Time to meet the Hangman….

Although there are some amongst us who find the subject of the death penalty distasteful – equally there are many of us who are morbidly fascinated by it…. I’m sure all of us can name some of the condemned men and women who went to the gallows, especially those from the more notorious and controversial cases….but what of the men who carried out such executions? Who were they, what was it that attracted them to the profession and what qualifications were required to fulfil such a position…?

Hanging as a method of execution in Britain is thought to date from the Anglo-Saxon period; the first recorded official hangman was Thomas de Warblynton, during the 1360s. There was once a time when many ‘perks’ accompanied the job, often a house went with the position – and the hangman may have had other lucrative sidelines attached to his trade. He may have had an agreement with the local surgeon to supply the occasional corpse for ‘medical research’ – or perhaps he would sell pieces of the rope used to hang a well-known notorious criminal as souvenirs…. In the early days he was even entitled to keep any property the convicted person had upon them at the time of execution, including clothing….

Hanging outside Newgate Prison – Public Domain

As time went by and the profession became more regulated, many of the perks disappeared. The post of ‘official’ hangman was not really a recognised position; executions were the responsibility of the under-sheriff of a county and it was he who usually got someone in to do the deed…. A good hangman would be in demand and would travel to wherever he was needed…. The post of hangman was much sought after from the mid 1800s and remained so until the abolishment of capital punishment in 1964. Each vacancy would attract many applications, even including some from women….

To be a hangman a candidate had to be able to work under pressure, have a strong stomach and be psychologically sound. After the application had been received police checks would have been made, not only for the obvious possible criminal record but also into the general background of the applicant. For example – one candidate, Arthur Gill (a butcher from Harrogate) was refused after police checks revealed he was known for his loose morals…. Another, a police officer named Henry Kirk, was passed over because he had a morbid interest in the job….

Once the checks had been carried out an applicant may have been called for an interview at the prison and undergone a medical examination. One of the main qualities sought in a successful candidate was a strong sense of discretion; one such hopeful, a Daniel Clifford from Fulham, showed off his interview letter to the blokes in the pub and got himself black-listed before even making it as far as the interview….

If accepted, the successful applicant would then attend a 6 day training course; initially this week of induction would have taken place at Newgate Prison, London – but after its closure in 1903 the training was conducted at Pentonville Prison. Only at this stage would governors determine whether a candidate was competent enough to be added to the ‘list’ of approved hangmen. In 1938 there were just seven men on the list who were judged “competent to carry out duties”…. Nearly always the men had settled home lives with stable run of the mill jobs; they were usually married, often with children….

Once approved, the hangman had to sign the Official Secrets Act; he had to adhere to a strict code of conduct at all times, discretion being of the utmost importance. He was expected to avoid attracting attention to himself whilst travelling to and from the prison and both the Prison Governor and Medical Officer would have kept a record of his conduct…. Talking in public or speaking to the press would not have been tolerated…. Equally, offering to carry out a specific execution would have resulted in being struck off the list – the potential hangman had to wait to be contacted if his services were required….

1874 Triple Hanging at H.M. Prison Gloucester Paul Townsend brizzle born and bred on Flickr.com

By 1874 executions in Britain were becoming less commonplace and the job of hangman changed from being that of a salaried position to becoming a fee paid per job…. For example, the typical fee in the early 1930s would equate to approximately £100 in today’s terms – one and a half guineas paid at the time of the execution and then a further guinea and a half a fortnight later, once the authorities were satisfied with the conduct of the hangman in the time that followed….

One of Britain’s last executioners was Harry Allen, known as ‘Hangman Harry’, who officiated between 1941 and 1964. He was the chief executioner at 41 executions and acted as assistant at a further 53, including the controversial hanging of Derek Bentley in 1953. Harry applied for employment in the prison service in the 1930s but was rejected – however, he was successful in his application to be added to the Home Office’s list of executioners. He witnessed his first hanging in 1940 (that of William Cooper at Bedford Prison) when he was 29 years of age…. During his role of executioner he pursued a career as a publican, running a couple of pubs during the 1940s and 50s….

