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Tuesday, 04 November 2008 11:42

Albert Pierrepoint

Albert Pierrepoint

Born: 30 March 1905 Clayton, West Riding of Yorkshire,UK

Died: 10 July 1992, Southport, Merseyside, UK

Age: 87

Cause of death: Old age in a nursing home.

Notable because: Wrongly remembered as Britain's last hangman, (After his sudden resignation there were 37 further executions before the abolition of the death penalty) from Britain's pre-eminent family of hangmen. Hanged around 600 people and said as follows: "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people."

Albert Pierrepoint is the most famous member of a family who provided three of the United Kingdom's official hangmen in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Clayton, and during his life he lived in Bradford, Lincoln, Oldham and the seaside resort of Southport. It is believed that Pierrepoint executed at least 433 men and 17 women, including six U.S. soldiers at Shepton Mallet and some 200 Nazi war criminals after World War II. He asserted in his autobiography never to have given a precise number of his executions, not even when giving testimony to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment of 1949. A figure of 608 people was given in the credits at the end of the film Pierrepoint, although there is no reference for it.

Albert Pierrepoint was the middle child and eldest son of Henry and Mary Pierrepoint. He was influenced by the side-occupation of his father and uncle: as an 11-year-old he wrote, in response to a school "When I grow up ..." exercise, "When I leave school I should like to be the Official Executioner". He spent his school summer holidays at the home of his Uncle Tom and Aunt Lizzie in Clayton, his own family having moved to Huddersfield when Henry ceased to be an executioner, and he became very close to his uncle. While Tom was away on business, his aunt would allow the boy to read the diary Tom kept of his executions. In 1917, at the age of twelve, he began work at the Marlborough Mills in Failsworth, near Oldham, earning six shillings a week. Following Henry's death in 1922, he took charge of Henry's papers and diaries, which he studied at length. Towards the end of the 1920s he changed his career, becoming a drayman for a wholesale grocer, delivering goods ordered through a travelling salesman. In 1930 he learned to drive a car and a lorry to make his deliveries, earning two pounds five shillings (£2.25) a week. On 19 April 1931 Pierrepoint wrote to the Prison Commissioners offering his services as an Assistant Executioner to his uncle should he or any other executioner retire. Within a few days he received a reply that there were currently no vacancies.

In the autumn of 1931, Lionel Mann, an assistant of five years' experience, resigned when his employers informed him that his sideline was affecting his promotion prospects, and Pierrepoint received an official envelope inviting him to an interview at Manchester's Strangeways Prison; his mother Mary, having seen many such envelopes in Henry's time as an executioner, was not happy at her son's career choice. After a week's training course at London's Pentonville Prison, Pierrepoint's name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners on 26 September 1932. At that time, the assistant's fee was 1½ guineas (£1.57½) per execution, with another 1½ guineas paid two weeks later if his conduct and behaviour were satisfactory. Executioners and their assistants were required to be extremely discreet and to conduct themselves in a respectable manner, especially avoiding contact with the press.

There were few executions in Britain in the summer and autumn of 1932 and the first execution Pierrepoint attended was in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, on 29 December 1932, when his uncle Thomas was chief executioner at the hanging of Patrick McDermott, a young Irish farmer who murdered his brother. He engaged his nephew as assistant executioner even though Pierrepoint had not yet observed a hanging in England and thus, despite being on the Home Office list of approved Assistant Executioners, was not allowed to officiate in England. Pierrepoint's first execution as chief executioner (he still acted as assistant until 1944 in some British cases, and until 1945 at Shepton Mallet) was that of gangster Tony Mancini at Pentonville prison, London, on 17 October 1941, who said "Cheerio!" before the trapdoor was sprung.

On 29 August 1943, Pierrepoint married Annie Fletcher, who had run a sweet shop and tobacconist two doors from the grocery where he worked. They set up home at East Street, Newton Heath, Manchester. At some point in time, and unbeknownst to Albert, Annie learned of his "other career", but for many years she did not ask him about it, waiting for him to raise the topic. The couple first discussed the matter after he returned from Gibraltar in January 1944, where he had conducted a double execution.

