Albert Pierrepoint (1905-92) was Britain’s most famous hangman, in fact, and a recent BBC documentary about Ruth Ellis - the last woman he executed and the last woman to be executed in the UK before the law changed - has brought him back into public view.
Also highlighting his unusual occupation is a lot coming up at Summers Place Auctions on June 12 estimated at £25,000-40,000: his personal archive. The saleroom in Billingshurst, West Sussex, is proud to specialise in the weird and wonderful and this selection of items certainly fits that mould.
The archive includes his notebook, listing the executions with important details to determine how to achieve the quickest death for the almost 500 criminals listed, but also his father Henry's notebook. Also featured is a plaster casts of his face and hands, some photographs, his watch chain and cigarette holder.
In what became a family speciality, Henry was principal executioner of Britain in 1905. In his nine-year term of office he carried out 105 executions and his elder brother Thomas also took on the hangman role. Henry’s career ended after a drunken incident, however.
Albert decided as a young boy that he wanted to follow into their footsteps as a career. He worked in a grocery shop and did deliveries near Bradford, but qualified as an assistant executioner in 1932 and a chief executioner in 1941. As an assistant executioner he earned 1½ guineas (about £100 when adjusted for inflation) 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. He resigned in 1956 and the Home Office acknowledged Pierrepoint as the most efficient executioner in British history and believed him to have hanged more criminals than anyone else in Britain.
He was the executioner for William Joyce (‘Lord Haw-Haw’, the Nazi propaganda broadcaster) and John Amery, the first person to plead guilty to treason in an English court since Summerset Fox in May 1654. After the Second World War, he executed some 200 war criminals between 1945-49 in Hameln, Germany (near Bergen-Belsen) and Graz, Austria (near Liebenau).
While war criminals at the Nuremberg trials had US executioners, it was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions in Hameln. He was appointed an honorary lieutenant-colonel for the purpose and on December 11, 1945 he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the first 11.
The press discovered his identity and he became a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero. Among those executed were ‘the Beast of Belsen’, camp commandant Josef Kramer; Irma Grese, at 22 the youngest concentration camp guard to be executed for crimes at Bergen and Auschwitz; and Dr Bruno Tesch, co-inventor of the insecticide Zyklon B used in the Holocaust.
In England, Pierrepoint hanged Timothy Evans for a crime committed by his neighbour John Christie, who was also hanged by Pierrepoint in 1953, three years after Evans. This wrongful execution is acknowledged as a major miscarriage of justice and was a contributing factor for the suspension of the death penalty in Britain in 1965 and its eventual abolition.
Other executions included Gordon Cummins, the ‘Blackout Ripper’, and John George Haigh, the ‘Acid-bath murderer’. Pierrepoint dispatched Derek Bentley for his part in the ‘let him have it’ murder of a policeman, which also had many people calling for the abolishing of the death sentence.
His first execution as principal hangman was in 1941 – it was the gangland murderer and nightclub owner Antonio ‘Babe’ Mancini who apparently said ‘Cheerio!’ before the trapdoor was sprung at Pentonville Prison.
Pierrepoint always said that the key to a quick and as clean as possible execution was the ‘drop’: a careful calculation of the person's height, weight, age, gender and build to allow for a quick death. In Ruth Ellis's case the drop was 8ft 2in.
According to Summers Place Auctions: “The vendor is selling this archive as he is downsizing and moving abroad, but is still fascinated by its importance as a witness of social and legal history. He originally bought it to research some of the stories behind those executed by Pierrepoint and believes that it would ideally be purchased by a museum, which would enable many more people to analyse these historic documents in their wider social and legal circumstances.”
Keeping it quiet
Pierrepoint's wife didn't know for years what her husband's part-time job was, although he finally told her when he returned from a job abroad. The boost of income provided by the German executions allowed him to leave the day job and they became pub owners, first in Hollinwood, Greater Manchester and later near Preston, Lancashire before retiring to Southport.
Pierrepoint had mixed personal feelings about capital punishment, despite his role.
In his autobiography Executioner: Pierrepoint, 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.”
He did, however, believe until the end that “our method was the cleanest, quickest and most humane in the world”.