Harry performed one of the two final executions in England, that of Gwynne Owen Evans on August 13th 1964, who was hanged at Strangeways Prison (Manchester), for the murder of John Alan West. At the same time the simultaneous hanging of Peter Anthony Allen was taking place at Walton Gaol (Liverpool), performed by Robert Leslie Stewart…. Harry also conducted the last hanging in Scotland, of Henry Burnett at Craiginches Prison and that of Robert McGladdery at Crumlin Road Gaol in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He always wore a bow tie when performing an execution, as a sign of respect to the person who’s life he was about to take ~ perhaps a respect ingrained into him by his mentor, Tom Pierrepoint, to whom he was assistant to at the beginning of his career….

The Pierrepoint family – probably the most famous of names in the history of British executioners – a dynasty….

Thomas Pierrepoint (left) and nephew, Albert Pierrepoint (right) – 1st January 1947 – Public Domain via Wikipedia
Henry Pierrepoint – photo taken 1909 Source: Daily Mail – Public Domain via Wikimedia

“As long as I can give in the last moments of these people, whoever they are, whatever they’ve done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment.That’s my job and I can come away satisfied”…. – Albert Pierrepoint

All three men connected to this ‘dynasty’ had a common agenda – pride and the wanting to be humane and respectful. Henry Pierrepoint carried out 105 executions during his time as assistant and then chief executioner; his brother Thomas, succeeding him in his role, performed a further 294. Henry’s son, Albert – born 30th March 1905 – was to follow in the footsteps of his father and uncle and was to become recognised by the Home Office as the most efficient executioner in British history. Albert hanged over 400 convicted criminals, possibly even as many as 600…. Among the executions performed by Albert were those of Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and also Timothy Evans, who was wrongly hanged for a crime committed by John Christie – who Albert was to later hang…. He also travelled to Germany and Austria some 25 times in order to carry out approximately 200 executions of those convicted of war crimes after WW2….

After his father had retired as executioner the young Albert became close to his Uncle Tom – he was allowed to read the diaries his uncle kept, recording the details of the executions he had carried out. At the age of 11 years Albert wrote an essay for school saying that when he grew up he wanted to become the Official Executioner…. On leaving school Albert became a drayman, delivering for a wholesale grocer. In 1930 he learned to drive, not only a car but a lorry too – enabling him to earn £2 and 5 shillings a week….

On April 19th 1931 Albert wrote to the prison service and offered his services as an assistant executioner to his Uncle Tom; he received a letter back saying there were currently no vacancies. Later that same year the current assistant, Lionel Mann, resigned and Albert was called for an interview at Strangeways Prison. He succeeded in making it to the next stage of the selection process and attended a training course at Pentonville Prison, London; he was added to the list of assistant executioners on the 26th September 1932. Albert was on his way to fulfilling his ambition – something his mother was apparently none too happy about – she did not wish her son to become assistant executioner, she had a stomach full with the past career of her husband….

The first hanging Albert attended was that of Patrick McDermott on the 29th December 1932 – a young farmer who had murdered his brother. The Chief Executioner was his Uncle Tom. Albert’s first execution that he performed himself was that of gangster and nightclub owner Antonio “Babe” Mancini on October 17th 1941 at Pentonville Prison….

On August 29th 1943 Albert married Annie Fletcher; he had continued working at a grocers and Annie ran a sweetshop/tobacconist in the same street…. At some point in their relationship she learned of his ‘other career’ – but she said nothing – waiting for him to tell her in his own time; as always discretion was key…. Albert finally told his wife of his other life at the beginning of 1944. It was during his travels to Germany and Austria that the Press learned of his identity and he became regarded as a bit of a ‘war hero’ – giving the convicted Nazis what they deserved…. It was the rise in income from these extra executions that enabled Albert and Annie to become landlord and lady of a public house near Manchester, aptly named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’….

