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Six Men, One Gruesome Occupation.
William Calcraft. State Executioner. 1800 - 1879.
The Blackcountry of course, isn't the only place in the Kingdom which can boast of multiple Hangmen. There have been the Billingtons, from Bolton in Lancashire, and the Pierrepoints, from Huddersfield in Yorkshire. This regions hangmen differ, in that none of them were related, and there was no family " Dynasty ". None of them can match the longest serving public executioner, William Calcraft, ( 1829 - 1879 ) or his record of between of 400, and 450 hangings. ( at least 35 of whom were women ) Calcraft, was the last hangman who was paid a wage, or annual stipend, for his services. On retiring, in 1874, he was given a pension of 25 shillings a week, which continued untill his death in 1879. Not much in the way of any useful material has been published about Calcraft. He was born and raised in Little Baddow Essex in 1800, seems to have learned a trade, Shoemaking, and aquired a hobby breeding and showing Rabbits. On the 19th April, 1824, he married Louisa Kingsbury, in Little Baddow, and moved to London. At some stage he met Thomas Cheshire, ( called by his friends, "Old Cheese" ) and John Foxton, both involved in the " Hanging and Flogging trade ", and to earn a few more pennies, was employed to carry out minor punishments like " Floggings ". In 1826, he became a father when his son William was born, and 3 years later, after London found itself without an Executioner, was offered the post. His main employment was at Newgate, ( Photo-Gallery, Images from the forums ) but he had a contract for the Horsemongers Lane prison as well. The coming of the Railways, opened up the rest of the country to longer distance travels, which must have suited Calcraft well, and undoubtedly accounted for the large number of " Jobs " he completed. He had a long, and some would say, a rather chequered career on the Gallows of England. Not by any means a braggart, but he was known to "ham it up" at executions, where the crowds could, and quite often did, exceed 30,000. George Smith, who liked to be bit more flamboyant, rarely had the chance, he was, after all, only a provincial hangman.Staffordshire's place of execution, at least until the early 1800s, was at Sandyford, just south of Stafford, when they were moved to a position in front of the Gaol. This was mainly because a contraption, called the " New drop ", some of which had wheels, but its main attraction was being portable, had been purchased, thus cutting the costs of building a new gallows for every execution. Public hangings were performed in this manner until 1868, when all such events were removed to a more private setting, inside the Gaol. The last hanging at Stafford, was in 1914, the process then being transfered, over the border, to the Prison in Birmingham, at Winson Green.
Thomas Taylor, Oldswinford, Worcestershire. 1786 - 1849
Now there's not much been written about Thomas Taylor, and I don't guarantee that the source of all this is totally correct, but here goes anyway. He was reputedly born in the Parish of Oldswinford, ( Stourbridge today ) but recent evidence has surfaced the he may have been born in Halesowen, as there is a recorded baptisim at Saint the Baptist, of a Thomas Taylor in 1786. He himself gave his occupation as a Cutler and may have begun his working life making farm implements and grinding them to sharp edges. ( Hence the nick-name, The Razor Grinder ) His first recorded Execution, and confirmed by him, was at Hereford Gaol in 1816, when he hanged William Cadwallader, a local Blacksmith who had been convicted of murdering his wife. He had been invited to this event, having submitted a low tender, and it is unlikely to have been the first time on a scaffold for him, as they only accepted tenders from those with a proven record. It's not clear just where he learned the trade, or who gave him the training. ( It was sometimes passed from father to son ) This then, was the start of a long career in the Execution business for Thomas Taylor, which ended sometime in the mid 1840s. Although he lived in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, the vast majority of the executions he carried out were in Gloucester, Monmouth, Hereford, and Shrewsbury. I can only find mention of one in Worcester. There swiftly followed many more, for he was cheap to employ, although it soon became clear that he had a few problems, the major one being drink, and his inabiliIty to pass an open Public house. Even taking away clashing dates, between 1816 and 1834, he may have hanged a staggering 80 people, including at least 3 women, one of whom was aged 69. The reason for