From rather innocuous beginnings in Sutton Bonington, Nottinghamshire, Henry Albert Pierrepoint – who simply went by Harry – would go on to create a rather unique, gruesome family dynasty. For at various times during the first half of the twentieth century, Harry, his son, Albert and brother, Thomas, all held the position of Hangman of England, executing 849 men and women between them…
“The sentence of the Court upon you is, that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution and that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead…May the Lord have mercy on your soul…”
It’s a fitting testament to the societal change in attitude toward capital punishment that those evocatively macabre words feel so archaic and alien to the modern ear. So much so, in fact, that it’s almost impossible to imagine a time when, not only were executions held frequently and in full public view, but the role of executioner was seen as a desirable profession.
Queen Victoria’s reign as monarch had ended just three weeks before Harry Pierrepoint applied to become a hangman. Her 64 years on the throne had seen wholesale change in the manner in which the law was applied and justice was served. While at the beginning of her reign, the death sentence could be applied for burglary, rape or attempted murder, it gradually became reserved for all but wilful murder – though, somewhat remarkably, executions were still carried out in public until 1868.
As the fourth child and second son of Thomas and Ann Pierrepoint, Harry’s early life in Sutton Bonington was largely uneventful. His parents ran the King’s Head pub in East Leake, before his father uprooted the family to Yorkshire, where he’d found work looking after quarry horses. While working at a worsted mill in Clayton, a thirteen-year-old Harry read about the exploits of the well-known Bradford executioner James Berry, whose career as the country’s leading hangman had come to an infamous end after a series of botched executions.
Harry was enthralled by the idea of life as an executioner. For eleven years the dream consumed him as he relished reading newspaper reports of James Billington, a contemporary hangman responsible for executing Charles Thomas Woodridge (the man immortalized in Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol) and Thomas Neill Cream, whose alleged final words of “I am Jack the…” were tantalizingly cut short by Billington’s noose, teasing a conclusion to the great mystery of Jack the Ripper’s true identity.
In 1901, aged just 24, Harry wrote to none other than the Home Secretary:
“I wish to inform you that I should be very thankfull if you would accept me as one of the public executioner’s should at any time Mr Billington’s term expires as I have always had a desire for that appointment. I am 24 years of age, height 5ft 8 1/2 inches. Should you require particulars of my character I shall be very glad to give you all the information you require. Hoping the application will be off no offence.”
As far as cover letters go, what wouldn’t get you an interview delivering leaflets in 2021 apparently was enough to secure a position of executing people in 1901, as the note received a positive reply almost immediately. It was that letter and Harry’s subsequent employment as an assistant executioner, which set into motion a chain of events that saw the Pierrepoint name dominate the annals of British criminology more than any other for the next half century.
In his mind, whatever the men and women under his rope had done before that moment didn’t matter, and he took pride in causing as little pain, anxiety and stress as he could
Training was intense. Just over a decade before his appointment, the release of the Aberdare Report had sent shockwaves through Victorian society, as the inefficient, cruel and bungling nature of capital punishment methods were brought to light for the first time. Having been commissioned to address issues surrounding the appointment and conduct of executioners, it sought to eradicate the slap-dash culture that had seen several high-profile executions botched. There was no set standard for gallows, nor length or type of rope, or adjustment for the height and weight of the condemned, meaning that, rather than the desired instant, painless death by separating of the second and third vertebrae, victims were slowly, agonizingly strangling to death for up to fifteen minutes on a far too frequent basis. The changes ensured that Harry’s training was thorough, and repetitive practise runs with a dummy were the key to success.
Maurice Faugeron was a 23-year-old French anarchist and army deserter who had been convicted of murdering Swiss watchmaker Hermann Jung. The exact nature of their quarrel was contested, with theories ranging from owed money to a dispute over a plot to assassinate Tsar Nicholas II, who was staying in Paris at the time. When the judge passed his death sentence with the words “May the Lord have mercy on your soul”, Faugeron replied: “I hope so. If that is what justice is in this country I hope I shall have better justice in the next world.”
Not only was Faugeron’s hanging to be Harry’s first taste of life in the execution trade, but it offered him the chance to assist James Billington, the man who had been Chief Executioner for over a decade, and whose exploits had so enthralled a younger Harry. The execution team, which also included Billington’s two sons, spent the night before sleeping in the cell next to Faugeron, where Harry was able to watch, unnoticed, as the Frenchmen contemplated his final hours. Pacing up and down his cell, Faugeron lit cigarettes one after another, pausing only to acknowledge the chime from the church bell across the road. Reaching a hand to the sky, he counted out the chimes, with each performance of the ritual bringing him an hour closer to his demise.
As 7am arrived, Faugeron ate a large breakfast before being allowed a final walk in the open air. At two minutes to eight, the team entered the room and, with slick precision, pinioned the condemned man’s arms behind his back, before marching him to the execution chamber. Faugeron showed no signs of fear as the noose was placed around his neck and, as Billington pushed the lever, he fell to his death. Harry later noted his own personal satisfaction that he’d felt neither fear nor nerves as he performed his duties. Maurice Faugeron would be the first 849 executions in which the Pierrepoints would be directly involved with.
