Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman who eventually denounced hanging
The horror of Albert Pierrepoint's life seems too bleak to be real. And yet Britain's most well-known hangman accepted his role as a task he was called to by a 'higher power'
Albert Pierrepoint saw more people being killed than anyone else in Britain. This was because it was he who killed them, some estimates putting the number at around 600 men and women.
All Albert would say about the total was that is was ‘some hundreds’.
He was, of course, Britain’s lead executioner in a 25-year career that lasted until 1956.
I’ve just read his autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, published in 1974. I occasionally like to read old non-fiction crime books, and this was a particularly odd but fascinating one.
Where youngsters born in 1905 might have wanted to grow up to be footballers or train drivers, Albert had his heart set on being a hangman. He was undoubtedly influenced by the examples of his father and uncle, both of whom carried out executions for the state.
He says, ‘I was chosen by a higher power for the task.’ He is also honest enough to acknowledge that for someone with his rudimentary education, it was also an opportunity to travel (to cities containing Britain and Ireland’s prisons) and enjoy a status above that of ‘worker-ant millhands’.
John Christie, Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis
He certainly had the stomach for a job that most of us would find horrific and disturbing. He dispatched men and women, including many of Britain’s most written-about condemned people – Neville Heath, John Christie, Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis, Timothy Evans, Louisa Merrifield.
Immediately after the Second World War, he was also selected to execute some of the most infamous German war criminals, including the sadists who ran Belsen concentration camp.
This was hanging on an industrial scale. Pierrepoint hanged around 200 Nazis.
What kind of man was he? He comes across as an unexpectedly decent, if misguided, character.
His attitude was that someone had to execute the condemned, and if he was to do it, he would ensure the execution was carried as humanely as possible. ‘I see him [the condemned] as a person who has a fixed and stony path before him from which I cannot divert him, and therefore all I can do is help him tread it as gently as possible,’ he wrote.
Which was more than could be said for some of his colleagues, including one – a non-conformist preacher when not executing folk – who tried to get his charges to confess. If not, he would threaten to adjust the rope to give them a long, strangulated death.
Pierrepoint ensured his executions were carried out swiftly, afforded the condemned as much dignity as he could, regardless of the enormity of their crimes. Entering the condemned cell, to the scaffold and finally the release of the trapdoor, would take 9-12 seconds.
‘We don’t want any butchery’
Calculating the drop correctly was essential to a quick death.
‘The heavier the man, the shorter the drop,’ Pierrepoint was told by the man who trained him. ‘The weaker the neck, the shorter the drop. Get it right, we don’t want any butchery.’
Getting it right entailed breaking the spinal column, separating it at about the third vertebrae of the neck. No strangulation or pulling off heads.
Pierrepoint’s appearance of dispassion in the book is a little bewildering. He displays no conscience, for example, over the wrongful executions he was asked to conduct, particularly those of Derek Bentley (hanged for his younger accomplice’s murder of a policeman) and Timothy Evans (implicated by John Christie, the actual serial killer of Evans’s wife and child, among others).
Where Pierrepoint does express an opinion on those he hanged, it is his displeasure at the huge uproar that greeted his killing of Ruth Ellis. This ‘last great sentimental protest against capital punishment’ was prompted by Ellis’s perceived glamour, he argues, where not a flicker of public sympathy was shown for the less prepossessing Styllou Christofi.
However, Pierrepoint did experience a profound epiphany before he gave up the noose. From his first execution, he had been struck by the death penalty’s ineffectiveness as a deterrent.
‘This man met his death jauntily,’ Pierrepoint recalled. ‘And he was by no means unique. I came to experience much the same attitude in many other condemned men. The thought that kept occurring to me later was that the existence of the death sentence had not deterred them…’
‘I have not prevented a single murder’
The ambition to follow in his father’s footsteps was totally extinguished by the time he retired from the scaffold. He had performed what he considered to be a public duty, but at the end felt a certain emptiness.
He wrote, ‘If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.’
Britain effectively abandoned the death penalty in 1965. Pierrepoint died in 1992.
His life is intriguing because he is a nexus that ties so many historic cases and developments together. We can shudder and recoil from his devotion to a ‘duty’ that ultimately he saw as futile – to say nothing of being cruel and unjust – but he at least afforded those he dispatched some dignity and consideration.
While there is no gossip or voyeurism in the book, there are some jaw-dropping moments. In particular, there is the confrontation on the scaffold that Pierrepoint had with a condemned man that he knew personally.
The man, nicknamed Tish, was a regular customer in a pub that the hangman ran as his full-time business, whom Pierrepoint would sing duets with as the beer flowed. ‘He was certainly the only murderer I sang a duet with.’
Tish would bring his girlfriend into Pierrepoint’s pub, The Struggler. It was she who Tish ended up murdering.
‘He went lightly to the scaffold,’ Pierrepoint recounted, the condemned man apparently somewhat comforted to have had his favourite barman doing the honours.
Last words of the condemned
Even more unfathomable were the last words spoken by those facing the noose.
‘Be good, everybody. And thank you for all your trouble,’ said one murderer to the assembled guards and officials.
‘Cheerio,’ said a Soho gangster.
Others sang and cracked jokes.
Apparently, creepy John Christie complained to Pierrepoint as he pinioned the killer’s legs that his nose itched. To which the hangman reportedly replied, ‘It won’t bother you for long.’
Pierrepoint’s father, Henry, told of a condemned man who, as the executioner placed the noose around his neck, complained that it was too tight.
Moments that seem too bleak to be real.
Thankfully, they belong to a not-so-remote past, when the powers that be gave vent to a thirst for judicial vengeance and turned to men like Albert Pierrepoint to do society’s dirty work.
See Pierrepoint on YouTube being interviewed about Ruth Ellis