this, is that the number of capital offences was huge, and it wasn't until 1834, that that it was reduced. Sheep stealing, robbery, house breaking and many other minor offences were removed from the list. Later on, the only crime which warranted a death sentence was Murder, which of course, drastically reduced his income. Gloucester was, it seems, his favourite place of business, for he reckoned that most of the others had gone soft and refused to impose the ultimate penalty. During this period, he once hanged 4 men on the same day, twice hanged 3 men in a morning, and handled several double executions, all it would seem, without any assistants. Far more prolific than George Smith, and, it would have to be said, a more degenerate individual would be hard to find, even among the most hated of men at the time. He adopted a much more low profile when back in Stourbridge, for he was well aware of the feelings expressed about his trade, and several times. due to his drunken antics, he had been referred to as " Jack Ketch ". ( There is a Thomas Taylor, listed in the 1841 Census as a Baker, living in the same location as the Hangman. ) In 1837, at the execution of murderer Charles Bartlett, in Gloucester, he had just finished the job when he spoke some words to the still swinging but dead body. " Old chap " he said, " you are dead enough now ", and then proceeded to sing and dance on the scaffold. He was certainly drunk, and upset many in the vast crowd who attended the event. Not all though, for some also applauded the show,which was later reported to the Magistrates. Another of his unsavoury habits, was to collect the dead persons clothes,( a perk of the job ) not to sell them, but to wear himself, which he did at the next execution. The condemned were always better dressed then he was. He had a habit, of leaving the platform as soon as the poor soul on the end of the rope had gone down the drop. He explained this to a medical man by saying he had made sure the deceased had passed comfortably away, and then went off for his dinner. The drop was never more than two feet, and death was rarely quick. When he hanged Josiah Misters at Shrewsbury in 1841, he actually walked there from his home in Stourbridge, collected the clothes, sold a handkerchief for a shilling, and began the walk back, via Bridgenorth, were he spent the night. He was later found in the street, drunk, putting on a show with Misters clothes, and hurling a few insults at the gathered crowd. The Mayor was outraged and had him locked up, fining him 5 shillings the next morning for being drunk and disorderly. There was no charge against the woman he was with, who certainly wasn't his wife. Interestingly, two letters were found in his pockets, one from Mr Dawson, the Governor of Shrewsbury Gaol, reminding him of the day of execution, and confirming the fee for hanging Misters, 35 shillings. It was addressed to Thomas Taylor, Cutler, Coventry Street, Stourbridge. The other one was addressed to Thomas Taylor, Cutler, Back Lane, Near the Hole in the Wall, ( a Pub I presume ) Stourbridge, Worcestershire. This was an invitation to attend Monmouth Gaol to hang four men after the Chartist Riots in Newport, South Wales. All four men had been found guilty of High Treason, the penalty for which was to be Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered, and this gruesome task didn't seem to put the razor grinder off accepting the job, the fee for each was two guineas. He was out of luck this time, for all the men were transported for life after petitions had been recieved. Incidently, the Governor had only sent half of the two Guineas fee. and half of the expences. telling him not to get drunk on the way. Taylors reputation then, was well known in the prison service. Word must have reached the officials in Worcester, for the year, prior to this, he almost certainly hanged William Lightband, on 23rd March 1837, for the brutal murder of Joseph Hawkins. He is reported to have despatched John Williams in April 1842, for the murder of Emma Evans, also at Shrewsbury. Again several years passed, they didn't seem at all keen in the two Midland shires, to implement the death penalty. In 1849, a year after his wifes death, in Stourbridge, he was off to Worcester to rid the world of a very nasty man. Robert Pulley, aged 49, who had violated and strangled a 15 year old girl called Mary Straight, and who was executed on 26th March,1849. In more ways than one, it was to be Thomas Taylors last job, for before the year was out, he was himself dead and buried, finishing his life in the surroundings of Stourbridge Workhouse. If anyone has any further information, please get in touch, I would greatly appreciate it.
George Smith, The Rowley Hangman. 1805 - 1874. The second of the regions " Higglers ", which is a local expression for a hangman. George Smith, was born in a small cottage in Oakham, near Rowley Village, in Staffordshire. There is a record of him marrying in Dudley, in 1827, but little is known of his family history. His fathers name is believed to have been Joseph Smith, who lived in a house just below Oakham Farm. What is known, is that between his labouring jobs, he was a heavy drinker, and was no stranger to the Courts, or Prison staff. His first brush with the Law was in 1825, when he got 12 months for Poaching. This was followed in 1829 with a month for petty larceny, a spell of 3 months in 1839 for the same offence, and numerous appearences and fines for being drunk. Smith had a stroke of luck in 1840. He was in Stafford Prison for failing to support his family, and a bit of petty Larceny, not for the first time either, when William Calcraft arrived for a double hanging. Calcraft who was getting on a bit, and as his assistant had failed to show up, ( he was dead drunk on route ) he asked the prison Governor for help. Smith was the only volunteer, and thus began his career, as a Hangman. So, on the 11th April, 1840, James Owen, and George Thomas, two murderers, were swung into eternity, with Smiths assistance. During the next few years, Calcraft used Smith's services many times, they were very alike in attitude, both having an eye for making money. It used to be thought that Smith only worked in Staffordshire, but records now show otherwise. In 1843, he travelled to Lancashire, and assisted with the slow strangulation of Betty Eccles, at Kirkdale, who had done away with her young stepson. You may wonder why I used that term. It's a fact, that Calcraft only ever gave a short drop, which produced a slow agonising death, and which sometimes required the assistant to swing on the condemned's legs, to speed up death. There followed, Charles Higginson, at Stafford, in August 1843, and then he was off to Chester in December 1844, to hang Mary Gallop, who had killed her father. In 1849, something of Smiths character was displayed, when he assisted Calcraft at the hanging, in Bristol, of Sarah Thomas. Young Sarah, she was just 17, had killed her mistress after being, in her opinion, maltreated.The young woman refused to leave the cell, fought with the goalers, and resisted climbing the scaffold. Smith put paid to her struggles by picking her up, slinging her over his shoulder, and carrying her, up the ladder, and on to the trap. This was the same year in which he also hanged another woman, Sarah Westwood, at Stafford Gaol, while she was still sitting on a stool. ( she was paralysed with fear, and couldn't stand ) The next year, he himself was back in gaol, this time pulling 3 months for Bigamy. A busy lad was our George. However, his most memorable event, was being put in charge at Stafford, for the hanging, of one of the most famous murderers of the age, Doctor William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner. The day before this execution, Smith was to be seen parading around the Town, taking drinks, and handshakes, from the many who had come to witness the last public appearance of William Palmer. When asked by some from where he came, he told them he hailed from near Leek, in the north of the County. Those that knew him however, avoided his odious company. Dressed in his "working" clothes, and possibly still under the influence of the drink, George Smith may have been holding the rail that Palmer had to use to mount the scaffold. This prompted a famous last words epitaph from Palmer, who looking at the steps, asked if it was " safe." It was said later, and with some justification, that Smith sold enough " Hanging " rope, from this, and other jobs, to stretch from Stafford to London. Even more money came from this next little exploit. Three months later, he was to be found at the Chester races, complete with side show, enacting Palmers hanging, with a suited dummy, twice a day, at a shilling entrance fee. In 1864, Smith executed Richard Hale, (on the 27th December, for killing his illegitimate daughter ) and on the same day, Charles Brough, for the murder of Geoge Walker. Stafford had to wait a whole year for Smiths next appearence, in 1866, when he performed no less than three executions. First, on 9th January, when he hanged Charles Robinson for the dreadful murder of Harriet Seagar, ( see Topic, More Ghastly Murders ) and the second, on 27th March, of