Hangman 'nearly killed assistant by mistake'

By Cahal Milmo
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:03

As the longest-serving member of the Pierrepoint dynasty of Britain's chief executioners, Thomas Pierrepoint prided himself on the speed with which he dispatched his clients. His record from cell to gallows was 60 seconds.

But secret records released today show the Home Office faced an unprecedented rebellion from prison governors and doctors. They were concerned that, when Pierrepoint was still working at 72, his eyesight was fading and he had become so obsessed with carrying out super-efficient hangings that he nearly sent his assistant through the trapdoor.

Memos from the Prison Commission, part of the Home Office, detail how officials agonised over whether to force the executioner into retirement after suggestions from reports of his executions that he was "past the job". The documents, released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, had been due to remain undisclosed until 2020 but have been released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Pierrepoint was the brother of Britain's first chief executioner, Henry Pierrepoint, and uncle and tutor of Albert, Britain's most prolific executioner with 435 hangings, and the subject of a recent film starring Timothy Spall.

But by the early 1940s, it seems that Thomas, who hanged his first man in 1909, was showing signs of wear and tear.

A letter from the medical officer of Liverpool Prison in February 1943 detailed how Thomas, who conducted 294 hangings in a 37-year career as chief executioner, had endangered his assistant, whose job it was to check that the legs of the condemned were tied.

The doctor wrote: "He obviously regards speed as the hallmark of efficiency and there hardly seems time for him to ensure the assistant is clear of the trap.

"This zeal for speed may be related to a desire to show that his ability is unimpaired by advancing years."

In another account of the same execution, the unnamed governor of the jail said: "Mr Pierrepoint on this, as on previous occasions, appeared to me to allow only the barest margin of safety in assuring himself that the assistant was clear of the trapdoors before pulling the lever."

Other letters sent to the Prison Commission complained that Pierrepoint had "smelled strongly of drink" during two executions at Durham Prison in 1940.

In his memoirs Albert, who revealed his opposition to capital punishment long after its abolition and his retirement, recalled how his uncle had told him: "If you can't do it without whisky, don't do it at all." His father was sacked in 1910 after arriving drunk at Chelmsford Prison for an execution.

An internal memo documenting the allegations against Thomas, whose nephew was his assistant until 1941, said: " Pierrepoint was getting past his job, he was uncertain and it was doubtful whether his sight was good." But he won backing from other senior prison officials for his work, paid at a rate of £15 per hanging, or £450 today.

Despite misgivings, the authorities were forced to continue employing Pierrepoint because at the height of the Second World War they could find no one to replace him.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments