History Books: No noose is good news

LORD HIGH EXECUTIONER: An Unashamed Look at Hanged Men, Headsmen and Their Kind by Howard Engel Robson Books pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
The late Albert Pierrepoint once told me he took a dim view of capital punishment. Since he was our last (I hope) hangman, this took me aback, until he went on to say that being strung up was the only language some villains understood. This logic, however wobbly, is common.

Many of our fellow citizens are in favour of the death penalty. This is partly because of personality problems or ignorance - or because they haven't read Lord High Executioner. Not that Howard Engel has written an anti-hanging tract. This well-produced book is far more entertaining than that. He makes his abolitionist principles plain, but only in passing. Instead, he concentrates on the inglorious history of legalised killing.

He is very good on the lunacy of the legal lynch mobs. In Catholic countries, a hole was once left in the hood over the condemned prisoner's head in order to allow the soul to escape after death. In fact, given the likely destination of the soul in question, it would have been rather kinder to seal it up and thus keep it from the fires of hell. The modern equivalent of this is the well-meaning attempt at hygiene which involves cleansing the skin in which the needle is stuck for a lethal injection. Germs are the last concern of a prisoner about to have his clogs popped.

There has been progress. Hanging, drawing and quartering has not been advocated at Tory conferences for some years. A witch hasn't been hanged since 1685, and the last recorded burning alive was in 1789; it was a woman counterfeiter whose male accomplices were hanged, in an odd form of positive discrimination. The "short drop", which involved slow strangulation, was replaced by the more efficient "long drop".

Public executions, conducted with all the gravity of a lottery draw compered by the Spice Girls, were abolished in 1868. A century later, capital punishment itself got the chop - in Britain, that is. In the USA, Death Row is a crowded address. Its executioners still haven't quite got the hang of it; the other day, the head of an electrocutee was shooting out flames like a Roman Candle.

At least the corpse still had its head. Too great a drop could lead to a body decapitated by the force of gravity. A "ready reckoner" of weights and distances gave a handy at-a-glance guide: an eight-stone weakling needs ten foot to provide a decent snap. Executioner James Berry resigned in a huff when an interfering prison doctor insisted on a drop so long that a head practically parted company from its body. A highly professional craftsman, he charged a tenner per execution and a fiver "if the condemned is reprieved". Sadly, he turned his executions into cruel and unusual punishments: he read verses of his own composition to the criminal just before operating the trap-door. But it should be said that after his resignation he denounced capital punishment. In his autobiography, Albert Pierrepoint too declared that capital punishment did not work as a deterrent: "I have not prevented a single murder."

Howard Engel agrees. The crowds watching a public execution were preyed upon by pick-pockets, at a time when theft itself was a hanging offence. One hangman was himself hanged for burglary. If a hanging didn't even deter the hangman, who on earth would it make an impression upon? Another supremo of the scaffold was executed for murder; he beseeched the watching crowd to avoid his awful example. As indeed they did: not a single one of the on-lookers afterwards became a public executioner.