George Bently, for the slaying of John Poole at Eccleshall. ( More Ghastly Murders ) Bentley's hanging followed a set routine at Stafford Gaol. First he was collected from the cell, then, led by the Prison Governor, the deputy County Sherrif, Prison Chaplain, and the Warders escorting the prisoner, they made a slow procession around the Prison yard. The Bell began to toll when they reached the scaffold. On this occasion, Smith smartly set the noose around Bently's neck, drew from his pocket a grimy face mask, clamped it firmy on the prisoners head, and pushed the lever, sending Bently to his doom. Then he went below, and gave several jerks on the mans legs, there was a strangled sigh, and all went still. Bently had received a drop of just two and a half feet, which failed, as usual, to provide a quick death. At the last Public hanging outside Stafford Goal, in 1866, George Smith made a terrible error, perhaps he was drunk, it wouldn't have surprised anyone. He failed to secure the rope to the beam hook properly, and poor William Collier went down into the pit, unhung. It was sometime later, with the crowd getting angry, that Smith finally managed to finish the job. He left the scene, more the villain than Collier did, who fully deserved to hang. George Smiths hanging record at Stafford is 21, which includes1 woman. His other jobs total another 13. At Chester 3 men, at Warwick 6 men, including a double on 30th December, 1861, of William Beamish, and John Thompson, at Worcester 1 man , at Shrewsbury 2 men, and at Kirkdale, 1 woman. Amongst the first of the private hangings were the double hangings of Thomas Wells and Alexander Mackay, Calcraft again in charge, at Maidstone prison, in 1868. Smith, as usual, supplemented his drinking with tales of how hard Wells had died. In 1872, he travelled down again to Maidstone in Kent, this time to help Calcraft in two hangings on the same day. Frances Bradford, a young Soldier, just turned 19, had savagely hacked a fellow Soldier to death with a Bayonet. Punishment it seemed, for Daniel Donohue's "crime", of reporting him for bullying. I suppose it was fairly normal at the time for death to be delayed, but this unfortunate man, swung on the end of the rope, struggling for life, for over 10 minutes. It was these grossly offensive discriptions, of men being dragged, kicking and screaming to the gallows, which so appalled some of the local population. George Smiths last job, was the execution, on the same day, 13th August 1872, of Christopher Edwards, who had brutally murdered his wife. Now I wish I could say, that George Smith was a likable old rogue, but I can't. He deserted his family on more than one occassion, failed to provide for them, and in the end, they seem to have up sticks and left. There is a listing in court records, in 1847,of a George Smith, being found guilty of Horse Stealing, and sentenced to be transported for 7 years. This may very well have been him, and because of his " expertise " with a rope, he may have been let off. He was a loud, obnoxious, drunken braggart, and a totally unlovable character. That he hung himself at the end of a rope in 1874 is no surprise, and I suppose a lot of people breathed a sigh of relief. History however is history, and he was, as they say in these parts, " one of ours " after all. For those that do, they are more than welcome to him.
George Incher, The Dudley Hangman.( 1825 - 1897 )
Incher, who had, in all likelihood, also served time in Stafford Prison, knew George Smith. Born not to far away, in Porters Field Dudley, his father Enoch, was a Carter. George did in fact learn a trade, he is listed as a Cordwainer, an old fashioned name for a Shoe maker. In 1847, george married Sarah Bradley, who came from Kingswinford, at her Parish Church, Saint Marys. They had 4 children, as far as I can tell, Enoch, in 1849, George, in 1851, William, in 1854, and James in 1857. There may be another one, John, in 1861. There don't appear to be any records, of the sort of behaviour that were to become a trade mark later on in his life. That he was in prison, when he met George Smith, is a nigh certainty, but what for, is anyones guess. It all seems to have gone a bit wrong afterwards. He was appointed the County hangman, in 1875, the year after Smiths demise, although there is some very strong evidence, that he had assisted Smith on at least three occasions prior to the appointment. One of his first jobs, at Stafford, was to attend to the execution of John Stanton, in 1875. William Marwood, a