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Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) is the most famous member of the family which provided three of the United Kingdommarker's official hangmen in the first half of the 20th century. He was born in Claytonmarker, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. During his life, he lived in Bradfordmarker, Lincolnmarker, Oldhammarker and the seaside resort of Southportmarker.

Early life

Albert Pierrepoint was born in Claytonmarker, near Bradfordmarker, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, 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 Huddersfieldmarker 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 Failsworthmarker, 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.

Career

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 Prisonmarker, Pierrepoint's name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners on 26 September 1932. At that time, the assistant's fee was £1 11s 6d (£1.57½) per execution, with another £1 11s 6d 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 Prisonmarker, Dublinmarker, on 29 December 1932, when his uncle Thomas was chief executioner at the hanging of Patrick McDermott and 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. His 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 prisonmarker, London, on 17 October 1941, who said "Cheerio!" before the trapdoor was sprung.

On 29 August 1943,GRO marriage index: Albert Pierrepoint and Annie Fletcher, quarter & year: Jul-Aug-Sep 1943, district: Manchester, reference: 8d 412. Pierrepoint married Annie Fletcher, who had run a sweet shop and tobacconist's two doors from the grocery where he worked. They set up home at East Street, Newton Heathmarker, Manchestermarker. The couple did not discuss Pierrepoint's "other career" until after he had travelled to Gibraltarmarker in January 1944 to conduct a double execution; although Anne had known for many years she did not ask him about it, waiting for him to raise the topic.

Following World War II, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials of 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 Germanymarker 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 was to travel to Germany and Austriamarker 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, Hollinwoodmarker, between Oldhammarker and Failsworthmarker, memorably named "Help the Poor Struggler", which allowed for plenty of journalistic puns. He later moved to another pub, the "Rose and Crown" at Much Hoolemarker, near Prestonmarker.

Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. In January 1956 he had gone to Strangewaysmarker Prison, Manchestermarker, 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 Lancashiremarker offered only £1, as the rule in England was that the executioner was only paid for executions carried out – in Scotlandmarker 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 (Pierrepoint having 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 "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, pressure the newspaper publishers so that the series eventually fizzled out.

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

Legacy

It is believed that Pierrepoint executed at least 433 men and 17 women, including six U.S.marker soldiers at Shepton Malletmarker and some 200 Nazi war criminals after World War II. He claimed 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. The total is believed to be closer to 608 people; this figure was given in the credits at the end of the film Pierrepoint, although there is no reference for it.

Steve Fielding lists (in Appendix 2 of his book) 435 executions performed by Albert Pierrepoint, a list for which he claims to have examined the Prison Execution Books (National Archives LPC4) for the majority of prisons in Great Britain, and which includes the German executions. These carry all details on hangmen and assistants. In the absence of an official number, Fielding's total appears to be the best available figure.Albert Pierrepoint is often referred to as Britain's last hangman, but this is not true — executions continued until 13 August 1964 when Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged at 8.00 a.m. at Strangeways Prison by Harry Allen with his assistant Royston Rickard, while Peter Anthony Allen was hanged simultaneously at Walton Prisonmarker, Liverpoolmarker by Robert Leslie Stewart with his assistant Harry Robinson, both for the murder in a robbery of John Alan West.

He was also incorrectly called the last official Chief Hangman for the United Kingdom (and, for a time, the unofficial one for the Republic of Irelandmarker, along with his uncle, Thomas). However the United Kingdom never has had an 'Official Executioner' as right up until 1964 all such appointments were by the Sheriff in which county the murder took place. After 1900 the Sheriffs, however, would only hire men on the Home Office list, but the lists do not refer to 'Chiefs' or 'Assistants' merely that they were 'competent' for the Office of Executioner or Assistant, hence Steve Wade was nearly always chosen as the 'Number One' for jobs at Leeds and Durham, even after Albert was well established throughout the rest of the country. Legally the status of hangman was a position 'unknown to the law', as the execution was officially carried out by the Sheriff, who after 1800 would always delegate it to the hangman.

Film, TV and theatrical adaptations

A film about Pierrepoint's life was made in 2005. Timothy Spall stars as Pierrepoint. The film went on general UK release in April 2006 under the title Pierrepoint and was released in the USmarker under the (factually inaccurate) title The Last Hangman. The film also claims before the closing credits that Pierrepoint conducted 608 executions.

In the 1991 film Let Him Have It, about Derek Bentley, Pierrepoint is played by Clive Revill. He is portrayed (more briefly) by Edwin Brown executing Timothy Evans (as played by John Hurt) in the 1971 film 10 Rillington Place.

In November 2006 a documentary Executioner Pierrepoint aired on the Crime and Investigation Network. Made by Dreamscope Productions, the film examines Albert Pierrepoint's life and delves into the psyche of the man himself. It is regularly shown on both the Crime and Investigation Network and the History Channel in the UK and selected countries. It also includes the revelation that Pierrepoint actually carried out 435 executions, believed to be the correct number - as opposed to many other estimates.

