Executioner's songThe ravaged lives of two men hired to pull the switch testify to the hidden costs of America's death penalty.
By Paul Festa
Dec. 04, 2001 | What job gives you irresistible sexual magnetism, optional anonymity and a comprehensive nervous and physical breakdown?
The correct answer isn't prostitution, but it does rhyme with it: execution, a line of work routinely ignored by career counselors despite the powerful draw it has had for people through the ages who seek a relatively safe, government-sanctioned outlet for their primal urge to kill.
The life of the professional killer with a state government paycheck is the subject of Ivan Solotaroff's "The Last Face You'll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty." Solotaroff's first offering since his 1994 collection of essays "No Success Like Failure," this ambitious book attempts to penetrate the inner lives of two men whose job it was to asphyxiate convicted murderers in Mississippi's gas chamber in the 1980s and 1990s.
Solotaroff's subjects present a study in contrasts: the hot-headed, obese, self-described Southern redneck Donald Hocutt vs. Donald Cabana, the thoughtful, sensitive warden with a masochistic habit of befriending the condemned. The first Donald approaches his work, at least initially, with something resembling zeal; the second with dread, grief and ultimately crushing guilt. Hocutt remains a death penalty supporter to the end, while Cabana ends up penning a 1996 "confession" repudiating his old line of work.
But both men, corrections officers at Mississippi's Parchman State Penitentiary, wind up wasted in body and spirit. While Solotaroff claims a neutral stance on capital punishment, his unmistakable conclusion is that the work of putting people to death is ultimately every bit as lethal as breathing carbon monoxide in a sealed room -- it's just slower.
The book opens with a contemporary scene in which Hocutt -- riddled at age 42 with gout, diabetes, diverticulitis, arthritis, partial deafness, obesity, depression and constipation -- returns to the prison after his retirement to get a form stamped for his medical discharge.
Solotaroff, accompanying the sickly executioner, finds himself fixating on Hocutt's equipment.
I can't take my eye off the Colt. [Solotaroff writes] "Donald," I say, touching the barrel. "That's a big gun."
"That's a dangerous gun," he says softly. "Maybe you don't want to be touching it."
This breathless prelude offers a sample of the fawning that characterizes much of the portrait to come, but before we can circle back and find out what brought Hocutt to this odd combination of erotic charisma and well-armed ill health, we are taken on a wildly disorganized detour through the thickets of execution history and politics. By the time we catch up again with Hocutt 69 pages later, we have practically forgotten him, glutted as we have been with scenes and statistics from the death penalty annals; gruesome tales of botched executions; lengthy interviews with opponents, prosecutors and death row convicts; and Solotaroff's miasmic musings on the moral significance of capital punishment.
Solotaroff's analytical passages often invite rereading in order to clarify how little sense they make.
A contemporary American execution, scorned by abolitionists abroad and at home as a form of moral backwardness, is probably nothing of the kind. Like mid-nineteenth century slavery, it is rather our "peculiar institution" -- and as anyone who has toured a death row or attended an execution can attest, the will to enslave and the will to execute are either the same or remarkably similar.
Fortunately for our common notion of "moral backwardness," in the book's sprawling first section, Solotaroff sticks mostly to the less hazardous and more vivid turf of anecdote. Of keenest interest are the tableaux illustrating the contribution of American technical ingenuity to capital punishment, particularly with the application of electricity (by no less an inventor than Thomas Alva Edison) and then poison gas.
The electric chair -- until 1991 America's most common method of execution -- disturbed witnesses and executioners alike when it was revived in 1979 after a 13-year hiatus. At the 1983 electrocution in Louisiana of Robert Wayne Williams, Solotaroff reports that wardens and onlookers were "surprised," "baffled" and "amazed" (inescapable is the image of an irate editor, frantically crossing out the verb "shocked") that the condemned man smoked and sizzled long after the voltage was cut, and despite the best efforts of his morticians stubbornly persisted in smelling like cooked flesh a full 24 hours later. Mourners were unusually brief in their goodbyes.
