inclined to recommend capital punishment, which may suggest the crucial difference between supporting the death penalty in theory and enacting it in practice. “In the visceral debate over this issue,” says Hodgkinson, “you often hear people say, ‘I would pull the trigger myself’. Obviously, you have to wonder if they could. To actually do the killing is an awesome responsibility.”

This is presumably what the Executioner means in George Bernard Shaw’s stage play Saint Joan, when he describes his work, or perhaps himself, as a “highly-skilled mystery.” It was a favourite line of Albert Pierrepoint’s, and he quoted it in his autobiography. But not all of his predecessors were particularly skilful or mysterious. The ancient historical line of British headmen and hangmen is for the most part a gallery of sadists, show-offs, mercenaries and convicts with a licence to murder. They threw their victims into bogs and quagmires in the pre-Christian ages, administered slow deaths at spike-point in medieval times, boiled criminals alive under Henry VIII and made messes with axes as late as the Enlightenment.

Jack Ketch, Official Executioner in the reign of Charles II, would often take up to 5 strokes to cut a head off, and his name became synonymous with Satan. William Calcraft, the longest-serving hangman in history, spent the majority of the 19th century using the old “short-drop” technique, a relic of the days when a noose was primarily a torture device. Prisoners would take long minutes to die by strangulation, and the hangman was entitled to keep and sell their personal effects on top of his standard fee of 10.

Calcraft was among the last executioners to be drawn from the prison population – such a volunteer would usually be granted a reprieve from their own sentence of death or transportation to Australia. He was the last to make money on the side, and the last to perform in front of a crowd. (Charles Dickens, among others, had campaigned to move executions inside prison walls, arguing that such scenes were a danger to the public health, creating “no sorrow, no salutary terror, no abhorrence, no seriousness; nothing but ribaldry, debauchery, levity, drunkenness and flaunting vice … “)

After 1868, executions became private events, the noose became a clinical instrument, and the pay-scale never really improved. The hangmen who followed were therefore both more professional, and more inscrutable. As one prison governor said to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment in 1949, “a man who wants to be an executioner must be in a class by himself.” Dr. David A Holmes, a criminal psychologist at Manchester Metropolitan University, has studied the profiles of past and present executioners, and identified 3 basic types.

“There is a general assumption that such people would have to be psychotic,” says Holmes, “but thats not usually the case. Some might be somewhat cold and militaristic, perhaps not fully sentient. They might just as easily be working in an abbatoir, where a certain insensitivity goes with the job. Then there is an interesting group who might view it almost heroically, as a duty to the country, like someone working down a sewer, or on the front line of a military operation.

“It’s the 3rd sort that I worry about,” he continues. “The ones who think of themselves as skilled technicians, or even as artists. They are obsessive, they are perfectionists, they know all their weights and measures as a matter of pride and joy.” Holmes might just have described Albert Pierrepoint himself. If the gallows developed over the centuries into a highly advanced delivery system for sudden death, then Pierrepoint saw himself as the human end of that process: the perfect hangman.

Previous executioner William Marwood had already developed the “long drop” technique, which broke the neck inside the noose. His successor James Berry had devised a “table of drops,” which calculated the necessary length of rope on the basis of the convicts height and weight (although several prisoners were decapitated in the course of trial and error). But Albert Pierrepoint could take one look at a man or woman sentenced to death, and know the precise measurements required to exert 1260 lbs of “striking force” on their 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae, severing the spinal cord and producing painless, unconscious, almost instantaneous death.

He may also have benefited from a more direct and genetic inheritance – Albert was the third Pierrepoint of Clayton, West Yorkshire to appear on the Home Office list of executioners. He started his career as assistant hangman to his uncle Tom. And his father Henry had himself been Official Executioner of Great Britain, having worked his own way up the list, and encouraged his son to follow him into the business. When that Royal Commission On Capital Punishment asked Albert how he had ended up a hangman, he offered the most obvious explanation: “It’s in the family, really.” As a child he had read Henrys own memoir of the trade, My Ten Years Experiences, which seemed to explain his father’s “mysterious apartness,” and convinced him that “death was adventure, and execution was romance.” Henry Pierrepoint was, however, driven to drink by the profession, and eventually fired for turning up for a hanging at Chelmsford Prison in 1910, “considerably the worse for wear.” His assistant, John Ellis, later committed suicide.

In being only human, it seems, these men were unable to carry on like grim reapers. And in Albert’s own years of experience, colleagues regularly quit after their 1st hanging. Pierrepoint himself kept going, commuting far and wide to the gallows at Wandsworth or Barlinnie for the old tokenistic fee of 15 per hanging, then returning cheerfully home to his wife Anne. They ran a busy pub called Help The Poor Struggler, and Albert sang songs with the regulars (one of whom, James Corbitt, he was to hang for murder in 1950).

What does all of this say about the pathology of the hangman? “Possibly,” suggests David A Holmes, “that he was perfectly healthy. A person who does not seem to suffer from any kind of post-traumatic stress disorder may be a completely normal human being, who is simply able to control or compartmentalise their emotions. They can go home and be loving and empathic with their wife even if 7 hours before they were placing a noose around someone’s neck.” As Adrian Shergold’s film about Pierrepoint makes explicit, the cumulative effect of all those damned eyes on him would genuinely seem to have changed the man’s mind about capital punishment. Some showed fear, but in most cases he was “amazed by their courage.” “The thought kept occurring to me later,” he wrote, “that the existence of the death sentence had not deterred them, and the immediate prospect of death had not consumed them with terror.”

When he actually resigned in 1956, however, it was apparently over a pay dispute, prompted by the continued refusal of Strangeways Prison to provide late-cancellation fees when death sentences were reprieved by the Home Office at the last minute. Shergold believes that this was just a convenient excuse for Pierrepoint to quit. “The truth is that he was shot to pieces by the shock and horror of it all.”

The man himself never admitted any such thing. Pierrepoint died in 1992 at the age of 87, apparently believing that the job had been ultimately meaningless, but also entirely satisfied that he had at least done it to the best of his ability. On the last page of his memoir, he wrote that the argument against the gallows was fundamentally political. “The trouble with the death sentence has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off.” As for himself, he went on to conclude that: “I have always believed I was sent on this earth to do this work, and that same power told me when I should leave it.” Who is to say where that voice came from? It could have been his God, his genes, or his own humanity. Or it might have been Death itself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *