Letter: Who really killed Hanratty?

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Sir: I doubt if there are many people left who have been personally involved in the carrying out of the death sentence. I am one.

I worked long ago as secretary to an under-sheriff. Prior to 1946 serious crimes were tried before a judge of the High Court at the assizes. The high sheriff of the county was responsible for the calling of the assize but the actual work was carried out by the under-sheriff, a qualified lawyer.

If a jury found a prisoner accused of murder guilty, the judge put on a black cap and declared that he "be hanged by the neck until he be dead". There had to be an interval containing at least three Sundays before the sentence could be carried out. The prison governor and the under-sheriff would agree a provisional date.

On the under-sheriff's return to his office, we all knew the result of the murder trial from his solemn face. He would inform me of the provisional date for the hanging without any preliminaries and bark: "Do the usual!" This was to write to the prison governor, confirming it, to the executioner, and to the prison chaplain and doctor.

It was the duty of the sheriff to attend the hanging, but for many years this had been done by the under-sheriff. Hence the solemn face: he detested this duty, particularly if the prisoner were a woman.

It was the law and had to be carried out. But the writing of the letter arranging for the death of another human being has not fallen to the lot of many elderly ladies who may read this.


Goldalming, Surrey