In 1956 Albert had a dispute with the Home Office over his fees as executioner. In the January he had travelled to Strangeways to perform the execution of Thomas Bancroft. The preparations had been made – but less than 12 hours before the appointed time Bancroft was reprieved. Albert put in a claim for the full fee (£15) – but the Home Office would not pay as the execution had not taken place – a cheque for £4 was offered to cover his expenses. Some say he had actually already made up his mind to resign by this point anyway, as he had received a lucrative offer from a popular weekly publication to reveal his story and the last moments of those convicted criminals he had executed…. The Home Office wrote to him asking him to reconsider his resignation – they were fully aware of his worth…

“A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman who, the Church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death. The gentleness must remain”…. Albert Pierrepoint

It was at this point I intended to continue with a look at one of the Pierrepoints’ predecessors from the previous century, another well-known hangman in British history – one William Calcraft. However, on reflection Calcraft does not have a place here amongst the ‘gentlemen’ of executioners (if one is permitted to describe them as that)…. The Pierrepoints displayed respect and discretion – Calcraft was obviously cut from a different cloth…. He perhaps deserves a blog post all of his very own – but I may not be quite so respectful due to the way he went about things…. I’m now off to see if I can find out a little more about him….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end – then I assume you found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. If you have found this via Facebook a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated…. I’m not trying to sell you anything – I’m simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

You may also enjoy Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….


Frances Kidder ~ the last British woman to be publicly hanged….

On the 29th of May 1868 Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Bill – ending the hanging of convicted criminals in public view…. The last public execution in Britain was that of Michael Barrett at Newgate on the 26th of May 1868.


The previous month saw the last public hanging of a woman, one Frances Kidder, aged 25 years old, at Maidstone Prison on the 2nd of April….

It was a case that divided the British public – the Mayor of Hythe and others petitioned to have her sentence commuted…. Some newspapers reported her story with sympathy – whereas, there were others who saw her as an evil woman who got her just desserts….

Frances was born in 1843 to John Turner, an agricultural labourer and his wife, Frances (nee Drury), in New Romney, Kent. In 1861 the young Frances went to work as a house servant for John English (a bookmaker and newsagent) and his family, in Folkestone. In 1865 she met and married William Kidder, a green grocer….maybe it was a marriage of necessity rather than for love, as Frances had his child before the wedding took place – she gave birth to a daughter, Emma…. William also had two other illegitimate children from a previous relationship (a detail it appears he may have neglected to inform Frances of) with an Eliza Staple, a house servant. Eliza died in 1863; the younger of the two children was sent to live with relatives but the elder sibling, Louisa, aged around 10 went to live with her father and his new wife in Hythe, Kent. By all accounts Louisa was quite a lively child and things were on a rocky footing from the onset of the relationship between the little girl and her step-mother…. Frances was very cruel to the child – she beat her frequently with what ever implement came to hand; she forced her to wear rags, often starved her and even made her sleep in the cellar on a pile of old sacks no matter what the weather…. Children being mistreated in Victorian times was a common occurrence – but in this instance the treatment was so bad that next door neighbour, William Henniker, reported the abuse. As a result the police charged Frances with cruelty and she received a fine. Louisa was sent to live with a guardian – unfortunately her father did not keep up with the maintenance payments for her and the child was returned to William and Frances – and the cruelty began again….

William had a business, dealing in potatoes – Frances helped her husband with his work. In July 1867 there was an accident; a horse bolted and Frances was thrown from a cart….possibly sustaining brain damage. In the words of her husband “she was in a fit for about four hours and she has been strange in the head ever since”….

The following month, on August the 24th Frances went to visit her parents for a few days, in New Romney, taking her own daughter Emma and Louisa with her. It was whilst passing the time of day with her parents’ next door neighbour, a Mrs. Evans, that she apparently revealed how much she detested Louisa and that she had no intention of returning home with her ~ “I mean to get rid of that bitch Kidder’s child. I hate the sight of her as she always making mischief. I do not like other people’s bastards”. Frances often referred to her husband’s daughter as ‘his bastard’….