sign of the times I suppose, was already fully booked. Incher turned up for the occasion in clothes that any respectable tramp would have refused to wear, and had to be supplied with a set of Prison issue togs. Not one to spend money unduly was our Mr Incher. A brief return to Inchers reputation, if I may, as in 1876, at the Police Court in Dudley, Incher was given a months imprisonment for committing a felony. ( Theft ) It would seem that being the Hangman at Stafford was no defence, or barrier to him being punished for being a naughty man. In 1877, discribed as a cattle drover, he was hauled in front of the magistrates, for being drunk in Priory Street, Dudley. He was creating quite a fuss about getting his son out of prison, so a bit of law breaking seemed to run in the family. I did not, when at this stage writing this page, know which son it was, but I do now. In fact, all three of his sons got into trouble. William was aquitted of Larceny in 1877, Enoch was sentenced to 9 months in January 1879, for persistant Larcency, and again in April 1887, this time for 12 months. The youngest, James, also got time for helping Enoch, but he only went down for 14 days. He was sober enough, in July 1877, when he dispatched Henry Rogers aged 27, ( Marwood was busy in Leicester, topping John Starkey ) for the sadistic and brutal slaying of his Wife in Wolverhampton, slashing her throat and abandoning his child in a field. The same streak of sadistic behaviour,seems to have run in the family, as his parents, for a fee, put the victims corpse on display. George Incher seemed to resent spending money on anything but drink, and, not for the first or last time, after this hanging he got drunk again, then refused to pay a fine of 2s 6d, and chose prison instead. He was sent to Worcester Gaol for a week. Again, in 1881, he was fined 5s, for a similar offence, and again, he accepted 7 days hard labour, rather than pay up. 9 days earlier, he had hung James Williams at Stafford, so it didn't take him long to spend the fee. It may be, that the assistant he had on one job, was the son he was trying to get released in 1877, young William. His main job it turned out, was to assist the new Home Office aproved executioner, William Marwood. This man bought science to the " craft ", with a table of weights and measures, which led to variable drop lengths. This ensured, that a sufficent drop, would snap the condemned necks, rather than a slow strangulation. Incher was in charge at only three hangings at Stafford, in the first few years of starting, John Stanton, Henry Rogers, and lastly, James Williams. There is no evidence that he used the new long drop system, but the authorities may have insisted on it. That he would have had some training from Marwood in the matter is almost certain. He was sent for to be Marwoods assistant, at Newgate, in May 1876, for one of the few times in more than 50 years, that 4 men were hanged at the same time. These were the " Lennie Mutineers ", who had taken over a Ship, killed the Captain and other crew members, and had planned to sell the Ship and Cargo in a foreign port. Thanks to another crew member, who navigated the Ship into captivity, they had been caught, and extradicted back to England. Inchers last recorded hanging, was on his home turf at Stafford, on 22 February 1881, when James Williams was launched into eternity, for the murder of his wife. It could be, that his career was cut short by the sudden illness of Marwood, who developed an inflamation of the Lungs, and died on 4th Sep,1883. George Incher simply carried on with his life of drinking, although he seems to have slowed down a bit towards the end of 1881, when he was describing himself as a Grocer. Previously he had stated he was a Cattle Dealer. By this time, he was living in 13 court, number 2 house, Belper, Dudley, and it was here, that Sarah died, shortly before 1891. He ended his life as a Grocer, probably still as short of money as ever, but unlike Smith, he seems rarely to have talked about his life as a hangman. The public mood had changed, and hanging was no longer a popular subject, besides, having lived all his life in Dudley, they would surely have known who he was. Dispite all his drinking, he had a fairly long innings, as they say, and it failed to put him into an early grave. So there you have it, almost the entire life and work of George Incher. There are still plenty of his relatives about, perhaps one of them reading this, may care to get in touch, and fill in a few gaps.
