Mika and I are celebrating our fifteenth year together this month, August 2013. In all these years as a couple we have never gone away together for a holiday. At long last we are taking a holiday next month, a trip to England for two weeks. This will be Mika’s first visit to England. I myself lived in England from 1968-1970. I remember upon learning I would be traveling to England with my family imagining England was a land with castles where kings and queens resided and frequently ordered that people’s heads be chopped off. While this was true in the past, it happily was no longer the case by the late 1960s. In fact, capital punishment was no longer in use when I arrived in England with my family. Still, this is one facet of English history and law I find fascinating: the application of capital punishment. Judicial hanging was by far the most common form of execution in English history, although the cruel punishments of hanging, drawing and quartering, burning at the stake and beheading were practiced for centuries also. By the 20th century judicial hanging was the only method of execution (outside of the military where one could be shot at dawn) employed and the English had perfected its practice applying it liberally in executing people convicted of murder and of high treason.
Judicial hanging in England in the 20th century was carried out in secret, behind the walls of various prisons. The condemned cell was typically adjacent to the execution chamber, the entrance concealed behind a wardrobe so when the time came for the execution, the prisoner was quickly escorted to the gallows and hanged before he or she had time to realize what was happening, panic and put up a fight. The rope was made from a 13 foot length of 3/4″ diameter hemp, often bound with leather and the noose passing the free end of the rope through a brass eyelet. The noose was positioned with the brass eyelet placed beneath the left jaw and the prisoner was dropped a carefully measured distance according to his or her height and weight so that a force of approximately 1100 ft/lbs was directed to the neck. This resulted in fracture of the 2nd and 3rd cervical vertebrae and severing of the spinal cord which resulted in deep unconsciousness and death very quickly. Judicial hangings were carried out by a hangman and his assistant; men who had applied for the job, been trained and vetted by the Home Office and added to the list of Official Executioners. Payment was on a piece work basis. The hangman and his assistant were paid for each hanging they carried out.
The most famous of English hangmen in the 20th century is Albert Pierrepoint who in his career as hangman is reputed to have executed 435 men and women. He worked for many years delivering groceries before earning enough money from carrying out hangings of Nazi war criminals condemned by British military tribunals to open a pub, ironically called “Help the poor Struggler.” Pierrepoint had the ability to reconcile with his conscience the job of executioner, he disliked the term hangman, seeing it as a job to be done. In his view it was sufficient that society had decided the people he hanged were to be put to death; it was his job to operate the machinery of execution and see to it the job was done properly. Interestingly, however, in the memoir Executioner: Pierrepoint he published following his retirement, he wrote of capital punishment “it is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.” (as cited in Wikipedia)
One thing that can be said of justice in English history is that it was meted out swiftly. Upon conviction and sentence of death, the prisoner was hanged within three weeks unless reprieved by the courts or the Home Secretary. This was seen as well and good in English society if the guilt of the condemned prisoner had been established beyond any doubt, but one disturbing case of serial murders in which eight women and a baby girl were the victims, a man whose wife and baby daughter were among the victims was wrongfully convicted and executed before the real killer was caught. The murders took place in London, in Notting Hill at 10 Rillington Place from 1943-1953. John Reginald Halliday Christie was a serial killer who, while residing at 10 Rillington Place, preyed on women who were seeking abortions, claiming he had the skills, then using coal gas to render them unconscious before strangling them and having sex with their corpses. Before he was caught, a neighbour, Timothy John Evans, and his family were ensnared in Christie’s web of gruesome depravity ending in the murders, by Christie, of Evans’ wife Beryl and his baby daughter Geraldine, and his wrongful conviction and execution for the murder of his daughter. This story is dramatized in the 1971 feature film 10 Rillington Place, featuring Richard Attenborough as Christie and John Hurt as Evans.
Both Timothy Evans and John Christie were hanged by Albert Pierrepoint on the same gallows in Pentonville Prison: Evans was hanged in 1950, Christie in 1953. An inquiry was held in 1965 intended to determine whether or not Evans had been wrongfully convicted found that it was “more probable than not” that Evans killed his wife but that he did not kill his daughter Geraldine, for which he had been convicted and executed. (Brabin, Rillington Place, p. 269.) The British Government was loathe to admit a man had been wrongfully convicted and executed, but saw fit to grant Evans a posthumous pardon for the murder of his daughter Geraldine in 1966. This obviously did not give Evans back his life, but allowed for some consolation for his family in that his name was effectively cleared. Beyond that, the British Government abolished capital punishment in 1966, largely because of this case which had effected a drastic change in public attitudes toward its use with a majority seeking its abolition.
While I find the history of capital punishment in England, and elsewhere across the world, fascinating, I have amassed a collection of biographies of executioners, accounts of executions, historical works on the subject in the library collection Mika and I keep, I remain staunchly opposed to it. Judicial hanging was once carried out in Canadian society. It was abolished, as in England, in the 1960s. The last hangings in Canada were carried out in 1962 and the last hangings in England in 1964. I concur with Albert Pierrepoint in concluding it never prevented a single murder and the fact that someone could be wrongfully convicted and executed as was the case with Timothy Evans, only shows it belongs relegated to history.
Posted by Geoffrey