Postcard map of Kent – image Alwyn Ladell via flickr.com

On the Sunday morning of their visit Frances claimed she was feeling unwell and was not up to the planned walk with her parents…. She told them she would rather stay at home with the children. As soon as her mother and father had departed she suggested to the girls that they visit a fair in nearby New Romney….and so the trio set off – on foot. It was when they came to a point known as Cobb’s Bridge – a passing over a small stream of water – that the event happened. Frances forced Louisa into the water, she held her face downwards, drowning her in less than a foot of water…..

Meanwhile, Frances’ parents had arrived home to an empty house – at the same time William arrived to collect his wife and daughters…. Concerned William and his father-in-law decided to go and look for them. Frances returned whilst they were out and took the opportunity to rush to her room to change her clothes….

Returning to the house William and Frances’ father immediately realised something was wrong and that Louisa was missing. Her father then discovered the wet muddy clothes that Frances had discarded; she refused to say what had happened…. Due to the previous history of cruelty and Frances’ current state of mind her husband and father decided it was necessary to go to the police…. They returned with a Constable Aspinall, who arrested Frances on suspicion of murder….

When questioned Frances claimed Louisa had fallen into the stream after being frightened by some horses near to the bridge. A search was organised – by now it was dark; Constable Aspinall reported: “It was a clear star lit night and we were furnished with lamps. There was a heavy dew on the grass. Someone noticed something white in the ditch. I threw my light in that direction, it was the body. She was lying on her back, her head was under the water”….

Louisa’s body was taken to the ‘Ship Inn’ to await an inquest. Frances was charged with her murder and taken before the magistrates where she was remanded in custody; the following day she was taken to Maidstone Prison. During the journey she suffered several fits and they had to stop at Ashford Police Station until the seizures had subsided….

Once at Maidstone Prison Frances remained on remand for six months; William did not visit his wife at all in that time – rumours began to circulate that he had begun a new relationship – with Frances’ younger sister….

Frances came to trial on the 12th of March 1868; it was presided over by Mr. Justice Byles – and Court appointed barrister, Mr. Channell acted as her defence. The prosecution raised the cases of her former abuse and cruelty towards Louisa and her previous threats to kill the child…. Among the witnesses against were her own mother, father and sisters. Another witness claimed to have heard a muffled sound at the time but was unable to determine whether it was laughing or crying – but it sounded like a child…. The doctor who had examined Louisa’s body confirmed sh had drowned but saw no signs of violence having occurred. The barrister made little reference to the fact Frances had received head injuries during her work accident the month before Louisa’s death – injuries that could have affected her personality. He did however, suggest that the witness statements had been exaggerated….

Frances herself maintained her story that Louisa had fallen into the water throughout the trial…. “Some horses came along and frightened us. We panicked and my little Louisa fell into the river and drowned”….

On summing up Mr. Justice Byles instructed the jury that if they had any misgivings as to the circumstantial evidence provided to them, they must give Frances the benefit of the doubt. The jury had no such doubts – the trial had taken 6 hours – a guilty verdict came back within 12 minutes…. As the death sentence was passed Frances remained calm and was able to walk from the dock unaided….

Frances was returned to Maidstone Prison to await her execution. It was in the condemned cell that she confessed to a Reverend Fraser (who had been teaching her in religion during her time on remand). William visited his wife twice during this period; on both occasions they argued about his relationship with her sister, which he had finally admitted to. She was also visited by her parents and her daughter, Emma. As the day of the execution drew nearer, Frances became more and more hysterical….

On Thursday the 2nd of April 1868, at just before 12 noon, the appointed hangman – William Calcraft – the under sheriff of the county, the prison chaplain and a number of prison officers came to the cell.

William Calcraft

Calcraft pinioned Frances with a strap pinning her arms to her body at elbow level; her hands were tied at the wrists. She was led out across the prison courtyard to the main gate….the doors swung open to reveal the gallows that had been erected just outside – in County Road….