The story of Albert Pierrepoint, and the execution of Ruth Ellis are retold in the stage play Follow Me, written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield and directed by Guy Masterson. It premiered at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

The short story "Tish and Tosh's Curtain Call", from the collection, The Night Chicago Died by Tom Wessex, deals with Pierrepoint's discomfort as he recalls executing James Corbitt.

The character of Sidney Bliss, Alan B'Stard's local publican and henchman in the 1987-1992 political sitcom The New Statesman is reputedly based on Pierrepoint, owing to the character's supposedly being Britain's last hangman.

Notable executions

Among the notable people he hanged:
  • 13 German war criminals - Irma Grese, the youngest concentration camp guard to be executed for crimes at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitzmarker (aged 22), Elisabeth Volkenrath (Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz), and Juana Bormann (Auschwitz), plus 10 men including Josef Kramer, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. All were executed at Hamelinmarker on 13 December 1945 at half-hour intervals, the women being hanged individually, the men in pairs.
  • John Amery, son of wartime Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, and the first person to plead guilty to treason in an English court since Summerset Fox in May 1654. He was described by Pierrepoint as "the bravest man I ever hanged", and greeted his executioner with the words "Oh! Pierrepoint." The executioner, however, took the proffered hand only to put the pinioning strap on, and made no reply. However, this account is disputed, as Pierrepoint himself later stated in interview that the two men spoke at length and he felt that he had known Amery 'all his life', and there is a story that Amery greeted Pierrepoint with "Mr Pierrepoint, I've always wanted to meet you. Though not, of course, under these circumstances!". Hanged at Wandsworth Prisonmarker, London, 19 December 1945.
  • "Lord Haw-Haw", William Joyce, convicted as a traitor and executed at Wandsworth, 3 January 1946.
  • John George Haigh, the "Acid-bath murderer" executed at Wandsworth on 10 August 1949.
  • Derek Bentley, executed at Wandsworth on 28 January 1953 for his part in the death of Police Constable Miles. The execution was carried out despite pleas for clemency by large numbers of people including 200 Members of Parliament, the widow of Miles, and the recommendation of the jury in the trial. An article written by Pierrepoint for The Guardian, but withheld until the pardon was granted, dispelled the myth that Bentley had cried on his way to the scaffold. Right until the last, he believed he would be reprieved. After a 45-year long campaign, Bentley received a posthumous pardon in July 1998, when the Court of Appeal ruled that Bentley's conviction was "unsafe" and quashed it.
  • Timothy John Evans, hanged at Pentonville Prison on 9 March 1950 for the murder of his daughter (he was also suspected of having murdered his wife). It was subsequently discovered that Evans' neighbour, John Reginald Christie, a self-confessed necrophiliac, was a serial killer. He was executed by Pierrepoint on 15 July 1953 at Pentonville. Timothy Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966 for the murder of his daughter.
  • Michael Manning on 20 April 1954 the last person to be executed in the Republic of Irelandmarker.
  • Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, on 13 July 1955, for shooting her lover. Pierrepoint had no regrets about her execution; it was one of the few times he spoke publicly about one of his charges and he made it clear he felt she deserved no less.
  • James Inglis, the fastest hanging on record - only seven and a half seconds from being led out of his cell until the trapdoor opened to send him on his fatal drop.


Views on capital punishment

Pierrepoint allegedly became an opponent of capital punishment. The reason for this seems to be a combination of the experiences of his father, his uncle, and himself, whereupon reprieves were granted in accordance with political expediency or public fancy and little to do with the merits of the case in question. He had also hanged a slight acquaintance James Corbitt on 28 November 1950; Corbitt was a regular in his pub, and had sung "Danny Boy" as a duet with Pierrepoint on the night he murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy because she would not give up a second boyfriend. This incident in particular made Pierrepoint feel that hanging was no deterrent, particularly when most of the people he was executing had killed in the heat of the moment rather than with premeditation or in furtherance of a robbery.

Pierrepoint kept his opinions to himself on the topic until his 1974 autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, in which he commented:

"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...The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off."


However, Pierrepoint's opinion with regards to capital punishment remains controversial and the subject of debate, mostly due to a 1976 interview with BBC Radio Merseyside, in which the former executioner expresses his uncertainty towards the sentence, and reminds the interviewer that, when the autobiography was originally written, "things were going steady." In addition, he states "Oh, I could go again" when describing his reaction to particularly vile murder cases.

Pierrepoint's position as an abolitionist and capital punishment opponent has also been attacked by his long-time former Assistant, Syd Dernley, in his 1989 autobiography "The Hangman's Tale":

"Even the great Pierrepoint developed some strange ideas in the end. I do not think I will ever get over the shock of reading in his autobiography, many years ago, that like the Victorian executioner James Berry before him, he had turned against capital punishment and now believed that none of the executions he had carried out had achieved anything! This from the man who proudly told me that he had done more jobs than any other executioner in English history. I just could not believe it. When you have hanged more than 680 people, it's a hell of a time to find out you do not believe capital punishment achieves anything!