Following the Second World War, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials of Nazi concentration camp staff, and from the initial Belsen Trial 11 death sentences were handed down in November 1945. It was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions, and on 11 December he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the 11, plus two other Germans convicted of murdering an RAF pilot in the Netherlands in March 1945. Over the next four years, he traveled to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals. The press discovered his identity and he became a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero, meting out justice to the Nazis. The boost in income provided by the German executions allowed Pierrepoint to leave the grocery business, and he and Anne took over a pub on Manchester Road, Hollinwood, between Oldham and Failsworth, named Help the Poor Struggler. He later moved to another pub, the Rose and Crown at Much Hoole, near Preston.

Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. In January 1956 he had gone to Strangeways Prison, Manchester, to officiate at the execution of Thomas Bancroft, who was reprieved less than 12 hours before his scheduled execution, when Pierrepoint was already present making his preparations – the first time in his career that this had happened in England. He claimed his full fee of £15 but the under-sheriff of Lancashire offered only £1, as the rule in England was that the executioner was paid only for executions carried out – in Scotland he would have been paid in full. Pierrepoint appealed to his employers, the Prison Commission, who refused to get involved. The under-sheriff sent him a cheque for £4 in full and final settlement of his incidental travel and hotel expenses, as he had been unable to return home that day because of heavy snow. The official story is that Pierrepoint's pride in his position as Britain's Chief Executioner was insulted, and he resigned; however, there is evidence that he had already decided to resign, and had previously been in discussion with the editor of the Empire News and Sunday Chronicle for a series called "The Hangman's Own Story", revealing the last moments of many of the notorious criminals he executed, for a fee equivalent to £500,000 in today's money. Pierrepoint was the only executioner in British history whose notice of resignation prompted the Home Office to write to him asking him to reconsider, such was the reputation he had established as the most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history. On learning of the proposed newspaper series, the Home Office considered prosecuting Pierrepoint under the Official Secrets Act before deciding it would be counterproductive; they did, however, apply pressure upon the newspaper publishers and as a consequence the series was eventually terminated.

Albert and Annie Pierrepoint retired to the seaside town of Southport, where he died on 10 July 1992 in a nursing home where he had lived for the last four years of his life.

During World War II, Pierrepoint was called upon to assist with or be principal in the hangings of the 16 American soldiers executed for murder and rape at Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset.

Here are a few who met Albert Pierrepoint in Shepton Mallet.

Pte. David Cobb, a 21 year old black G.I. was the first to be hanged, on 12th March, 1943. Cobb was stationed at Desborough Camp in Northamptonshire and had been on guard duty for some time during Sunday the 27th of December, when he was reprimanded by 2nd Lieutenant Robert Cobner. He protested and Cobner ordered the sergeant of the guard to arrest Cobb. Cobb threatened the man, who backed off so Cobner unwisely decided to attempt the arrest himself. Cobb fired his rifle at Cobner fatally injuring him. He was tried by US court martial at Cambridge on the 6th of January 1943. His trial occupying less than one day. His death sentence was confirmed in due course and reviewed by the authorities before he was executed by Tom Pierrepoint within the new execution facility at Shepton Mallet.

Pte. Harold Smith had gone AWOL (absent without leave) in London in January 1943 and with another young soldier was staying in a hotel enjoying the town until their financial recourses dried up. He then returned to Chisledon Camp near Swindon to find his own unit had been posted elsewhere. He found a loaded pistol and then got into an altercation with Pte. Harry Jenkins whom he shot dead. He also fired at another soldier before escaping back to London, where he was arrested by a British policeman. He was handed over to American authorities and was court-martialled at Bristol on the 12th of March 1943. He made a full statement admitting his guilt and was duly hanged on the 25th of June, 1943 by Tom Pierrepoint.

Lee A. Davis was another young black G.I. who was convicted of murhttp://i.telegraph.co.uk/multimedia/archive/01438/pierrepoint_1438437c.jpgder during the war. The killing took place near Marlborough Wilts., as two young women walked back from the cinema. Davis asked the girls what they were doing and the one, Muriel Fawden, said she was returning to the hospital where she worked as a nurse. They tried to get away from Davis who shouted after them "Stand still, or I'll shoot". He instructed the terrified girls to go into some bushes beside the footpath. Muriel's companion Cynthia Lay decided to make a run for it and Davis shot her dead. He now forced Muriel into some bushes and raped her but surprisingly did not kill her. She was able to give a full statement to the police and as a result all the rifles of the American soldiers stationed nearby were examined. Davis' was found to have been fired and forensic tests matched the shell cases found near Cynthia to it. Davis admitted he had been at the scene of the crime but said he had only meant to fire over the heads of the girls. He was court-martialled at Marlborough on the 6th of October for the murder and the rape, both crimes carrying the death penalty under US Military law. He was hanged on the 14th of December, 1943 by Albert Pierrepoint and his uncle Tom.

John Waters was rather older, at 39, than the rest of these soldiers. He had been seeing a local woman, 35 year old Doris Staples, in Henley on Thames where he was stationed. There relationship was deteriorating and on the 14th of July 1943 he went to the drapers shop where she worked and shot her five times. The police arrived while Waters was still on the premises and a short siege began which was ended when the police threw a teargas canister into the shop and broke down the door. Seeing that he was cornered, Waters shot himself, but did not make a very good job of it. In due course he came to trial at Watford, Herts. (on the 29th of November 1943) and was convicted and sentenced to death for Doris' killing. He was hanged on the 10th of February 1944 by Tom Pierrepoint.

J.C. Leatherberry was executed for the murder of Colchester taxi driver Henry Hailstone in Essex on the evening of 5th of December 1943. Hailstone's taxi was found abandoned and parked facing the wrong way which the police thought unusual and made them wonder if it had been parked by a foreigner who drove on the other side of the road. In the car was a blood stained jacket with Hailstone's driving licence in the pocket. When the area round the car was searched a blood stained overcoat was found with a name tag inside of Captain Walker. When he was interviewed he told police that the coat had been stolen, along with his Rolex watch, by a black soldier on the day of the murder. However a gas mask had been left during the robbery and this bore the identifier of J. Hill. Hill was traced and said he had lent the gas mask to fellow soldier George Fowler. Fowler was arrested and when his belongings were searched a pawn ticket was found for the missing Rolex. Fowler also admitted that he and Leatherberry had been involved in the murder. Their motive appeared to be to steal the car. Fowler maintained that it was Leatherberry who had strangled the driver. Both were convicted at their court martial at Ipswich on the 19th of January 1944 and both received the death sentence. However Fowler's was commuted as the court accepted that Leatherberry was the principal and because he had given evidence. Fowler was returned to military prison in the USA to serve his life sentence while Leatherberry was sent to Shepton Mallet to be hanged by Tom Pierrepoint on the 16th of March 1944.

Pte. Wiley Harris was another black soldier who was stationed in Belfast in Northern Ireland. He had gone out with his friend Pte. Robert Fils to a bar for the evening where they met a pimp called Harry Coogan who offered them the services of a young woman. These Harris accepted and he and the girl went to a nearby air raid shelter to have sex with Coogan keeping watch outside as this sort of activity was illegal. As they were getting started Coogan shouted to them that the police were approaching. Harris and the girl got dressed and emerged from the shelter to find that there were no police and Harris then demanded his money back. A struggle ensued between Harris and Coogan in which Coogan punched Harris. This caused the fight to escalate to the point where Harris stabbed Coogan 17 times. The court martial were not prepared to accept self defence in view of the number of stab wounds and so Harris was convicted. He was hanged by Tom Pierrepoint on the 26th of May 1944

20 year old Alex Miranda became the first American serviceman to suffer death by shooting at Shepton Mallet. He had been convicted of Violation of the 92nd Article of War (murder) and was executed by an eight man firing squad in the prison grounds on Tuesday the 30th of May 1944 for the murder of his sergeant, Sgt. Thomas Evison at Broomhill Camp in Devon. Miranda had gone out drinking and had been behaving badly so was arrested by the civilian police and taken back to the camp. Here he became aggressive and the object of his aggression was Sgt. Evison who was reportedly asleep at the time. Getting no response from the sleeping man he shot him dead. The location of Miranda's court martial is unknown as is the reason why he was sentenced to be shot rather than hanged, bearing in mind that both David Cobb and Harold Smith had also killed other US soldiers. Hanging was the preferred method by the US Military as it was considered a more ignominious death than shooting.

Eliga Brinson and Willie Smith were hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the 11th of August 1944 for the rape of Dorothy Holmes after a dance at Bishop's Cleeve in Gloucestershire. Dorothy left the dance with her boyfriend when they were ambushed by Brinson and Smith who assaulted them and when the boyfriend ran to get help both raped Dorothy. They were caught through the boot prints they left in the field where the rape took place. They came to trial at Cheltenham on the 28th of April 1944, their case taking two days to complete.