Capital punishment's next technological advance was the gas chamber. An American invention much admired by the Third Reich, the new method provided witnesses and executioners with another memorable spectacle: "A Tucson television reporter sobbed uncontrollably during [Donald Eugene Harding's execution on April 11, 1992, in Arizona's gas chamber]; two other reporters 'were rendered walking "vegetables" for days'; the attorney general vomited halfway through."
Such is the effect on witnesses. So what about the executioners?
In Solotaroff's anecdotal historical survey, the severity of job-related stress in the execution trade varies widely. Thousands of people applied to be Sing Sing's executioner when the position opened up in 1940, "despite the fact that [the prior executioner's] house had been firebombed in his second year on the job, and that the previous executioner ... had blown his brains out two years after retiring."
But others emerge from a career in capital punishment relatively unscathed. Indeed, the executioner's career path has on several occasions led directly to the White House. Erie County sheriff Grover Cleveland hanged two men in the early 1870s before ascending twice to the presidency, Solotaroff reminds us. (Modern instances of presidential candidates executing their way into the Oval Office the author has apparently judged too recent and obvious to mention).
Still, the combined burden of both conscience and notoriety has led governments to hide their employees' identities. Take Florida's hooded executioner: Hired through the classifieds, the successful applicant is collected at an agreed-upon spot, hooded until he or she is done with work, and finally deposited, with a check for $150, at the pickup location.
Often the state takes pains to obscure the executioners' identities from themselves. Some schemes position placebo executioners next to real ones, none of whom knows who's injecting saline solution and who's injecting pancuronium bromide, or who's pulling dummy levers for the gas chamber or electric chair. Even more elaborate is the commissioning of software to randomize the choice of which lever actually starts the mechanism. Some states mandate that the requisition must be done in such a way that the programmers don't know they are writing code that will launch, say, a gas chamber as opposed to a watering system, lending new significance to the term "vaporware." Mississippi isn't big on these anonymizing niceties, so Hocutt and Cabana are left with a pretty clear idea of what they do for a living. The knowledge is particularly hard on Cabana, with his tendency to befriend death row prisoners for the months if not years it takes the legal system to approve their executions.
While Solotaroff usually quotes out of his depth, fecklessly invoking the likes of Camus, Yeats, Christ and Sophocles, he does luck out with Cabana's Shakespearian illustration of his own guilt:
"You got me thinking about Edward Earl again, the night he was asphyxiated [Cabana tells Solotaroff]. I was in the shower two hours later, scrubbing and scrubbing. Then I showered again. I just couldn't get the sweat and grime off me to the point where I felt clean enough to go to sleep."
Cabana's arms tighten on his chest and he starts rocking. "It hasn't come off me yet."
A hygiene OCD worthy of Lady Macbeth is just the first of Cabana's guilt-induced maladies. Tormented particularly by lingering questions about Edward Earl Johnson's guilt and the execution-hour absolution offered by Connie Ray Evans, Cabana ultimately suffers three massive coronaries, capped by a quadruple bypass. Prior to an earlier operation, terrified he won't live through it, Cabana begs a priest to absolve him of responsibility for the executions. The priest demurs.
Yet both Donalds are curiously obtuse about the cause of their own suffering. Hocutt predictably answers questions about his guilt with bravado and denial; even as he prepares to file for his medical discharge and calls in to refill his antidepressant prescription he disavows regret for a single execution. Even the more introspective Cabana seems in a fog when it comes to self-examination.
"I'm an innocent man," Cabana insists moments after he recounts begging the priest to absolve him. "There's no guilt breaking my heart."
Nonmedical questions of the heart, alongside those concerning less exalted organs of human feeling, are Solotaroff's most compelling subjects. Everyone knows of the erotic allure of the condemned murderer; without it Gary Gilmore could hardly have become Norman Mailer's hero, and Richard Ramirez would not have gotten such a prodigious volume of perfumed mail. But who, outside the S/M community, knew that the executioner had similar charms?
