Albert Pierrepoint

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Albert Pierrepoint
Albert-Pierrepoint.jpg
Born(1905-03-30)30 March 1905 [1]
Clayton,[2][3]
West Riding of Yorkshire,
England
Died10 July 1992(1992-07-10) (aged 87)[1]
Southport,
Merseyside,
England
NationalityBritish
OccupationExecutioner, Publican
EmployerHM Prison Service
Spouse(s)Annie Pierrepoint, née Fletcher
(1905–1998, aged 93)[4]
ParentsHenry Albert Pierrepoint and
Mary Pierrepoint, née Buxton
RelativesThomas Pierrepoint (uncle)
 
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Albert Pierrepoint
Albert-Pierrepoint.jpg
Born(1905-03-30)30 March 1905 [1]
Clayton,[2][3]
West Riding of Yorkshire,
England
Died10 July 1992(1992-07-10) (aged 87)[1]
Southport,
Merseyside,
England
NationalityBritish
OccupationExecutioner, Publican
EmployerHM Prison Service
Spouse(s)Annie Pierrepoint, née Fletcher
(1905–1998, aged 93)[4]
ParentsHenry Albert Pierrepoint and
Mary Pierrepoint, née Buxton
RelativesThomas Pierrepoint (uncle)

Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) was a long-serving hangman in England. He executed at least 400 people, about half of them war criminals, including William Joyce (one of the men dubbed "Lord Haw-Haw"), and John Amery, whom he considered the bravest man he had ever hanged.

Pierrepoint was often dubbed the Official Executioner, despite there being no such job or title. The office of executioner had traditionally been performed by the local sheriff, who increasingly delegated the task to a person of suitable character, employed and paid only when required. Pierrepoint continued to work for years in a grocery near Bradford after qualifying as an Assistant Executioner in 1932 and a Chief Executioner in 1941, in the steps of his father and uncle.

Following his retirement in 1956, the Home Office acknowledged Pierrepoint as the most efficient executioner in British history. He subsequently became a publican in Lancashire and wrote his memoirs, in which he sensationally concluded that capital punishment was not a deterrent.

There is no official tally of his hangings, which some have estimated at more than 600; the most commonly accepted figure is 435.

Contents

Early life

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".[5] 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.[6]

Career

In late 1931, Lionel Mann, an assistant of five years' experience, resigned when his employers informed him that his sideline was affecting his promotion prospects,[7] 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)[note 1] 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 1932, and the first execution Pierrepoint attended was in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, on 29 December 1932,[8] 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.[citation needed]

On 29 August 1943,[9] 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, and unknown to Albert, Annie learned of his "other career", but for many months 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 travelled 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.[10] 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 applied pressure upon the newspaper publishers and as a consequence the series was eventually terminated.[clarification needed][11]

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.

Legacy

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.

Steve Fielding lists (in Appendix 2 of his book[12]) 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. Because of the film's North American release title Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, 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 am at Strangeways Prison by Harry Allen with his assistant Royston Rickard, while Peter Anthony Allen was hanged simultaneously at Walton Prison, Liverpool by Robert Leslie Stewart with his assistant Harry Robinson, both for the murder in a robbery of John Alan West.

Pierrepoint has also been incorrectly called the last official Chief Hangman for the United Kingdom (and, for a time, the unofficial one for the Republic of Ireland, along with his uncle, Thomas). However the United Kingdom has never had an Official Executioner, as right up until 1964 all such appointments were made by the Sheriff of the county in which the murder took place. After 1900 the Sheriffs 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; therefore, Stephen Wade was nearly always chosen as the "Number One" for jobs in 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, theatrical, and other adaptations

In film

In literature and publications

In music

Pierrepoint is referred to in a song about Derek Bentley called "Let Him Dangle".[13] The song is on the album Spike by Elvis Costello. One line, "As the hangman shook Bentley's hand to calculate his weight", implies that Pierrepoint could work out his victim's weight (and therefore the force needed to hang him) just by shaking his hand.

Onstage

In television

Notable executions

Among the notable people he hanged:

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 had 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 wrote:

It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.[16]

However, Pierrepoint's opinion with regard 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.[citation needed]

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!

Pierrepoint biographer Steve Fielding took 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."

Albert's father Henry was never officially "dismissed" nor was his uncle 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

Notes

  1. ^ At this time in the United Kingdom, those providing professional services – such as lawyers, doctors, architects and, apparently, assistant executioners – normally charged their fees in guineas rather than pounds, shillings and pence.

References

  1. ^ a b GRO death index: Albert Pierrepoint, born 30 Mar 1905, died Jul 1992, district: Sefton North, reference 37 323.
  2. ^ North Bierley Registration District, including Clayton. GENUKI.
  3. ^ GRO birth index: Albert Pierrepoint; quarter & year: Apr/May/Jun 1905; district: North Bierley; volume: 9b; page: 167.
  4. ^ GRO death index: Annie Pierrepoint, born 24 Apr 1905, died Oct 1998, district: Sefton North, reference 0341B 104.
  5. ^ Fielding 2008a, p. 127
  6. ^ Fielding 2008a, p. 126
  7. ^ Fielding 2008b, pp. 175–176
  8. ^ Fielding 2008a, pp. 137–141
  9. ^ GRO marriage index: Albert Pierrepoint and Annie Fletcher, quarter & year: Jul–Aug–Sep 1943, district: Manchester, reference: 8d 412.
  10. ^ Fielding 2008a, p. 272
  11. ^ Fielding 2008a, p. 274
  12. ^ Fielding 2008a, pp. 285–303
  13. ^ BBC.co.uk
  14. ^ Axishistory.com
  15. ^ Fielding 2008a, pp. 193–194
  16. ^ Welham, Mike (2012). Crime Pays: Reflections from the Front Line of Criminal Justice. Troubador Publishing Ltd, p. 161. ISBN 1780880014

Bibliography

  • Fielding, Steve (2008a), Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners, John Blake Publishing Ltd, ISBN 978-1-84454-611-4
  • Fielding, Steve (2008b), The Executioner's Bible: The Story of Every British Hangman of the Twentieth Century, John Blake Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84454-648-0

Further reading

External links