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Albert Pierrepoint was an executioner from 1931 until his resignation in 1956, carrying out more hangings than any other British executioner on record. His autobiography provides a fascinating, albeit somewhat gloomy, account of his lengthy career. The subject matter of a book like this is bound to be grim, yet it is written with a lack of sensationalism and an absence of gratuitous macabre detail.
When I originally picked up this book in my local library, I expected it to reveal secrets about the final moments of many infamous murderers. I knew that Pierrepoint had hanged the likes of John Christie, Ruth Ellis and Derek Bentley, so was curious what his memoirs might bring to light. However, Pierrepoint rarely goes into detail about prominent cases, except where he perceives it is necessary to clear up an inaccuracy and where he has received permission from the deceased's family.
Consequently, little is revealed about individual cases and Pierrepoint's tone is always respectful towards the deceased, never judgmental. He clearly believed that people should be entitled to a degree of privacy in death. Instead the book focuses on how Pierrepoint came to be an executioner and about the 'craft' itself, the skills that Pierrepoint had to acquire in order to carry out his post with as much humanity as possible.
At times it was a difficult book to read, not only because I am opposed to the death penalty but also because it contains a mass of unsettling contradictions. On the one hand, I was reading the memoirs of someone who had put to death over 400 human beings. I was expecting there to be something sinister and frankly 'creepy' about him, yet in many respects he came across as a decent, modest, down to earth man. Born in 1905 in Clayton near Bradford, Pierrepoint was part of an impoverished but close knit, happy and supportive family. He went on to work in the grocery trade, married a local girl and later ran a pub with her in Lancashire. In all respects he seemed like an affable, well-adjusted man.
What wasn't so 'normal' was the fact that both Pierrepoint's father and his uncle were hangmen and from an early age young Albert knew that he would follow in the family tradition. It certainly wasn't the case that he did so reluctantly or due to pressure. On the contrary, he saw it as his calling from a higher power, believing, "that I was put on earth especially to do it." Reading about an 11-year-old boy with an ambition to become the official executioner was a somewhat weird thing to get my head around.
Despite this strange legacy, Pierrepoint's memoirs do not suggest that he had an unhealthy obsession with death. They show him to be someone who believed his job was sacred. The condemned prisoner was entrusted into his care because of decisions that had been made by others. Those decisions were not for Pierrepoint to question. He did not concern himself with the legal questions, the perceived miscarriages of justice or the rights and wrongs of capital punishment. He simply had a role to carry out to the best of his ability. His responsibility towards the prisoners in his care was at times strangely touching: "He is a man, she is a woman, who, the Church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death."
In 1931 Pierrepoint attended an interview at Strangeways, followed by a week of induction and training at Pentonville Prison in the apparatus and methods used for executions. The training is recounted in detail. Pierrepoint was introduced to 'Old Bill', a dummy used for training executioners and he went on to learn such topics as getting the noose right, working the lever (contrary to popular belief, you don't 'pull' the lever but push it) and calculating the drop. All this came across as cold and clinical, not particularly pleasant reading. He learned the importance of deftness and speed, the aim at all times being to make the prisoner's ordeal as short as it could possibly be. However, learning the mechanics of his craft is just one part of it. He also had to appreciate the human side, "the awareness of the condemned man as a human being about to die, about to send his own family into mourning."
Whilst Pierrepoint is at pains to point out that most executions took place without incident or drama, his career was not without its more colourful moments. There is an account of a German spy who puts up a violent fight on the scaffold - "a 6-man scrum on the floor with the priest looking on in anguish" - and a rather harrowing account of the time he had to execute a man who was a regular at his pub. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me was Pierrepoint's recollections of hanging the officers from the Belsen concentration camp after the Second World War, which led to him being feted as a war hero.
Not surprisingly, there aren't many laughs in this book but there is occasionally a little dry humour, such as an encounter with one condemned man who said, "I've always wanted to meet you, Mr Pierrepoint, but not of course under these circumstances," as they walked to the drop, and Pierrepoint's recollections about his Uncle Tom who, as well as being an executioner, was a bookmaker, which meant that he frequently assessed the odds on any prisoner being reprieved so that he could weigh up whether it was worth accepting a job. (Reprieves meant cancelled appointments and no fee!)
For me, more interesting than the job itself was the effect it had upon the executioner's friends and family. Executioners were expected to conduct themselves with discretion and not speak about their work to anyone. Pierrepoint never even discussed his unusual sideline with his wife, Annie.
Pierrepoint handed in his resignation in 1956. The book left me feeling a little dissatisfied in that it doesn't adequately explain why he came to this decision. Pierrepoint is vague. He simply states that the same power that called him to this role also told him it was time to leave it. I have read elsewhere that he resigned over a disagreement about fees, but this is not referred to here. However, he does state that, contrary to popular belief, his resignation had nothing to do with the hanging of Ruth Ellis.
Pierrepoint also states that he came to the view that the death penalty was not a deterrent, but there is little explanation of what led him to that. One point he makes is: "The trouble with the death sentence has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get it," which made me ponder.
Pierrepoint describes how he was besieged by an angry mob on leaving Holloway after the execution of Ruth Ellis and compares this to the total lack of reaction in the press when, a few months earlier, he hanged the unglamorous, grey haired old Cypriot woman, Mrs Christofi, who spoke no English - "only the language of the tears that were on her cheek when I came to her." Ruth Ellis was not the only woman he hanged, but she is the one who everyone remembers, the one who attracted all the publicity and sympathy. As with life, so it is with death. Some people draw the attention; others stay in the shadows.
Would I recommend this book?
If you are interested in the capital punishment debate, this may interest you. It is also an interesting record of a family who served the state in a unique way. As Pierrepoint puts it, he needed to write this book "for there will never be a similar family or similar experiences again." It is difficult to describe a book like this as enjoyable, but I would certainly call it insightful. I found it intriguing how someone could do a job like this and yet have what seemed like a perfectly 'normal', happy life going on at the same time.
I did find the style quite repetitive however in the sense that one hanging was pretty much like another, but this is no doubt what Pierrepoint wanted to convey. High drama and gore was for the movies, not real life. As he puts it - "murderers are so often ordinary people, caught on the wrong foot." The book tells it like it is, which is chilling enough without greater elaboration.
Essentially a very private man, Pierrepoint seems uneasy about revealing too much and I did get a sense that he was keeping back quite a bit of information. It is an unusual read, however, and it held my interest, even though at times I wished it hadn't, because it does make you wonder, "should I be reading about this?"
It is not for the faint hearted. Towards the end of the book Pierrepoint expresses the view - "I now sincerely hope that no man is ever called upon to carry out another execution in my country." It is a view I totally agree with.
This book is available in hardback from sellers at Amazon from £6.22 (new) plus packaging.