Frances had to be helped up the steps to the platform; she then had to be held on the trap doors by two prison officers whilst Calcraft made the final preparations. The whole time Frances prayed intently – her last words were “Lord Jesus forgive me”…. Calcraft released the trap and Frances dropped approximately 18 inches; she then struggled for 2 or 3 minutes in the agony of strangulation. Only her top half was visible to the well-behaved crowd of some 2,000 people who had gathered to watch – a large number of them women. Frances’ body was left hanging for an hour before being removed and buried in an unmarked prison grave….

There were those in the crowd who came to witness the execution of what was in their eyes an evil stepmother who had murdered an innocent child in cold blood. There were others who thought she had been misrepresented – and the injuries she had sustained in her accident should have been taken into consideration…. Then there were the ones who were angry about the way William had treated his wife – fathering illegitimate children and replacing her with her sister so quickly…. (reports say an effigy of him was burned in Hythe after the execution)…. But for whatever reason they chose to attend all of them must have been united in sadness over the death of little Louisa….

Please…. If you have read this post through to the end ~ then I assume you found it of interest and I hope you’ve enjoyed it…. If you have found this via Facebook, a little ‘like’ for the Cottage Capers page would be very much appreciated ~ I’m not trying to sell you anything, I’m just simply a blogger trying to establish myself…. Many thanX….

You may also enjoy The Man they could not hang….

The Man they could not hang….

John Henry George Lee, also known as John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee or simply as ‘the man they could not hang’ – was born on the 14th of August 1864, in the Devonshire village of Abbotskerswell – and upon leaving school went to work for Miss Emma Keyes, at her home ‘The Glen’, in Babbacombe, a seaside hamlet near to Torquay. Shortly after he joined the Royal Navy – but was discharged for an injury he sustained some three years later….he returned to Torquay and took up a position as footman for a Colonel Brownlow. However, in 1883 Lee was convicted of stealing £20 worth of silverware from his employer and spent 6 months in Exeter Prison doing hard labour….


On his release 19-year-old Lee was fortunate enough to be given work again by his original employer, Emma Keyse; the elderly spinster obviously thought he deserved a second chance and already had his half-sister Elizabeth Harris in her employment, working as a cook. Miss Keyse was a wealthy, respected woman – who had been Maid of Honour to Queen Victoria (who had actually spent a night at the Babbacombe house). It seems Miss Keyse was not a lady to tolerate slovenliness – it was common knowledge she’d had reason to reprimand Lee as she was dissatisfied with his work and as a result had reduced his wages….not something that would have particularly pleased him….

It was during the early hours of the 15th of November 1884 that a female servant found Emma Keyse on the floor of the Pantry; she had been severely beaten and her throat had been cut. In an attempt to dispose of the evidence the perpetrator had saturated the body with oil and it was surrounded by burning paper – presumably with the intention of burning the house down….

‘Torquay, Babbacombe Bay, from the Inn’ National Science and Media Museum via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions Original image URL: https://flickr.com/photos/nationalmediamuseum/8448461592/

Immediately the finger of accusation was pointed at Lee and he was promptly arrested. He had supposedly been the only man in the house at the time, he had a criminal record and he had a motive – having had his wages cut…. He also had an unexplained wound on his arm – claiming this had happened when he broke a window to let out smoke from the fire….and it was his knife that had been used to cut the victim’s throat…. All pretty damning evidence – even if circumstantial….

Lee was meant to be represented in Court by a Reginald Gwynne Templar – a young solicitor acquaintance of Emma Keyse. This in itself is a little odd – what also seems rather strange is the eagerness Templar had to take on the case…. However, two days before Lee’s trial was due to begin Templar was taken ill, an illness he never recovered from. Templar died in December 1886 from Paralysis of the Insane – a polite way of saying Syphilis. Speculation is that he was the lover of Elizabeth Harris (Lee’s half-sister); Elizabeth was pregnant at the time, the father of her child ‘unknown’…. Lee claimed Templar was also present in the house on the night of the murder….