Alfred Allen, The Wolverhampton Hangman. ( 1888 - 1938 )
The last of the Blackcountry hangmen, although there appears to be some slight doubt about his birth place, as in one document, it was given as Walsall. Taken as the main record reads though, the Wolverhampton man was appointed, in 1928, to the Home Office list of Public Executioners. There is however, next to nothing in the existing records, concerning his home life, family, or any personal details. He is recorded as being involved in 14 executions, of which he was in charge of 3. These were carried out at Birmingham Prison, Winson Green, and are likey to be, Victor Betts, in 1931, Jeremiah Handley, in 1933, and Stanley Hobday, the same year. He was passed over for the execution of Dorothea Waddingham in 1936, as it was bit more high profile, she being sentenced to death, for callously and cruelly poisoning, two elderly patients she was supposed to be caring for. The reason she was hanged in Birmingham was because Nottingham Prison no longer had any execution equipment. She was the first, last, and only woman hanged at Winson Green. He did however make some mark on history, thanks to an unfortunate accident. In October 1928, on one of his first " assist's ", he was sent to Swansea, to help with the hanging of Trevor Edwards. The hangman, Robert Baxter, had an unfortunate affliction, he was blind in one eye. Now thats not a serious problem for a hangman, but a point to bear in mind for an assistant. Baxter, not a man noted for ' hanging around ' pulled the trap lever, and due to his affliction, failed to see that Alfred Allen was still on the trap. Both Edwards and Allen went down together, although thankfully, only Allen walked back up from the pit, Edwards fall, naturally, being arrested by the rope. Baxter was serverly reprimanded for this lapse, and went back to being an assistant. This near accident, followed an appalling incident at Winson Green some two years before in 1926. John Fisher, who had savagely murdered his long standing girlfriend, had to be escorted to the " drop ", by two prison officers. William Willis, in some conciderable haste to get it over quickly, almost succeeded in pulling the white cap and the noose over the head of one of the officers by mistake. Given the speed of executions, the shocked officer was extremely lucky he wasn't hanged instead of Mr Fisher. It would appear, that Alfred Allen resigned due to ill health in 1937, as he died in 1938, leaving, as far as can be acertained, no written records of his time in the job.
I would welcome any further information regarding the above three men, which can be added to this section. It's always a bit of a problem with subjects like this, just knowing what category to put them in, Fame, or Infamy. Like the subject of Hanging itself, I suppose, it's just a matter of choice.
From looking through a load of records. a bit more infomation has come to light, regarding Alfred Allen. It's no wonder he has been hard to find, most of his military records seem to have been removed. What I do know is this. Prior to the first World War, he was almost certainly a TA Soldier, with the Worcestershire Regiment. In documents submitted to the Home Office, when he applied to become part of the state execution team, he stated that he had served a similiar role during his Army Service. This has to be true, as he was indeed taken on, recieved training, and carried out several judicial hangings. His rank at the end of the War, was Regimental Quartermaster Sargent, and although he was not listed as a front line soldier, he was given, as well as the usual three medals, a Distinguished Service Medal, and mentioned in dispatches. He must have been in charge of the prisoners, and the firing parties, that shot many deserters, and alleged cowards, at dawn. Just how many is impossible to tell, as there were 306 executions in total, and there would have been a distinct lack of volunteers for this gruesome task. Not surprisingly, there's not a great deal known about the men who carried out this role, and almost nothing written down. Of late, pardons have been granted, to soldiers shot at dawn, but where does that leave the men who gave, and carried out the orders? Not many of the executed, were as innocent as people would have you believe, some had deserted more than once, and a large number were simply murderer's, rogues, thieves, rapist's and looters. Allen would have been doing what he was ordered to, and to his credit, he seems to have kept his mouth shut, except when applying for the job of state executioner. Once more, I would be interested in any more information.
William Marwood. 1818 - 1879.
