Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) was a long-serving hangman in England. He executed at least 400 people, including William Joyce (one of the men dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw”), and John Amery, whom he considered the bravest man he had ever hanged. He executed many people who had been convicted of war crimes.
Pierrepoint was often dubbed the Official Executioner, despite there being no such job or title. The office of executioner had traditionally been performed by the local sheriff, who increasingly delegated the task to a person of suitable character, employed and paid only when required. Pierrepoint continued to work for years in a grocery near Bradford after qualifying as an Assistant Executioner in 1932 and a Chief Executioner in 1941, in the steps of his father and uncle.
Following his retirement in 1956, the Home Office acknowledged Pierrepoint as the most efficient executioner in British history. He subsequently became a publican in Lancashire and wrote his memoirs, in which he sensationally concluded that capital punishment was not a deterrent.
There is no official tally of his hangings, which some have estimated at more than 600; the most commonly accepted figure is 435.
Albert Pierrepoint was the middle child and eldest son of Henry and Mary Pierrepoint. He was influenced by the side-occupation of his father and uncle; as an 11-year-old he wrote, in response to a school “When I grow up …” exercise, “When I leave school I should like to be the Official Executioner”. He spent his school summer holidays at the home of his Uncle Tom and Aunt Lizzie in Clayton, his own family having moved to Huddersfield when Henry ceased to be an executioner, and he became very close to his uncle. While Tom was away on business, his aunt would allow the boy to read the diary Tom kept of his executions. In 1917, at the age of twelve, he began work at the Marlborough Mills in Failsworth, near Oldham, earning six shillings a week. Following Henry’s death in 1922, he took charge of Henry’s papers and diaries, which he studied at length. Towards the end of the 1920s he changed his career, becoming a drayman for a wholesale grocer, delivering goods ordered through a travelling salesman. In 1930 he learned to drive a car and a lorry to make his deliveries, earning two pounds five shillings (£2.25) a week. On 19 April 1931, Pierrepoint wrote to the Prison Commissioners offering his services as an Assistant Executioner to his uncle should he or any other executioner retire. Within a few days he received a reply that there were currently no vacancies.
In late 1931, Lionel Mann, an assistant of five years’ experience, resigned when his employers informed him that his sideline was affecting his promotion prospects, and Pierrepoint received an official envelope inviting him to an interview at Manchester’s Strangeways Prison; his mother Mary, having seen many such envelopes in Henry’s time as an executioner, was not happy at her son’s career choice. After a week long course at London’s Pentonville Prison, Pierrepoint’s name was added to the List of Assistant Executioners on 26 September 1932. At that time, the assistant’s fee was 1½ guineas (£93 when adjusted for inflation) per execution, with another 1½ guineas paid two weeks later if his conduct and behaviour were satisfactory. Executioners and their assistants were required to be extremely discreet and to conduct themselves in a respectable manner, especially avoiding contact with the press.
There were few executions in Britain in 1932, and the first execution Pierrepoint attended was in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, on 29 December 1932, when his uncle Thomas was chief executioner at the hanging of Patrick McDermott, a young Irish farmer who murdered his brother. He engaged his nephew as assistant executioner even though Pierrepoint had not yet observed a hanging in England and thus, despite being on the Home Office list of approved Assistant Executioners, was not allowed to officiate in England. Pierrepoint’s first execution as “number one” (he still acted as assistant until 1944 in some British cases, and until 1945 at Shepton Mallet) was that of nightclub owner and gangster Antonio “Babe” Mancini at Pentonville prison, London, on 17 October 1941; Mancini said “Cheerio!” before the trapdoor was sprung.