Templar’s younger brother Charles, Liberal MP for St. Ives, took over the role of representation in Court for Lee – despite it being only circumstantial evidence it took the jury just 40 minutes to return a ‘guilty’ verdict….Lee was sentenced to hang…. After sentence was passed Lee was questioned as to his calmness, to which he replied….

“The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent”….

Lee’s execution date was set for February 23rd 1885 at Exeter Prison. It was to be the first time the scaffold was to be used in this location – it had been moved from an old prison hospital building that was due to be demolished and had been re-erected…. After 1868 hangings were no longer public but took place inside prisons. The ‘long-drop’ method was used at the time, taking into consideration the person’s height, weight and the muscular build of the neck to calculate the length of rope needed to prevent decapitation….

On the morning of Saturday 21st of February, Prison Governor Edwin Cowan ordered that the scaffold apparatus be ‘thoroughly overhauled, cleaned and tested by the engineer officer and a warden carpenter’…. During the afternoon the apparatus was tested again by the artisan warden and the appointed executioner, in this case a James Berry. The executioner, after testing the equipment twice, verbally reported back to the Governor that he was satisfied all was in working order…. The execution was to take place on the following Monday at 8am….img_0264

Lee was led on to the scaffold, his hands already bound; his legs were then strapped just above the ankles, a hood placed over his head, the noose put around his neck and then adjusted…. James Berry then stepped back and pulled the lever to release the trap doors for Lee to fall through….only it did not happen…. The doors only dropped about quarter of an inch…. The executioner and prison officials stamped on the boards – but nothing budged…. The noose and hood were removed from Lee and he was carried to an adjacent cell….

Berry and the prison officials inspected the apparatus to find out what was wrong – speculating that because it was wet weather the damp had made the wood swell…. A carpenter planed some of the edges and the equipment was tested – this time with a prison officer representing the prisoner by holding on to the rope – everything appeared to be in working order…. Lee was brought back in, the Reverend John Pitkin, Prison Chaplain, once more read the prayers and the process was repeated….once again the trap doors refused to open….

Chief Constable for Devon, Gerald de Courcy Hamilton was present that day….he described how Lee was then subjected to a third attempt (possibly even a fourth – although this was disputed at the time)…. It was the prison’s Medical Officer who intervened, ordering for Lee to be removed to a cell….saying the officials could carry on practicing with a sack of flour, they were not going to experiment on this man any longer….img_0266

The Governor postponed the execution and the Home Secretary, Sir William Harcourt, was informed….who commuted Lee’s sentence to life imprisonment – his view being that it would be inhuman to put the man through all that again. An investigation was launched to discover the reason for the equipment malfunction….

The trap door of the scaffold had two halves and two sets of hinges….the ones at the outer edges of the door allow the halves to swing downwards. Another hinge was situated along the entire length where the halves met in the middle and were secured by draw bolts – when the lever was pulled these were released. In this instance the scaffold had not been re-erected correctly; the end of the long central hinge was resting on about an eighth of an inch of the draw bolt….combined with Lee’s weight pressing down, the doors were prevented from opening to the pit below….

The Home Office report prompted an inquiry into how all future executions were to be conducted and a redesign of the gallows to stop it from ever happening again….

John Lee continued to protest his innocence….in 1907 – after 22 years of imprisonment – he was released…. For a while he became a minor celebrity, giving talks on his experience…. A silent film was made relating the story. Lee married a local woman called Jessie and he became a father….but then deserted his family to take off with another woman, Adelina Gibbs – a barmaid in the public house he was working in at the time. In February 1911 they set sail from Southampton bound for New York to begin a new life in the United States…. Lee died of a heart attack, March 19th 1945 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, aged 80…. It could be said it is a miracle he didn’t have a heart attack on that fateful day in February 1885…. Perhaps it was Divine Intervention – there was talk that Reginald Templar had confessed to the murder of Emma Keyse on his death-bed….