Donald Hocutt, that's who -- and it's not only the author's fascination with his "big gun" that Hocutt has to contend with. "Ever since Jimmy Lee Gray," says the corpulent, unwell corrections officer, "people have been wanting to touch me."
An argument could be made that Hocutt's allure has to do less with sexual desire than with a pure fascination with mortality in general and murderers in particular, with the death-defying thrill of touching a professional killer and living to tell the tale. The relationship between the executioner and the condemned, however, is fraught with an undeniable and undeniably yucky intimacy.
"In execution rites of the Middle Ages, the condemned were expected not only to forgive the executioner but at times to physically embrace him," Solotaroff writes. "Execution was punishment but also a kind of marriage; two humans joined under a bond that both understood and transcended the actions they were about to take."
This 'til-death-do-us-part bond is Cabana's nobility and his Achilles heel. He ministers to the condemned, he befriends them, he prepares them for their deaths, he kills them and then -- whatever anyone may say about what's responsible for his weak ticker -- he dies a little.
The epitome of the nuptial execution comes with the killing of Connie Ray Evans, condemned in 1981 for the murder of a convenience store worker during a robbery.
"I'm killing a friend of mine tonight," Cabana reflects as Evans is strapped into the gas chamber. Solotaroff writes, "In the classic image, he knew, a part of the executioner dies with his prisoner. Now it was palpable. Cabana felt a part of his life slip away."
It should not surprise us that a man cursed with Cabana's sensitivities would form such a bond with his doomed prisoners. But the depth of feeling between Cabana and Evans is, amid all the blood and guts and torture and self-torment, the dramatic heart of the book.
When asked if he has any final words, Evans asks to say them privately to Cabana. With great symbolic effect, he summons the executioner into the gas chamber.
"I love you," Evans tells Cabana. Minutes later, just prior to giving the order to release the poison gas and begin Evans' 15-minute final ordeal, Cabana mouths his reply: "I love you, too."
What could it mean for a condemned man to love his executioner, and for that love to be reciprocated? The possible explanations for such a bond go beyond the pop-psych associations of sex and death to include the vastly more perverse strain of parental feeling. Parents feed, house, clothe and counsel their children to prepare them for adult life; Cabana and executioners like him feed, house, clothe and counsel their inmates to prepare them for the next life. How could they not bond?
Solotaroff illustrates the parental strain of the executioner's psychology with a passage in which Cabana's and Hocutt's predecessors clean the body of their first gas chamber kill after years of using the electric chair: "Compared to the disfigured bodies that emerged from the electric chair," Solotaroff writes, "it was like washing a newborn."
But the love that blooms on death row may grow most significantly from the curious reversal that happens in the process of execution: In dispatching a murderer, the executioner becomes one. Simultaneously, the original murderer becomes a victim. One murderer is lawless, the other lawful, but the executioner, in all likelihood lacking a criminal's cold-blooded conscience, may undergo a more severe form of guilt. He may feel more a murderer than the condemned does.
Even the most callow executioner winds up bearing a burden that belongs, originally, to those who order the executions in the first place, namely the residents of death penalty states. That's why we hire him. The victims' rights crowd crows that they would gladly pull the lever themselves, and it's true that every job opening in the capital punishment industry brings on a cascade of applications. But the reality of the job, the weight of a society's outsourced vengeance, blood lust and guilt, breaks men in half.
It follows from this that the death-row love bond may arise from the executioner's and
condemned's sense of being on the same side of a destructive force beyond their control or comprehension, one that is bearing down on both of them and
stripping away their lives. A crime has been committed; a life or lives have been taken, and society calls out for justice and revenge. Whether they know it or
not when they apply for the job, the executioners as much as the condemned wind up our collective sacrifices.
|Kingdom's Leading Executioner Says: 'I Lead a Normal Life'
Mahmoud Ahmad, Arab News Staff
JEDDAH, 5 June 2003 - Saudi Arabia's leading executioner Muhammad Saad Al-Beshi will behead up to seven people in a day.
"It doesn't matter to me: Two, four, 10 - As long as I'm doing God's will, it doesn't matter how many people I execute," he told Okaz newspaper in an interview.
He started at a prison in Taif, where his job was to handcuff and blindfold the prisoners before their execution. "Because of this background, I developed a desire to be an executioner," he says.
His first job came in 1998 in Jeddah. "The criminal was tied and blindfolded. With one stroke of the sword I severed his head. It rolled meters away." Of course he was nervous, then, he says, as many people were watching, but now stage fright is a thing of the past.
He says he is calm at work because he is doing God's work. "But there are many people who faint when they witness an execution. I don't know why they come and watch if they don't have the stomach for it.
"Me? I sleep very well," he adds.
Does he think people are afraid of him? "In this country we have a society that understands God's law," he says. "No one is afraid of me. I have a lot of relatives, and many friends at the mosque, and I live a normal life like everyone else. There are no drawbacks for my social life."
Before an execution, nonetheless, he will go to the victim's family to obtain forgiveness for the criminal. "I always have that hope, until the very last minute, and I pray to God to give the criminal a new lease of life. I always keep that hope alive."
Al-Beshi will not reveal how much he gets paid per execution as this is a confidential agreement with the government. But he insists that the reward is not important. "I am very proud to do God's work," he reiterates.
However, he does reveal that a sword will cost something in the region of SR20,000. "It's a gift from the government. I look after it and sharpen it once in a while, and I make sure to clean it of bloodstains.
"It's very sharp. People are amazed how fast it can separate the head from the body."
By the time the victims reach the execution square they have surrendered themselves to death, he says, though they may hope to be forgiven at the last minute. "Their hearts and minds are taken up with reciting the Shahada." The only conversation with the prisoner is when he tells him to say the Shahada.
"When they get to the execution square, their strength drains away. Then I read the execution order, and at a signal I cut the prisoner's head off."
He has executed numerous women without hesitation, he explains. "Despite the fact that I hate violence against women, when it comes to God's will, I have to carry it out."
There is no great difference between executing men and women, except that the women wear hijab, and nobody is allowed near them except Al-Beshi himself when the time for execution comes.
When executing women he will use either gun or sword. "It depends what they ask me to use. Sometimes they ask me to use a sword and sometimes a gun. But most of the time I use the sword," he adds.
As an experienced executioner, 42-year-old Al-Beshi is entrusted with the task of training the young. "I successfully trained my son Musaed, 22, as an executioner and he was approved and chosen," he says proudly. Training focuses on the way to hold the sword and where to hit, and is mostly through observing the executioner at work.
An executioner's life, of course, is not all killing. Sometimes it can be amputation of hands and legs. "I use a special sharp knife, not a sword," he explains. "When I cut off a hand I cut it from the joint. If it is a leg the authorities specify where it is to be taken off, so I follow that."
Al-Beshi describes himself as a family man. Married before he became an executioner, his wife did not object to his chosen profession. "She only asked me to think carefully before committing myself," he recalls. "But I don't think she's afraid of me," he smiles. "I deal with my family with kindness and love. They aren't afraid when I come back from an execution. Sometimes they help me clean my sword."
A father of seven, he is a proud grandfather already. "I have a married daughter who has a son. He is called Haza, and he's my pride and joy. And then there are my sons. The oldest one is Saad, and of course there is Musaed, who'll be the next executioner," he adds.
March 30, 1905(1905-03-30)
North Bierley, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England
10, 1992 (aged 87)
Southpor, Lancashire, England
Albert Pierrepoint (30 March 1905 - 10 July 1992) is the most famous member of a Yorkshire family who provided three of Britain's Chief Executioners in the first half of the 20th century. He lived at Clayton, Bradford, Lincoln, Oldham and the Merseyside seaside resort of Southport.
Albert Pierrepoint was by far the most prolific British hangman of the twentieth century. In office between 1932 and 1956, he is credited with having executed an estimated 433 men and 17 women, including six U.S. soldiers at Shepton Mallet and some 200 Nazi war criminals after World War II. Contrary to newspaper articles quoting him as a source, he claimed, 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.