As two of the hangmen already mentioned knew, and worked with Marwood, it has been pointed out, that it would be a bit churlish not to include at least a brief history of him. Born near Horncastle in Lincolnshire, in 1818, Marwood was by trade a cobbler. Not just any old cobbler, but a well read and very educated cobbler. Before his appointment as the State Executioner, he had a thriving business, and lived modestly, in Church Lane, Horncastle. Why he became interested in such a subject as hanging, is a total mystery, but he wrote a great many letters on the matter, most of them to the Governor of Lincoln Prison. Using a similar formulae, to that which had been worked out at Trinity College, Dublin, he claimed to be able to improve on the methods of William Calcraft. To be fair, almost anyone could have done this, but " slow strangulation " was deemed a fitting punishment for capital crimes. Got to keep the baying public entertained and amused. In 1871, at the age of 53, he wrote yet another letter, and this time, possibly fed up with it all, the Prison Authorities offered to test out his methods, for real. The rather unwilling subject, William Frederick Horry, wasn't consulted, and so, on 1st April 1872, ( theres a joke there somewhere ) William Marwood dispatched Horry into the great unknown, without a hitch, so to speak. They were all impressed, as was Marwood, when, in 1874, after the death of Calcraft, he was offered the job, full time. After making a few adjustments to the equipment at Newgate, he made his debut, in that year, by neatly dispatching Frances Stewart, a 48 year old, who had cruelly drowned her grandchild. In the following years, Marwood made many improvements to his equipment, including a table of weights. He also hanged a total of 179, which included 8 women. 26 of the men he hanged in Ireland, and he even travelled to Scotland, to hang 7 more. There are many stories about Marwood, which can be read in biography's of his life, some accurate, some made up. It's a fact though, that when he dispatched Joseph Le Brun, in Saint Hellier, Jersey, on 11th August 1875, this was the last public hanging in the British Isles. ( The Channel Islands having been overlooked, when the new Hanging Act had been signed in 1867 ) One of his jobs that stands out, in that at Armly, Leeds, on 25th February,1879, when he hanged the celebrated Burglar and Police killer, Charles Peace. William Marwoods career came to an end following his last trip to Ireland, in 1883, when he was employed to Hang the "Phoenix Park Assassins" in May/June. Just 2 months later, he was taken ill, went to bed, and on 4th September 1883, passed away, with " Inflammation of the Lungs ". Horncastle remembers him as a well respected member of the Town, sober, and always prepared to share a joke. A far cry from days of old, and he did set an example of how it should be done. Mind you, that was what he was saying before he even got the job. A rare case, of a public official, actually telling the truth. Following Marwood, we now come to the rather unfortunate James Berry. He had learned a lot from Marwood, but not it seems, how to properly come to the length of the drop required. Appointed in 1884, his judgement was called into question just one year later, when Robert Goodale, hanged at Norwich, was decapitated. Almost the same thing happened to Moses Shrimpton at Worcester, ( see Police Murders ) and John Conway at Kirkdale. There were three others who were slowly strangled to death, and one, for which he is still remembered, John Lee at Exeter, who was three times put on the drop, which failed to work each time. His sentence was reduced to Life imprisonment, but he was released early. Berry resigned in 1892, much to the relief of the Home Office, and died aged 61, in 1913. The last Public Hangman, was Albert Pierrepoint, who attended about 450 executions, and resigned the post in 1956. He died a peaceful death, in Lancashire, aged 87, in 1982. For those with an interest, he was not, as some believe, the last Hangman on the list in the UK.
From the very start of capital punishment, hanging was meant to be a painful death. The ropes used always ended in a crude " slip knot ", that never broke anyones neck, but left them dangling in space, slowly choking to death. Sometimes, death took as long as twenty minutes, entertainment for the huge crowds, but agony for the victim, as indeed it was intended to be. There were many legends surrounding an execution, one was that touching a newly hanged corpse, would effect a cure for a whole list of ailments. This produced a rush of people, many woman, up on the scaffold, all clamouring to be touched. It may also have had someting to do with a sight witnessed by many onlookers, " Angel Lust ". A side effect of a violent death, including hanging of course, produces, in the male, an involuntary erection, and ejaculation. Not always though, only in about 4 out of 10 hangings, which may go some way to explain, why so many females were at the front of the crowd. To touch the affected part was, it was said, was to be blessed with fertility. This effect was also apparent in females, although obviously not the erection bit, which produced " emissions ". This is why the executioner, would always secure a females skirt tightly around the ankles, to ensure a little bit of decency. As time passed, this rather gruesome sight became a tad too much for the High Sheriff of the county, and it became common for an assistant to be sent below the platform, to add extra weight to the victim, which cut short all the struggling. This