Madison Thomas was another black soldier convicted of rape. His victim was Beatrice Reynolds, who was returning home after helping out at the British Legion hall at Gunnislake in Cornwall on the evening of July 26th 1944. Thomas accosted her on her way home and she tried to get rid of him by talking to her friend Jean Blight but without success. He hit her and pulled her into a field where he raped her and robbed her of her watch. Thomas had also spoken to Jean Blight and she was able to positively identify him the next day when the entire camp at Whitchurch Down near Tavistock was put on parade. Blood on Thomas's trousers was shown to be of the same group as Beatrice's. He was court martialled at Plymouth on the 21st of August and hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the 12th of October 1944.

Benjamin Pyegate was the second and last US soldier to face a firing squad at Shepton Mallet. The crime took place at Tidworth Barracks in Wiltshire on the 15th of July 1944.
Pygate became involved in an argument with three fellow soldiers in his hut and kicked James Alexander in the groin prior to stabbing him to death. On
the 28th of November 1944 he was duly executed by firing squad, or musketry as the American's rather quaintly called it. He was led out and tied to a post. A black hood was placed over his head and a four inch diameter white target placed over his heart. 15 yards away eight soldiers stood with their rifles, one of which contained a blank round. The officer in charge of the execution gave the regulation commands as detailed in the US Army Manual. These being : "At the command READY, the execution party (firing squad) will take that position and unlock rifles. At the command AIM, the execution party will take that position with rifles aimed at target on the prisoner's body. At the command FIRE, the execution party will fire simultaneously."
The medical officer then examined the prisoner and, if necessary could direct that a "coup de grace" be administered. The se
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/d/d1/Albert-Pierrepoint.jpg/220px-Albert-Pierrepoint.jpgrgeant of the execution party was responsible for administering this with "a hand weapon, holding the muzzle just above the ear and one foot from the head." It is not known whether it was required in Pyegate's case.

Ernest Clarke and Augustine Guerra (both white) were jointly convicted of the rape and murder of 15 year old Elizabeth Green at Ashford Kent on 22nd of August 1944.
Clarke and Guerra had been drinking in a pub in Ashford and left at closing time to walk back to their barracks. On the way they encountered Elizabeth whom they raped and strangled. Hair and fibre samples taken from the scene matched those found on Clarke and Guerra and faced with this evidence they confessed to the rape but claimed that they had not intended to kill
Elizabeth. They were tried on the 22nd of September 1944 at Ashford and hanged side by side on the 8th of January 1945.

Robert Pearson and Parson Jones (both coloured) were convicted by court martial of the rape of Joyce Brown at Chard in Somerset on the 3rd of December 1944. Joyce was heavily pregnant at the time of her rape and this must have been obvious to her assailants. Joyce was dragged into an orchard where both men raped her. After the rape was reported the clothes of all the men on the base were searched and Pearson and Jones' were found to be muddy. They both admitted to having sex with Joyce but claimed that she consented. Her pregnancy, bruising and her statement to the police told a different story. They were tried at Chard on the 16th of December 1944 and hanged side by side on the 17th of March 1945.

22 year old William Harrison from Ohio sexually assaulted and strangled seven year old Patricia Wylie in Killycolpy Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland. Patricia was the daughter of a couple who had shown friendship to him. On the pretext of buying them a thank you present he took Patricia shopping with him on the afternoon of September the 26th 1944. His trial took place on the 18th of November 1944 and he was hanged on the 7th of April 1945.

George Smith had gone hunting on private property (Honingham Hall in Norfolk) with fellow soldier Leonard Wojtacha, both armed with service carbines. They were challenged by the owner, Sir Eric Teichman and in the course of this confrontation Smith shot Sir Eric once through the head, killing him. The court martial took place at Attlebridge in Norfolk, commencing on the 8th of January 1945, and lasting five days due to the repeated hospitalisation of Smith. He had made a confession when he was arrested but claimed it had been made under duress and withdrew it at his trial. He was convicted and hanged on 8th May, 1945 (V.E. Day) despite requests for clemency, including one from Lady Teichman.

