For the Drop
Going to the smash hit,black comedy “Hangmen” made me google more details of these emirs of execution. For an undercurrent of the play is a rivalry between our last two official hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Harry Allen. Both very much of a type. Repectable, skilled, patriotic Northern working class, both dapper, both publicans and both very proud of their ability and place.
Albert Pierrepoint was the UK’s Chief Executioner from 1940-56 in which time he topped 400. This included 200 German war criminals. Montgomery was inordinately proud of Pierrepoint’s contribution, not least because he was so much “better” than the Americans, he was given the title Lieutenant Colonel and after the war set up a hangman’s school in Vienna.
Pierrepoint’s father and uncle had both been hangmen and he felt the skill was “in the blood”. For many years Pierrepoint received a Xmas envelope with £5 in it, signed Belsen.
He prided himself on his skill. From entering the cell to death he could do the deed in fifteen seconds. The condemned man would have his back to the door. The man would stand up with warders either side, Pierrepoint would come in strap his arms and slip over a pillow case before the man or woman knew what had happening, a few steps from the cell to the trap door on with the noose and bingo.It was over.
Pierrepoint had seriously done the work on weight, height, age on which he could calculate the efficiency of “the drop”. One of the reasons that he took over from the Americans after the Nuremberg and other trials is because they had no idea about the science of efficient hanging!
He was paid around £400(today’s money) a hanging and it was the fee which caused his retirement in 1956. The condemned man was given a reprieve 12 hours before his 8.30 appointment. Pierrepoint was already in place and had done his homework. He demanded his fee, the Prison Commissioners paid him a third.
Pierrepoint then resigned and sold his life story to the Sunday Empire News for the equivalent of £500,000.
This led to his assistant since 1940 Harry Allen-who is centre stage in the play-becoming chief executioner. His trademark was a bow tie which he wore out of “respect for the condemned”. He said”I never felt a moment’s hesitation and always slept soundly on the night before and after a hanging. Afterwards I would wash and change and buy an evening paper to see who I had hanged.” He hanged over 200.
Until abolition in 1964 the UK was hanging 15 a year. The scores in 2012 were Iran(304), Iraq(129),Saudi(79) USA(49).
A film was made of Pierrepoint’s story The Last Hangman