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Money for old rope


The job of official executioner in Britain didn't require much training - about a week at Newgate prison would do. Hangmen tended to be either tight-lipped - perhaps the consequence of having to sign the Official Secrets Act - or drunken limelight-seekers. Tiresias delves into their history.

The rope – the words send a chill down the spine. Particularly up to the last quarter of the 19th century when – in Britain, at least – the ‘long drop’ thankfully came into vogue. Prior to that, the ‘short drop’ was used, when victims mostly died by strangulation, unless they were lucky and their neck snapped. The ‘short drop’ was used not out of deliberate cruelty – the executed would wriggle and ‘dance’ horribly for minutes – but because executioners did not know any better. ‘Money for old rope’, they would say, as gold changed hands, some ghoul keen to buy the rope that had hanged a notorious criminal, for as much as five shillings an inch – one of the little extras topping up the pay of the executioner.

William Marwood, who held the post of official executioner between 1872 and 1883, introduced the ‘long drop’, taking note of developments in Ireland. He was a cobbler by trade in Lincolnshire who had long taken an interest in the gallows. At the age of 54 he had yet to conduct an execution but he was anxious to put his ideas to work, and he persuaded the prison authorities at Lincoln jail to let him have a go. The poor wretch selected for his grisly experiment was one William Frederick Horry, who was hanged by Marwood on April Fool’s Day in 1872. The ‘long drop’ worked, and Horry dropped by some ten feet, breaking his neck immediately.

Marwood was judged to be a great success and was swiftly made the official executioner of London and Middlesex, on an annual retainer of £20 and another £10 per execution carried out. The rise of the railways in Britain enabled his services to be employed far and wide, and his reputation as a skilled hangman grew. He carried out the last public hanging in the British Isles, when he strung up Joseph Le Brun at St. Hellier on the island of Jersey on 11 August 1875.  Marwood fancied himself a bit of a technical expert on the business of hanging. He got rid of the steps up to the gallows, preferring the trap door to be level with the ground. All told, he hanged 179 people, including eight women, his last being 6 August 1883 when he did for James Burton in Durham – an unfortunate end to an otherwise impeccable career, as Burton had to be hanged twice; on the first occasion one of his arms got caught in the rope hanging down his back.

Dutton was a lightweight and was given a drop of 7 feet and 6 inches, far too short – he strangled, and was still wriggling eight minutes later

When Marwood died in September 1883 some 1,400 people submitted applications for his job; one could not imagine there were so many literate psychos around. The job went to Bartholomew Binns, who mucked up one of his first hangings, that of Henry Dutton on 3 December 1883. Dutton, 22, had been sentenced to die for the murder of Hannah Henshaw, grandmother to his wife, at their home in Liverpool. Dutton was a lightweight and was given a drop of 7 feet and 6 inches, far too short – he strangled, and was still wriggling eight minutes later. Eight minutes is a long time when you are struggling for air, panicking to breathe. Binns, who liked a drink before an execution, was quickly got rid of.

I’m not sure strangulation is preferable to decapitation, the fate of the 95-kilo Robert Goodale on 30 November 1885. When he was dropped his head was yanked right off, the only known instance of this in Britain, much to the disgust of the assembled throng. This incident and the fuss it caused once known resulted in a House of Commons committee inquiry reporting to the Home Secretary on the conduct of executions. The Capital Sentences Committee – money for old rope indeed – made various recommendations, including on the elasticity of the rope.

The occurrence of hereditary lines of executioners in Britain is an oddity. There were the Billingtons in the last quarter of the 19th century; James Billington was responsible for 146 hangings in Britain, and his two sons – Thomas and William – took over after the death of James. The most notorious however are certainly the Pierrepoints, no doubt propelled into the limelight partly by their unusual surname. Henry Pierrepoint first helped James Billington during the hanging of Marcel Fougeron, found guilty of the clumsy murder of the jeweller Hermann Francis Jung, on 19 November 1901. Pierrepoint’s older brother Tom, and Henry’s son Albert, took up the rope too. Henry was sacked for being drunk – it seems to have gone with the job – at the execution of Frederick Foreman in July 1910, and was replaced by John Ellis, who hanged 203 people in Britain before he committed suicide in 1932.

Thomas Pierrepoint was on the Home Office’s list of official hangmen from 1906 to 1946, and became the official executioner for the Irish Republic after it gained independence from Britain in 1923. He also worked for the US military in Europe, hanging a total of 16 American service personnel during World War Two. But Albert Pierrepoint remains the best known of the three, and was certainly the most active, hanging or assisting at the hanging of some 434 people during his 24-year stint. Albert got the business down to a fine art, hanging James Inglis in just seven seconds on 8 May 1951 at Strangeways in Manchester. He did for 11 of the staff of the Belsen Concentration Camp on 13 December 1945, in the British-run prison at Hameln in Germany, and he hanged Theodore Schurch, an Anglo-Swiss soldier and the last person to be executed for treachery in Britain, on 4 January 1946. Albert Pierrepoint left in a huff over money in 1956. He had driven to Strangeways in January 1956 to hang Thomas Bancroft, but Bancroft was reprieved nd there was no job for Albert that day. Albert put in a claim for his full fee of £15, but was offered just £1. He appealed to his employers, the Prison Commission, to no avail – so he chucked it in.

Albert got the business down to a fine art, hanging James Inglis in just seven seconds on 8 May 1951 at Strangeways in Manchester

Most of the British hangmen were fairly stable characters, if a little peculiar in their choice of a job, which for most of them was part-time only as the wages were fairly small and the ‘bonuses’ didn’t come along that frequently. Many of them also run pubs, as their main money-spinner.

But at least none of them were clinically diagnosed as being being a few sandwiches short of a picnic. That honour falls to John Clarence Woods, a master sergeant in the US army in World War Two and the man to whom the Allies gave the job of hanging leading Nazis. Woods had joined the Navy in 1929 but almost immediately went AWOL. A court martial discharged him because a psychiatric board diagnosed him as having a “constitutional psychopathic inferiority without psychosis”.  He was conscripted into the Army when the US joined the war and after D-Day all executions of US personnel (for murder and rape) were carried out in France. The call went out – a hangman was needed. Woods lied by claiming he had experience of hanging men back in the US, and he was appointed without scrutiny.

He was busy – there were 96 US soldiers executed in combat zones in World War Two and  Woods had a hand in 30 of them. His moment of ‘glory’ however came in the days following the Allied victory, when the eleven top surviving Nazis convicted at Nuremburg were hanged by Woods on 16 October 1946. It was a botched job but because the victims were universally despised no one really cared. Julius Streicher, who had edited Der Stürmer, the virulently anti-Semitic weekly newspaper of the Nazis, dropped without breaking his neck and may have been assisted to die by Woods pulling on his feet. He soon tired of that though, and Joachim Ribbentrop (foreign minister) and Fritz Sauckel (in charge of forced labour) each took 14 minutes to choke to death, while Wilhelm Keitel (chief of the armed forces high command) struggled for 24 minutes at the end of the rope before finally dying. On that day Woods gave various interviews to reporters and told one: “The way I look at this hanging job, somebody has to do it.”