Aniceto Martinez, a young Mexican American soldier was working as a guard at a prisoner of war camp at near Rugeley in Staffordshire. On the night of August the 6th 1945 he broke into the house of 75 year old Agnes Cope in Rugeley where he raped her. She survived to tell the police of her ordeal and the prisoner of war camp became the focus of their enquiries. Only Martinez had been out of the camp the previous night and when questioned he confessed to the rape. Fibre samples taken from his clothing and matching those in Agnes' house matched adding forensic evidence to the confession. Martinez was tried at Lichfield in Staffordshire on the 21st of February 1945 and became the last person to be hanged for rape in the U.K. when he went to the gallows on the 15th of June of that year.

Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert hanged most of these men, Tom doing the first three, with Albert acting as assistant. Albert did only three as Number One. Tom claimed 13 in total. There would have typically been two assistants at each of the three double hangings. Herbert Morris assisted at three, Alexander Riley assisted at three and Steve Wade at the rest.

All of these men were tried by military courts martial and would have been handed over to military authorities after arrest. The 1928 American forces Manual for Courts - Martial laid down the specific procedures to be used.
The court was normally composed of legally trained officers and usually the prisoner was defended and prosecuted by officers at the rank of captain. All but two trials lasted just one day. In the Smith case, the trial lasted about two working days, but took five days due to his repeated hospitalisations. In only one case (
Harrison) did the trial conform to modern standards, it lasted three and a half days. Typically the defence were allowed two to three weeks to prepare their case. In many cases they had less time, and the Court was usually unwilling to grant defence motions to delay the proceedings - only two such motions were granted.
After the guilty verdict, the death sentence could be passed, either by hanging or shooting, at the discretion of the court. (Shooting was the usual sentence in the case of a person convicted of a purely military offence.) It had to be confirmed and reviewed by a Board of Review. If confirmed it was normally carried out in about three months. (Under British law it was three weeks from sentence to execution at this time.)

Execution details.
The normal U.S. Army method of hanging was not permitted in England and this was confirmed by Albert Pierrepoint, in his autobiography. Most of the normal American execution customs were allowed however. Executions by hanging were normally carried out at 1.00 a.m. in the morning of the specified day. (Shooting executions were carried out around 8.00 a.m.) The British method of hanging was used, there was no standard drop and no hangmen's coiled noose, but an exactly calculated drop using a British style noose.
US Army regulations laid down that a condemned prisoner at execution "will be dressed in regulation uniform from which all decorations, insignia, or other evidence of membership therein have been removed. Likewise, no such evidences will appear on any clothing used in burial." In all cases the condemned men had the services of the prison chaplain in the days leading up to their execution. They were housed in a condemned cell adjacent to the execution chamber for the last three or four days of their lives.
Records of these hangings indicate that the time between releasing the trap doors and confirmation of death varied considerably. David Cobb's execution took only 3 1/2 minutes until he was officially pronounced dead by three
U.S. medical officers. (He was left hanging for one hour, as was the norm in England). It took 22 minutes before George Smith could be certified dead. The average time for 15 of the 16 hangings was 14.8 minutes. (The data is not available for one hanging). It is presumed that the time was taken from the drop until no further heartbeat could be detected by the attending medical officer. This would tally with the time it took for the heartbeat to stop in civilian hangings at the time.

Albert Pierrepoint commented adversely upon the delay caused to the execution process caused by the reading of the death warrant on the gallows and allowing the condemned man to make a final statement. Neither of these things were allowed in British executions but were standard practice in American ones. Typically there were up to 20 witnesses and officials in the execution chamber. After execution the bodies were buried in Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey. Many were later re-buried in France.


After the war Albert made several visits to Austria and Germany and on the 13th of December 1945 hanged 13 German war criminals at Hameln jail including Irma Greese, Elizabeth Volkenrath and Juana Boreman and ten men including the 'Beast of Belsen' Josef Kramer. He is thought to have hanged around 200 Nazis in all.

Irma Greese Nazis War Crimes

She was among the 44 accused of war crimes at the Belsen Trial. She was tried over the first period of the trials (September 17 - November 17, 1945) and was represented by Major L. Cranfield. The trials were conducted under British military law in Lneburg, and the charges derived from the Geneva Convention of 1929 regarding the treatment of prisoners. The accusations against her centred on her ill treatment and murder of Allied nationals imprisoned at the camps, including setting dogs on inmates, shootings and sadistic beatings with a whip.

