[30 January 2008]
At first glance, it might appear this book could be enjoyed only by hard-core history buffs with a special interest in the protocol of executions. (Every British hangman of the 20th century? Can their lives really have been so different, so interesting?) On the contrary, however, The Executioner’s Bible is actually a treasure trove of fascinating stories, and even those who don’t feel up to reading it cover-to-cover will find it a handy source for curious—and curiously gory—historical tidbits.
Execution in the US is still commonplace, of course, with lethal injection now superseding the violent horrors of the electric chair. The hangman’s gallows, in contrast, seems like an image from the long-distant past—at least in the “civilized” world (though not elsewhere, as testified by the recent hanging of Saddam Hussein, documented in graphic detail in online video downloads). It’s shocking to realize, then, that it’s only a little over forty years since the gallows was last used in Great Britain.
I’d always imagined an executioner to be a semi-mythical, anonymous hooded figure, like the Grim Reaper, so I was slightly taken aback to learn from Fielding’s book that most of those who practiced this gruesome trade were moonlighting from their full-time day jobs. Drawn mainly from the British working classes, hangmen were also—often at the same time—pub landlords, barbers, security guards, prison wardens, caretakers, policemen, or railway workers. One was a mortuary keeper for the local council. One was a Sunday School teacher. One was even an ice cream man.
This state of affairs makes rather more sense when we learn that, in the years between 1900 and the Abolition of the Death Penalty Act in 1965, the number of executions averaged between only 10 and 20 a year in the whole of Great Britain; so it wouldn’t have been cost effective to hire a full-time hangman (and yes, they were all men). Still, it seems a little peculiar that the same man who serves you beer in the pub at night could be leading some poor soul to the gallows the following morning. The pay was lousy, too. After each execution, the hangman would receive a small daily allowance (generally 10 shillings), a bonus to cover expenses and loss of time, and third-class train fare to and from the prison where the execution would be taking place. Quite a contrast from the 17th century, when you were expected to tip your executioner, to ensure a nice, clean blow.
Miserable pay, a depressing job—but still, as Fielding makes abundantly clear, there was no shortage of applicants. Many of the longest-serving executioners seem to have been born to the trade; again and again we learn of men who, from their earliest childhood, had always been fascinated by executions and had always wanted to be a hangman (better than a serial killer, at least). As with many similar now-obsolete trades, the secret skills of execution were often passed on from father to son, though individual hangmen could place their unique stamp on an execution, some favoring speed, some thoroughness, and some dignity. The best-known hangman families of the 20th century, Fielding tells us, were the Billingtons (James and sons Thomas, William, and John) and the Pierrepoints (Henry, his older brother Tom, and his son Albert). (This book’s author also wrote Pierrepoint: A Family of Executioners, published in February 2006.)
Still, it took more than family connections to secure the job. To become an executioner, we learn, a candidate had to have a clean record and a decent character. If he passed the initial interview, he then had to take part in a training course and pass a written exam (sample questions: What is the reason for leaving the sand bag suspended on the rope preceding the morning of the execution? What measurement is allowed for the culprit’s neck? Give the length of drop you would state for a man of 158lbs.) Some of the most fascinating parts of Fielding’s book are reproductions of original documents, like the Memorandum of Instructions for Carrying Out an Execution from 1891 and the list of Rules for Assistant Executioners.
So why didn’t the Crown simply appoint an official, full-time, salaried hangman and have done with it? It soon becomes all too clear: Hanging people is a messy business, and most of those in the trade, however eager they may have been to take the job at first, before long would be traumatized by the scenes they were forced to witness and take part in. Fielding has many stories to tell of assistants at their first execution turning white, fainting, pissing their pants. Even for seasoned hangmen, unhappy executions generally proved their undoing.
The executions of women seem to have been especially traumatizing, particularly when the victims had to be dragged screaming to the gallows. Men, on the other hand, would often grow belligerent on the way to the scaffold and would have to be subdued with a punch to the face.
For many hangmen, their careers came to an end after they turned to drink or talked too much about what they’d seen, boasting or telling horror stories about what happened to their victims. Many of them died or retired before reaching age 50, and two fell through the trapdoor by accident (one died of injuries sustained in the fall; the second managed to avoid the drop by hanging on to the legs of the poor sod he was about to execute!).
Perhaps lethal injections involve less pain and danger than the gallows, but all in all, it seems, we’re better off without execution, in any form.