On 10 December 1941, Pierrepoint executed German spy Karel Richter at Wandsworth Prison. Writing about the execution in his memoirs, in which he changed Richter’s name to “Otto Schmidt”, Pierrepoint called it a “terrible mess”. When Pierrepoint entered the condemned man’s cell that morning he saw that something was wrong. Richter should have been sitting at the table with his back to the door. Pierrepoint could then easily approach the man as he stood up and pinion his wrists behind him. Instead, Richter was seated at the table facing the door. As Pierrepoint entered, Richter glowered and clenched his fists. He stood up, threw aside one of the guards and charged headfirst at the stone wall. Stunned momentarily, Richter rose and shook his head. Two guards threw themselves on him, joined by two more from the corridor. After a struggle, Pierrepoint managed to get the leather strap around Richter’s wrists. As the guards pulled Richter to his feet, Pierrepoint was called back, for Richter had burst the leather strap from eye-hole to eye-hole and was free again. After another struggle, the strap was wrapped tightly around Richter’s wrists. He was brought to the scaffold where a strap was wrapped around his ankles, followed by a cap and noose. Just as Pierrepoint pulled the lever, Richter jumped up with bound feet. As he plummeted through the trap door, Pierrepoint could see that the noose was slipping but it became stuck under Richter’s nose. The prison medical officer determined, however, that it was an instantaneous, clean death.
On 29 August 1943, Pierrepoint married Annie Fletcher, who had run a sweet shop and tobacconist two doors from the grocery where he worked. They set up home at East Street, Newton Heath, Manchester. At some point, and unknown to Albert, Annie learned of his “other career”, but for many months she did not ask him about it, waiting for him to raise the topic. The couple first discussed the matter after he returned from Gibraltar in January 1944, where he had conducted a double execution.
Following the Second World War, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials of Nazi concentration camp staff, and from the initial Belsen Trial 11 death sentences were handed down in November 1945. It was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions, and on 11 December he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the 11, plus two other Germans convicted of murdering an RAF pilot in the Netherlands in March 1945. Over the next four years, he travelled to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals. The press discovered his identity and he became a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero, meting out justice to the Nazis. The boost in income provided by the German executions allowed Pierrepoint to leave the grocery business, and he and Anne took over a pub on Manchester Road, Hollinwood, between Oldham and Failsworth, named Help the Poor Struggler. He later moved to another pub, the Rose and Crown at Much Hoole, near Preston.
Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees. In January 1956, he had gone to Strangeways Prison, Manchester, to officiate at the execution of Thomas Bancroft, who was reprieved less than 12 hours before his scheduled execution, when Pierrepoint was already present making his preparations – the first time in his career that this had happened in England. He claimed his full fee of £15 (£317 when adjusted for inflation) but the under-sheriff of Lancashire offered only £1 (£21), as the rule in England was that the executioner was paid only for executions carried out – in Scotland he would have been paid in full. Pierrepoint appealed to his employers, the Prison Commission, who refused to get involved. The under-sheriff sent him a cheque for £4 in full and final settlement of his incidental travel and hotel expenses, as he had been unable to return home that day because of heavy snow. The official story is that Pierrepoint’s pride in his position as Britain’s Chief Executioner was insulted, and he resigned; however, there is evidence that he had already decided to resign, and had previously been in discussion with the editor of the Empire News and Sunday Chronicle for a series called “The Hangman’s Own Story”, revealing the last moments of many of the notorious criminals he executed, for a fee equivalent to £500,000 in today’s money. Pierrepoint was the only executioner in British history whose notice of resignation prompted the Home Office to write to him asking him to reconsider, such was the reputation he had established as the most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history. On learning of the proposed newspaper series, the Home Office considered prosecuting Pierrepoint under the Official Secrets Act before deciding it would be counterproductive; they applied pressure upon the newspaper publishers and as a consequence the series was eventually terminated.
Albert and Annie Pierrepoint retired to the seaside town of Southport, where he died on 10 July 1992 in a nursing home where he had lived for the last four years of his life.
It is believed that Pierrepoint executed at least 433 men and 17 women, including six U.S. soldiers at Shepton Mallet and some 200 Nazi war criminals after World War II. He asserted in his autobiography never to have given a precise number of his executions, not even when giving testimony to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment of 1949. A figure of 608 people was given in the credits at the end of the film Pierrepoint, although there is no reference for it.