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. These carry all details on hangmen and assistants. For lack of an official number, Fielding's total therefore seems to be the minimum.
Albert Pierrepoint was born at North Bierley, Bradford, the middle child and eldest son of Henry and Mary Pierrepoint. He was plainly 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 and a half, he began work at the Marlborough Mills in Failsworth, earning six shillings a week. Following Henry's death in 1922, Pierrepoint 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 horse 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 the autumn of 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's training course at London's Pentonville Prison, Pierrepoint was added to the List of Assistant Executioners on 26 September 1932. At that time, the assistant's fee was £1 11s 6d (£1.57½) per execution, with another £1 11s 6d paid two weeks later if his conduct and behaviour were satisfactory. Executioners and their assistants were required to be extremely discreet and conduct themselves in a respectable manner, especially avoiding contact with the press.
There were few executions in Britain in the summer and autumn of 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 and 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 yet allowed to officiate in England. His first execution as chief executioner was that of gangster Antonio Mancini at Pentonville prison, London, on 17 October 1941, who said "Cheerio!" before the trapdoor was sprung.
On 29 August 1943, Pierrepoint married Anne Fletcher, who had run a sweet shop and tobacconists' shop two doors from the grocery shop where he worked, and they set up home at East Street, Newton Heath, Manchester. The couple did not discuss Pierrepoint's "other career" until after he had to travel to Gibraltar in January 1944 to conduct a double execution; although Anne had known about it for many years she refused to ask him about it, waiting for him to discuss the subject.
Following World War II, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials of concentration camp staff, and from the initial Belsen Trial eleven 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 eleven, plus two other Germans convicted of murdering an RAF pilot in the Netherlands in March 1945. Over the next four years, he was to travel to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals. The press discovered his identity and he became a celebrity, being hailed as a sort of war hero, meting out justice to the Nazis. The very substantial boost in income provided by the German executions allowed Pierrepoint to leave the grocery business, and he and Anne took over the running of a pub on Manchester Road, Hollinwood, between Oldham and Manchester, named somewhat memorably "Help the Poor Struggler", which allowed for plenty of journalistic puns. He later moved to another pub, the "Rose and Crown" at 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 but the under-sheriff of Lancashire offered only £1, as the rule in England was that the executioner was only paid 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 (Pierrepoint having 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 "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. It is no coincidence that the year Pierrepoint resigned, 1956, was the only year before abolition where not a single execution took place - he was the only executioner in British history whose notice of resignation prompted the government to write to him begging him to reconsider, such was the reputation he had established as the most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history, although on learning of the proposed newspaper series the Home Office did consider prosecuting Albert under the Official Secrets Act before deciding it would be counterproductive; they did however pressure the newspaper publishers so that the series eventually fizzled out.
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 a.m. at Strangeways Prison by Harry Allen, while Peter Anthony Allen was hanged simultaneously at Walton Prison, Liverpool by Robert Leslie Stewart, both for the murder in a robbery of John Alan West. He was, however, 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).
Albert and Anne 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.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations
The story of Albert Pierrepoint, and the execution of Ruth Ellis are retold in the stage play Follow Me, written by Ross Gurney-Randall and Dave Mounfield and directed by Guy Masterson. It premiered at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh in 2007 as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
A film about Pierrepoint's life was made in 2005. Timothy Spall stars as Pierrepoint. The film went on general UK release in April 2006 under the title Pierrepoint and was released in the US under the (factually inaccurate) title The Last Hangman. The film also claims before the closing credits that Pierrepoint conducted 608 executions.
Among the notable people he hanged:
- 13 German war criminals - Irma Grese, the youngest concentration camp guard to be executed for crimes at Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz (aged 22), Elisabeth Volkenrath (Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz), and Juana Bormann (Auschwitz), plus 10 men including Josef Kramer, the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. All were executed at Hameln on 13 December 1945 at half-hour intervals, the women being hanged individually, the men in pairs.