Steve Fielding, a biographer of Albert Pierrepoint, also takes a similar view when interviewed for the 2003 Alba Productions documentary "The Executioners", stating that he believed it was used only as a "good line to sell the book."

Father & uncle

Henry Albert Pierrepoint - father

(Executioner from 1901 - 1910)

Henry Pierrepoint (1878 – 1922) was born in Normanton on Soarmarker, Nottinghamshiremarker, the fourth child and second son of Thomas and Mary Pierrepoint. By 1891, he and his family had moved to Claytonmarker, near Bradfordmarker, where he was employed in a worsted mill. Henry wasn't happy working at the mill, and so in 1893 his father arranged an apprenticeship for him at a large butchers in Bradford.Fielding, ibid. p. 3 Three years later he left the apprenticeship and moved to Manchestermarker where his sister Mary was one of the managers at a cabinet making firm.Fielding, ibid. p. 3 Not long after this he met a local girl, Mary Buxton, and toward the end of 1898 they were married at St Anne's Church in Newton Heathmarker, Manchestermarker.GRO marriage index: Henry Albert Pierrepoint and Mary Buxton, quarter & year: Oct-Nov-Dec 1898, district: Prestwich, reference: 8d 648.

In 1901, Henry was appointed to the list of executioners after repeatedly writing to the Home Office to offer his services. He later persuaded his elder brother Thomas to join the family business and influenced his son Albert to do the same. In his nine-year term of office Henry carried out 105 executions. His career was finished when he arrived the day before an execution at Chelmsfordmarker prison "considerably the worse for drink", and fought his assistant John Ellis. Ellis reported the incident to the Home Office which decided, after receiving confirmation by the warders' account of the matter, to strike Henry from the list of approved executioners.

Thomas William Pierrepoint - uncle

(Executioner from 1909 - 1946)

Thomas Pierrepoint (1870 – 1954) was born in Sutton Boningtonmarker, Nottinghamshiremarker, the second child and eldest son of Thomas and Mary Pierrepoint. He worked as a hangman for 37 years until his mid-seventies in 1946. He is credited with having carried out 294 hangings in his career, although no precise figure has been verified, as some of these were in Irelandmarker. Among those he executed was the notorious poisoner Frederick Seddon in 1912. During World War II he was appointed as executioner by the US Military and was responsible for 13 out of 16 hangings of US soldiers at the Shepton Malletmarker military prison in Somersetmarker for crimes involving murder and/or rape (a capital crime under US military law, though not in British law), in most cases assisted by his nephew Albert who was, in turn, "Number One" for the remaining three executions.

In 1940, his medical fitness for the job was questioned by a Medical Officer who called him "unsecure" and doubted "whether his sight was good". The Prison Commission discreetly asked for reports on his performance during executions in the following time, but evidently found no reason to take action, although one report said that Thomas Pierrepoint had "smelled strongly of drink" on two occasions when reporting at the prison. This however appears to clash with Thomas Pierrepoint's instruction to Albert when the latter acted as his assistant not to take a drink if on the job, and never to accept the drink customarily given to all witnesses at executions in the Republic of Irelandmarker.

Henry was never officially "dismissed" or Thomas "retired", rather their names were removed from the list of executioners and invitations to conduct executions ceased to arrive. Albert formally demanded that his name be removed from the list, thus he "resigned".

Statistics

See: Locations of executions conducted by Albert Pierrepoint


See also



References

  1. Fielding, ibid., p.126
  2. Fielding, ibid, pp.137-141
  3. Fielding, ibid. p.272
  4. Fielding, ibid. p.274
  5. Fielding, ibid. pp. 285–303
  6. Fielding, ibid. pp.193-194
  7. A grisly family tradition. BBC Nottingham'. Retrieved on 17 October 2009.
  8. 1881 Census: Sutton Bonington; RG11; Piece: 3149; Folio: 26; Page: 3.
  9. 1891 Census: Clayton; RG12; Piece: 3646; Folio: 38; Page: 8.
  10. Lancashire BMD - Marriages.
  11. Fielding, ibid. pp. 96-98
  12. A grisly family tradition. BBC Nottingham'. Retrieved on 17 October 2009.
  13. 1871 Census: Sutton Bonington; RG10; Piece: 3259; Folio: 92; Page: 11.


Further reading

  • Albert Pierrepoint, Executioner: Pierrepoint, (2005). Dobby, ISBN 1-85882-061-8 (Reprint of the 1974 Harrap edition ISBN 0245520708).
  • Steve Fielding, Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners, (2008). John Blake Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84454-611-4.
  • Leonora Klein, A Very English Hangman: The Life and Times of Albert Pierrepoint, (2006). Corvo Books Ltd, ISBN 0-9543255-6-7.


External links




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