Steve Fielding lists (in Appendix 2 of his book) 435 executions performed by Albert Pierrepoint, a list for which he claims to have examined the Prison Execution Books (National Archives LPC4) for the majority of prisons in Great Britain, and which includes the German executions. These carry all details on hangmen and assistants. In the absence of an official number, Fielding’s total appears to be the best available figure. Because of the film’s North American release title Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman, Albert Pierrepoint is often referred to as Britain’s last hangman, but this is not true; executions continued until 13 August 1964 when Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged at 8.00 am at Strangeways Prison by Harry Allen with his assistant Royston Rickard, while Peter Anthony Allen was hanged simultaneously at Walton Prison, Liverpool by Robert Leslie Stewart with his assistant Harry Robinson, both for the murder in a robbery of John Alan West.
Pierrepoint has also been incorrectly called the last official Chief Hangman for the United Kingdom (and, for a time, the unofficial one for the Republic of Ireland, along with his uncle, Thomas). However the United Kingdom has never had an Official Executioner, as right up until 1964 all such appointments were made by the Sheriff of the county in which the murder took place. After 1900 the Sheriffs would hire only men on the Home Office list, but the lists do not refer to “Chiefs” or “Assistants”, merely that they were “competent” for the Office of Executioner or Assistant; therefore, Stephen Wade was nearly always chosen as the “Number One” for jobs in Leeds and Durham, even after Albert was well established throughout the rest of the country. Legally the status of hangman was a position “unknown to the law”, as the execution was officially carried out by the Sheriff, who after 1800 would always delegate it to the hangman.
Among the notable people he hanged:
· A total of 202 German war criminals executed between 1945 and 1949, following a series of war trials e.g. the Hamburg Ravensbrück Trials (16 executions between 1947 and 1949) and the Stalag Luft III murder trials, which resulted in 13 executions on 27 February 1948. The list of condemned includes Juana Bormann (Auschwitz); Irma Grese, the youngest concentration camp guard to be executed for crimes at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and Auschwitz (aged 22); and Elisabeth Volkenrath (Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz); plus another 10 men including Josef Kramer (Camp Commandant at Belsen) and Fritz Klein, plus Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger who had both been condemned for murdering Pilot Officer Gerald Hood of the RAF (whilst he was a Prisoner of War) at Almelo, Netherlands, on the 21st of March 1945. Of the 13, 11 were condemned at the Belsen Trial and 2 others (Sandrock and Schweinberger) at a separate trial in Almelo. All were subsequently executed on the gallows in a purpose-built room at Hamelin Prison on 13 December 1945 at roughly half-hour intervals. The women were hanged individually, the men in pairs. The first execution started at 9.34 am and the last was completed by 1.00 pm. Executing a large number of war criminals in a single day was not unusual for Pierrepoint. For example, he performed the following 11 executions at Hamelin Prison on 8 October 1946, which resulted from the Neuengamme War Crimes Trial earlier the same year:
o Max Pauly
o SS Dr Bruno Kitt
o Anton Thumann
o Johann Reese
o Willy Warnke
o SS Dr Alfred Trzebinski
o Heinrich Ruge
o Wilhem Bahr
o Andreas Brems
o Wilhelm Dreimann
o Adolf Speck
· Gordon Cummins, the “Blackout Ripper” executed at Wandsworth on 25 June 1942.
· John Amery, son of wartime Secretary of State for India, Leopold Amery, and the first person to plead guilty to treason in an English court since Summerset Fox in May 1654. He was described by Pierrepoint as “the bravest man I ever hanged”. According to the official prison record of the execution, later released and now stored in the National Archives, Amery greeted his executioner with the words “Oh! Pierrepoint”, but the executioner took the proffered hand only to put the pinioning strap on, making no reply. However, this account is disputed, as Pierrepoint himself later stated in interview that the two men spoke at length and he felt that he had known Amery “all his life”, and there is a story that Amery greeted Pierrepoint with, “Mr. Pierrepoint, I’ve always wanted to meet you. Though not, of course, under these circumstances!” Hanged at Wandsworth Prison, London, 19 December 1945.
· “Lord Haw-Haw”, William Joyce, convicted as a traitor and executed at Wandsworth, 3 January 1946.
· Bruno Tesch, co-inventor of the insecticide Zyklon B used in the Holocaust. Convicted of the crime of complicity in the murder of interned allied civilians by means of poison gas by a British military tribunal at the Curiohaus in Rotherbaum, Hamburg. Executed on 16 May 1946 in Hamelin Prison.
· Neville Heath, the “Lady killer” executed at Pentonville on 16 October 1946.