She was convicted of crimes committed at both Auschwitz and Belsen and sentenced to death by hanging. Her subsequent appeal was rejected. Ten others were also sentenced to death including two other women, Juana Bormann and Elisabeth Volkenrath, with whom she stayed up the night before their execution, laughing and singing Nazi songs. Executed at Hameln jail by Albert Pierrepoint, she was the youngest woman to die judicially under English law in the 20th century.

She showed no remorse, and her final words to Pierrepoint were: 'Quick, get it over'.

Another famous case was that of 'Lord Haw-Haw', real name, William Joyce, whom Pierrepoint hanged at Wandsworth for treason on the 3rd of January 1946. John George Haigh the famous 'Acid bath murderer' came Pierepoint's way on the 10th of August 1949 at Wandsworth Prison for the murder of Mrs. Durand -Deacon. Her gall stone and dentures were not dissolved by the acid in which he had dissolved the rest of her body and remained to convict Haigh.

Derek Bentley was hanged on the 28th of January 1953, at Wandsworth, for his part in the murder of PC Miles. The case has been the subject of books and the film 'Let him have it' and efforts for a pardon for Bentley continue to this day. (He was finally found to have been innocent in 1998).

Another controversial case was that of Timothy John Evans whom Albert hanged on the 9th of March 1950 at Pentonville for the murder of his wife at 10 Rillington Place the home of John Reginald Christie. Christie admitted killing seven women in total. He was hanged on the 15th of July 1953 at Pentonville Prison. In 1966 Evans was granted a posthumous pardon. On the 13th of July 1955 at Holloway Prison, Ruth Ellis became the last woman to be hanged in Britain.

Pierrepoint resigned over a disagreement about fees in 1956. He had gone to Strangeways on a cold day in January 1956 to hang Thomas Bancroft. He arrived at the prison only to find that Bancroft was reprieved. He claimed the full fee of £15, (more than £200 at today's prices), but was offered just £1 in out-of-pocket expenses by the under-sheriff of Lancashire.

Pierrepoint appealed to his employers, the Prison Commission, who refused to get involved. The under-sheriff sent him a cheque for £4 in final settlement. But to Pierrepoint this was the end of the road and a huge insult to his pride in his position as Britain's Chief Executioner. He also wrote his autobiography 'Executioner - Pierrepoint' which is still available. Albert was landlord of a public house 'Help The Poor Struggler' beerhouse in Manchester Road in Hollinwood, Oldham. Pierpoint had been landlord since he took over in 1946, having been executioner since 1931. He died, still in residence, on 11th July 1992 at the age of 87. His death was announced on the BBC midnight news. He was said to pull a good pint! The public house, which ended its days as an electrical shop, was demolished in the 1980's.

Pierrepoint never publicly revealed his reasons for resigning as chief executioner, but it was not, as has been rumoured, because he had become opposed to capital punishment or revolted by the act of hanging. At no stage of his career was he troubled by his conscience, and the fact that he didn't believe in the death penalty as a deterrent had no bearing on his willingness to do his job.

Nor, as another rumour suggested, was it a reaction to having to hang Ruth Ellis. "At the execution of Ruth Ellis no untoward incident happened which in any way appalled me or anyone else, and the execution had no connection with my resignation seven months later. Nor did I leave the list [of executioners], as one newspaper said, by being arbitrarily taken off it, to shut my mouth, because I was about to reveal the last words of Ruth Ellis. She never spoke." (Pierrepoint had told the Royal Commission years before that, in the moments before execution, "I think a woman is braver than a man... I have never seen a man braver than a woman.").

The truth behind his resignation is more prosaic. He had travelled to Strangeways to execute a prisoner who, at the last minute, received a reprieve. The prison refused to pay the fee for his wasted journey. His pride hurt, he chose to resign rather than accept the paltry sum offered. He was only 51, and spent most of his remaining years in Southport, running or working in pubs, discreet until the end. He died in 1992, aged 87.

Neither was he, contrary to widespread belief, Britain's last hangman. After his sudden resignation there were 37 further executions before the abolition of the death penalty. The last two were carried out at exactly the same time in Liverpool and Manchester, on August 13 1964, so that neither executioner could claim to have individually performed the last one. The whole passionate debate over capital punishment had taken place without a word from the man who knew more about it than any one alive.

Last Updated on Friday, 29 June 2012 12:08
 

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