did not go down well with the crowds, who would become quite rowdy at times, and in the end, all executions in Public ceased. William Marwood is credited with inventing the modern version, of passing the rope through a brass ring, which ensured the rope would tighten around the neck, and combined with a proper drop, break the neck. Further developements included adding a leather washer, which ensured the rope would stay positioned, just below and forward of the left ear, under the jaw bone. George Smith, may have been wrongly blamed for the mis-hap, when hanging William Collier. The rope was supplied by Stafford Prison, and to save money, the Governor decided to use several old pieces in the store, linked together. The moment Colliers weight was on the rope, it parted, and he had to be hanged a second time, this time with a fresh rope. One last point I should make, this Country has never had an Official Hangman or Executioner. The duty of hanging criminals, always fell to the County Sheriff, who employed those whom he knew were at least mostly competant at the job. Following the change in the Law, in 1868, which moved the hanging from the public's gaze, most officials began to use only those on the approved Home Office List. This didn't mean that they were any better at the job than the old timers, but at least it bought a system of improvements, and a scale of pay for each execution. Contrary to what you may have heard, the Home Office did not have what you would call a training course for would be executioners, it was all done " on the job " so to speak. Names of applicants were passed to those already on the list, and if your face fitted, and you passed the weeks instruction course, you assisted them in their duties, around the Countries many Gaols. There were always more applicants than posts available, and more would be executioners, than convicted criminals to hang. When Albert Pierrepoint resigned from the Home Office List in 1956, the applications for the vacant post filled several large Mail sacks.
Now while some of the above may have made a great many mistakes, most of them were merely using a system that had been in place for over 300 years. The early ones like Calcraft, while also being incompetant, were positively skilled compared to some in the past. Take for instance, the fate of the French Count, Henri de Chalais, who was a plotter in an attempt to assasssinate the King. Because of his arsitocatic rank, Hanging was out of the question, so the Court ordered his head should be struck off with a Sword. The regular executioner went missing, so they accepted the service's of a volunteer who claimed he had done this work before, in another province. He hadn't. After twenty abortive strikes, poor Chalais's head was still attached, and the man was still breathing. It took more strokes, making twenty nine in all, before the head slowly rolled off the block. The year was 1626, and before anyone thinks we did better, no we didn't. In 1685, James Scott, The Duke of Monmouth, the illegitimate son of Charles II, was excuted for a rebellion. Despite protesting that the Axe appeared to be very blunt, matters proceeded anyway. He was still alive after the fourth blow, and was possibly about to say " I told you so " when the fifth one finally finished the job. This bungling caused a near riot, but the saga wasn't yet over. As a member of the Royal line, they realised that his portrait had never been painted, so they had his head sown back on, covered up the stitches, and his likeness can be seen today in the National Portrait Gallery. It can be a messy business at times, being executed.
I have, briefly, mentioned a foreign execution, and here is another one, just as upsetting. In 1829, The Portugese had a few problems, civil war was looming as a man known as Don Pedro stirred up passions in the country. Something had to be done, so five of his supporters were arrested and convcted of Conspiracy. The sentence was death by hanging. The system used in Lisbon, was the same arrangement as at the spot in London known as Tyburn. A wooden beam and a ladder. The process began about noon, when instaed of all five being hanged at the same time, the executions were all done one after the other. The condemned man was bound, and assisted up the ladder, where, seated on the beam, was the Hangman. He fastened the rope around the unfortunate mans neck, and tied it to the beam. An assistant then turned the wretch off the ladder, and at the same time, the hangman jumped onto his victims shoulders. If the extra weight didn't complete the job, for it was a rather short rope, he would then bounce up and down, causing the body to swing from side to side, sometimes for several minutes, until all movement ceased. The body was then left to hang for a further 20 minutes, before being cut down. Then the process began again, on convict number two. The last one of the five, who some would say was lucky, having lived for two more hours than the first, had been witness to this gruesome spectacle. That he was reported to have remained quite calm, as his time approached, is a tribute to his steadfast courage. The crowd. estimated at over 40,000, were remarkable well behaved, but this may have had something to do with the triple ranks of armed soldiers, stationed around the square. Not a sight any of us would relish, but many from this country, some of the more upper class members at least. had made a special journey to see this barbaric act.
More details of this messy job can be found around the website, do please use the search facility.