· John George Haigh, the “Acid-bath murderer” executed at Wandsworth on 10 August 1949.
· Timothy John Evans, hanged at Pentonville Prison on 9 March 1950 for the murder of his daughter (he was also suspected of having murdered his wife). Timothy Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966 for the murder of his daughter. It was subsequently discovered that the perpetrator was Evans’ neighbour, John Reginald Christie, who turned out to be a serial killer. He was executed by Pierrepoint on 15 July 1953 at Pentonville. This wrongful execution is acknowledged as a major miscarriage of justice and was a contributing factor for the suspension of the death penalty in Britain in 1965 and its eventual abolition.
· James Inglis, on 8 May 1951, the fastest hanging on record – a total of seven seconds elapsed from the time that Inglis left the Condemned Cell.
· Derek Bentley, executed at Wandsworth on 28 January 1953 for his part in the death of Police Constable Sidney Miles. The execution was carried out despite pleas for clemency by large numbers of people, including 200 Members of Parliament, the widow of Miles, and the jury’s recommendation in the trial. After a 45-year-long campaign, Bentley received a posthumous pardon in July 1998, when the Court of Appeal ruled that Bentley’s conviction was “unsafe” and quashed it. An article written by Pierrepoint for The Guardian, but withheld until the pardon was granted, dispelled the myth that Bentley had cried on his way to the scaffold. Right until the last, he believed he would be reprieved.
· Michael Manning, Irish rapist and murderer, last person to be executed in the Republic of Ireland, and one of four condemned men the Irish government had hired Pierrepoint to execute after having failed to train its own hangman. Executed at Mountjoy Prison in Dublin on 20 April 1954.
· Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain, for the murder of her lover. Executed at Holloway Prison on 13 July 1955. Pierrepoint had no regrets about her execution; it was one of the few times he spoke publicly about one of his charges and he made it clear he felt she deserved no less.
Views on capital punishment
Pierrepoint allegedly became an opponent of capital punishment. The reason for this seems to be a combination of the experiences of his father, his uncle, and himself, whereupon reprieves were granted in accordance with political expediency or public fancy, and had little to do with the merits of the case in question. He had also hanged a slight acquaintance, James Corbitt, on 28 November 1950; Corbitt was a regular in his pub, and had sung “Danny Boy” as a duet with Pierrepoint on the night he murdered his girlfriend in a fit of jealousy because she would not give up a second boyfriend. This incident, in particular, made Pierrepoint feel that hanging was no deterrent, particularly when most of the people he was executing had killed in the heat of the moment rather than with premeditation or in furtherance of a robbery.
Pierrepoint kept his opinions to himself on the topic until his 1974 autobiography, Executioner: Pierrepoint, in which he wrote:
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.
However, Pierrepoint’s opinion with regard to capital punishment remains controversial and the subject of debate, mostly due to a 1976 interview with BBC Radio Merseyside, in which the former executioner expresses his uncertainty towards the sentence, and reminds the interviewer that, when the autobiography was originally written, “things were going steady.” In addition, he states “Oh, I could go again”, when describing his reaction to particularly vile murder cases.
Pierrepoint’s position as an abolitionist and capital punishment opponent has also been attacked by his long-time former assistant, Syd Dernley, in his 1989 autobiography The Hangman’s Tale:
Even the great Pierrepoint developed some strange ideas in the end. I do not think I will ever get over the shock of reading in his autobiography, many years ago, that like the Victorian executioner James Berry before him, he had turned against capital punishment and now believed that none of the executions he had carried out had achieved anything! This from the man who proudly told me that he had done more jobs than any other executioner in English history. I just could not believe it. When you have hanged more than 680 people, it’s a hell of a time to find out you do not believe capital punishment achieves anything!
Pierrepoint biographer Steve Fielding took a similar view when interviewed for the 2003 Alba Productions documentary The Executioners, stating that he believed it was used only as a “good line to sell the book.”
Albert’s father Henry was never officially “dismissed” nor was his uncle Thomas “retired”; rather, their names were removed from the list of executioners and invitations to conduct executions ceased to arrive. Albert formally demanded that his name be removed from the list, thus he “resigned”.