- 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", and greeted his executioner with the words "Oh! Pierrepoint." The executioner, however, took the proffered hand only to put the pinioning strap on, and replied nothing. (This 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, controversially convicted as a traitor and executed at Wandsworth, 3 January 1946.
- John George Haigh, the "Acid-bath murderer" executed at Wandsworth on 10 August 1949.
- Derek Bentley, controversially executed at Wandsworth on 28 January 1953 for his part in the death of Police Constable 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 recommendation of the jury in the trial. After a long campaign, Bentley received a posthumous pardon in July 1993. An article written by Pierrepoint for The Guardian, but withheld until the pardon was made, dispelled the myth that Bentley had cried on his way to the scaffold. Right until the last, he believed he would be reprieved. In 1998, the Court of Appeal ruled that Bentley's conviction was "unsafe" and quashed it.
- 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). It was subsequently discovered that Evans' neighbour John Reginald Christie, a self-confessed necrophiliac, was a serial killer who was also executed by Pierrepoint on 15 July 1953 at Pentonville. Timothy Evans received a posthumous pardon in 1966 for the murder of his daughter.
- Michael Manning on 20 April 1954 the last person to be executed in the Republic of Ireland.
- Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, on 13 July 1955, for shooting her lover. Contrary to myth, Pierrepoint had no regrets about her execution - in fact it was one of the few times he spoke publicly about one of his charges, and he made it abundantly clear he felt she deserved no less.
- James Inglis, the fastest hanging on record - only seven seconds from being led out of his cell until the trapdoor opened to send him on his fatal drop.
Later Opposition To 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 little to do with the merits of the case in question. He had also been forced to hang 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 commented:
- "I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people...The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off."
However, further evidence has come to light to throw doubt on his true feelings in the matter. In particular, a 1976 interview with BBC Radio Merseyside (available on the BBC website) shows that Pierrepoint was at that point uncertain on his stance. In addition, his former Assistant Executioner Syd Dernley stated in his autobiography "The Hangman's Tale" that he believed the change of heart was merely a publicity hook to help sell the book (this however may have been sour grapes on Dernley's part, as he also admits in the book that he was the assistant Pierrepoint said he'd "blistered" in "Executioner: Pierrepoint" for showing disrepect to the corpse of a prisoner). One of Albert's biographers, Steve Fielding, has taken an identical view, however the material from this book was primarily taken from Dernley's book and other materials already in the public domain.
Father & uncle
Henry Albert Pierrepoint
In 1901 Henry Pierrepoint (1878 - 1922) was appointed to the list of executioners after repeatedly writing to the Home Office to offer his services. He later persuaded his elder brother Thomas to join the family business and influenced his son Albert to do the same. In his nine-year term of office Henry carried out 105 executions. His career was finished when he arrived the day before an execution at Chelmsford prison "considerably the worse for drink", and fought his assistant John Ellis. Ellis reported the incident to the Home Office which decided, after receiving confirmation by the warders' account of the matter, to strike Henry from the list of approved executioners.
Thomas William Pierrepoint
Thomas Pierrepoint (1870 - 1954) worked as a hangman for 37 years until his mid-seventies in 1946. He is credited with having carried out 294 hangings in his career, although no precise figure has been verified, as some of these were in Ireland. During World War II he was appointed as executioner by the US Military and was responsible for 13 out of 16 hangings at the Shepton Mallet military prison in Somerset of US soldiers for crimes involving murder and/or rape, in most cases assisted by his nephew Albert who was, in turn, "Number One" for the remaining three executions.
In 1940, his medical fitness for the job was questioned by a Medical Officer who called him "unsecure" and doubted "whether his sight was good". The Prison Commission discreetly asked for reports on his performance during executions in the following time, but evidently found no reason to take action, although one report said that Thomas Pierrepoint had "smelled strongly of drink" on two occasions when reporting at the prison. This however appears to clash with Thomas Pierrepoint's instruction to Albert when the latter acted as his assistant not to take a drink if on the job, and never to accept the drink customarily given to all witnesses as executions in the Republic of Ireland.
Henry was never officially "dismissed" or 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".