Over the next few years, Harry worked primarily as an assistant to Billington and his sons, before being appointed as the principal executioner in Britain in 1905 following the deaths of Billington and his eldest son less than a month apart. The next year, he was to perform all eight hangings in the country. The serializations of his memoirs reveal a methodical, emotionless approach to Harry’s work, infrequently betrayed by injections of humanity, as can be seen after his assisting on the execution of former soldier Harry Williams. After returning home from the Boer War, Williams had discovered that his wife had been unfaithful and, out of fear that she might “grow up like her mother”, murdered his five-year-old daughter, covering her body with a Union Jack. Following the execution, Harry noted in his memoirs that Williams had been the bravest he had ever hanged.
With the newfound shortage of executioners, Harry convinced his brother Thomas – who was seven years his senior – to join the profession. In 1905, a busy hangman could make far more money than a quarryman, the trade in which Thomas had been toiling. Under his brother’s now-expert tutelage, and extensive practice with rope and bags of corn, Thomas was easily accepted into the fold, eventually becoming even more prolific and respected than his brother. The Pierrepoint brothers were now the go-to names in the execution trade.
But the profession had started to take its toll on Harry. Having taken part in over 100 executions, his propensity for drink had started to take a hold, and it was this descent into alcoholism that would eventually cost him his career. Though he makes no reference to it in his memoirs, there was a purported event ahead of a 1910 execution at Chelmsford Prison where he arrived “considerably the worse for drink” and fought his assistant John Ellis. Though he was never officially dismissed, the Home Office sought fit to remove his name from the list of approved executioners.
Thomas, meanwhile, continued to work steadily in a career that lasted almost four decades. During this time he presided over several high-profile executions, including that of poisoner Frederick Setton and accused-murderer Charlotte Bryant, and the hanging of thirteen US military personnel at the Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset, who had been committed for rape and murder during World War II. It was during these executions that Thomas was assisted by perhaps the most famous name in the Pierrepoint family, his nephew Albert.
Between December 1948 and October 1949, he travelled to Hamelin several times, executing a total of 226 people, often more than ten a day
After expressing an interest in the profession from as young as eleven, Albert had infrequently received training in the profession from his father Harry, and proven himself to be more than up to the task. Armed with the same stoic dedication to professionalism displayed by his uncle and father (before his descent into drink), Albert referred to the condemned as his ‘customers’ – he was there to do a job, and had the utmost desire to do it as professionally as possible. In his mind, whatever the men and women under his rope had done before that moment didn’t matter, and he took pride in causing as little pain, anxiety and stress as he could. In his own words, the execution process was “sacred” to him.
It’s believed that Albert executed up to 450 people during his time as a hangman – 433 men and 17 women – more than his father and uncle combined. His list of ‘customers’ reads like a who’s who of notorious criminals of the era: Gordon Cummins (the Blackout Ripper), John Haigh (the Acid Bath Murderer), John Christie (the Rillington Place Strangler), William Joyce (the British Nazi propagandist known as Lord Haw-Haw) and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain. To give context to how recent these events took place, there’s footage of Albert discussing the execution of Ellis on Thames TV in 1977.
Albert’s reputation had so impressed his contemporaries that, following the widescale trial of Nazi war criminals after World War II, it was he that was chosen to be flown to Germany to perform the large number of executions at the personal request of General Montgomery. It was Albert that was tasked with executing the men and women who had overseen the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as well as other convicted war criminals. Between December 1948 and October 1949, he travelled to Hamelin several times, executing a total of 226 people, often more than ten a day. Despite the noted professionalism and efficiency with which he performed his grim task, Albert was overlooked when it came to carrying out the death sentences handed out during the Nuremberg Trials. With the US wanting to show the world that they had taken a lead-role in the punishment of Nazi war criminals, the comparatively inexperienced American John C. Woods was instead chosen, and Albert privately noted with disgust that the executions had been performed terribly.
The post-war executions brought a level of attention to the Pierrepoint’s trade that Albert had always sought to avoid. His uncle had followed his father’s path into the bottle, and ceased performing executions shortly after the war, leaving Albert as the lone Pierrepoint hangman. Such was the secretive nature of his profession that it was only after he was married for several weeks that Albert revealed to his wife his true line of work. It wasn’t that he was ashamed as such, but rather that there were two men: Albert Pierrepoint the husband, pub landlord and jovial character always ready with a song, and Albert Pierrepoint the executioner. For as long as the two could be kept separate, Albert could lead a happy, relatively normal life. But the publicity surrounding his duties in Germany had changed all of that forever.
Whereas at first he was hailed as a hero in a country swirling with patriotic pride, the changing attitudes toward capital punishment soon saw Albert feeling something of a social pariah. The high-profile executions of Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley in 1950 – both men who had been proven to be mentally incapacitated and with profound learning difficulties – followed by his execution of Ruth Ellis in 1955 had an enormous impact on both Albert and public opinion. Just two weeks after hanging Ellis, Albert Pierrepoint hanged Norman Green, who had confessed to killing two boys in his home town of Wigan. It would be his last execution.
Albert and his wife continued to run their pub until they retired to the seaside town of Southport in the sixties, where they lived in relative peace until Albert’s death in 1992 at the age of 87. In 1974, he published his memoirs, Executioner: Pierrepoint, which reflected his changing attitude toward the profession in which he’d followed his father and uncle, and that had made him a household name:
“[Capital punishment] 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 lads 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.”
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