ALBERT PIERREPOINT came from a family that occupies a unique place in British justice. His father and uncle were public executioners before him and his retirement in 1956 ended a family connection with the office that began at the beginning of the century, and was the longest in history.
But, unlike his father, whose memoirs became a best-selling newspaper serial, Albert Pierrepoint guarded the secrets of the execution chamber with discretion, only revealing himself in his autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint (1974), a book without any sensationalism, but shot through with humanity.
Growing up as a boy in Yorkshire, he was aware of the occasional trips away his father and uncle made, but ignorant about their nature. In his teens, after he had discovered the truth, he felt a growing desire to follow them. Until he did so, his life was unremarkable. The family moved to Manchester and Albert started part-time working in a mill at 12 before going full time when he was 13. Later he worked for a grocer. Eventually, he applied to be added to the Home Office list of executioners, was interviewed at Strangeways Prison and accepted.
His autobiography relates his training for a craft requiring exacting levels of skill and nerve. Originally hanging had meant death by strangulation, drawn out, agonising and barbaric; then it was discovered that by placing the knot of the noose to the left of the chin, the momentum of the drop jerked the head back and the second and third vertebrae were severed, causing instant death. Pierrepoint and his assistant would enter the condemned cell at 20 seconds to eight on the morning of execution, pinion the prisoner, then lead him or her to the scaffold; before the prison clock had finished chiming the hour, they were dead.
But this self-effacing northcountryman brought much more than professionalism to his awful craft and the performance of several hundred executions. (That is as specific as he would be, but the Guinness Book of Records credits him with hanging 530 men and 20 women, including 27 Nazi war criminals in one day.) A repeated grace note of compassion sounds throughout Executioner.
When he began, the regulations said that after a doctor had certified death, the body had to hang for an hour before the executioner and his assistant took it down and stripped it ready for the post-mortem examination. In a vivid sentence, Pierrepoint wrote: 'A dead man being taken down from execution is a uniquely broken body, whether he is a criminal or Christ.' When one of his assistants made some vulgarity about a murderer's body, he was bawled out by Pierrepoint for lack of respect.
In 1946 Pierrepoint and his wife took over a pub in Hollinwood, near Oldham, ironically named (not by him) the Help the Poor Struggler. Jokes that he had a sign in the bar reading 'No hanging around' distressed and annoyed him. He never talked about what he did and it was only after their marriage that he confessed it to his wife; she said she had known all along and he later praised her for never asking questions.
One of his final executions, in 1955, was that of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain. The case created a sensation and Pierrepoint was besieged by reporters after he left Holloway to return home. He did not answer when one asked what it had been like to hang a woman, but reflected that when he had executed a grandmother in Manchester the previous year, nobody had been interested because she had not been glamorous and her story had been small and tragic rather than large and notorious. He resigned less than a year after the Ellis hanging, but constantly denied it was the cause of his decision. In fact, while he had believed in execution as a legitimate part of the legal process - and hanging the best way of carrying it out - he had come to the conclusion he had been wrong.
In May, more than 100 items associated with Pierrepoint - including his executioner's diary, a ledger containing details of executions carried out between 1932 and 1955 - were sold from a private collection, at Christie's, in London. The ledger, which covers more than 500 hangings, gives details of dates, names, ages, height, weight and 'drop', the carefully calculated distance the body had to fall. Among the names listed are William Joyce (Lord Haw Haw), Derek Bentley, and nine war criminals responsible for atrocities at Belsen, including Joseph Kramer, the Beast of Belsen.
Pierrepoint's life story includes a passage all the more significant because it was written by a man with unparalleled knowledge of the final stage of a legal process that embraces capital punishment: 'The fruit of my experience has this bitter after-taste: that I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.'
Acknowledging that throughout his career he had believed 'with all my heart' he was carrying out a public duty, he added: 'I now sincerely hope that no man is ever called upon to carry out another execution in my country.' It was the brave voice of an honest, decent and conscientious man.
Albert Pierrepoint's successors were Britain's last chief hangmen, and carried out the last hangings in August 1964. Capital punishment was effectively abolished in 1965.