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The Hangman’s Plea: End Capital Punishment
Albert Pierrepoint was known as “The Last Hangman” of England. At the beginning of his 25-year career as a hangman, he was proud of his efficiency and effectiveness in this position, but he later became disillusioned and spoke out against capital punishment.
Was Albert Pierrepoint England’s “official executioner”?
Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992) was the longest-serving executioner in England’s history. During almost 25 years as an executioner (from 1932 to 1956), he carried out more than 400 executions and possibly as many as over 600. (The records are sketchy.)
Pierrepoint is sometimes called the “Official Executioner” of England. It is not true. There has never been an official executioner. Hangings were officially carried out by the Sheriff, but the sheriffs did not want to do this duty themselves. Instead, the sheriffs hired a hangman drawn from the official list of approved hangmen kept by the Home Office. The identity of the hangman was kept secret.
Pierrepoint is sometimes called “England’s Last Hangman.” That is not true either. Pierrepoint resigned in 1954. The last hanging in England was carried out in 1964. Capital punishment was abolished in England in 1965.
However, Pierrepoint can claim the title of most prolific hangman in England’s history, conducting more executions than any other hangman. He was also the “official executioner” at the Nuremberg Trials in Germany. In this capacity, he often hung as many as a dozen war criminals in one day.
Capital punishment was abolished in England in 1965.
Execution was the Pierrepoint family business.
Albert Pierrepoint’s father and uncle had been hangmen before him. Albert was eager to follow in their footsteps. Executions, one might say, was the family business.
His primary occupation was as a drayman for a grocery wholesaler. (A drayman was the driver of a horse drawn low flat-bed wagon known as a dray.) In other words, Pierrepoint was a delivery man. The hangings were just a sideline.
Pierrepoint prided himself on his efficiency and efficacy. He performed his duties with cool professionalism and a practiced detachment. He took great pains to keep the suffering of the condemned to a minimum. Most of the time, the execution took only 10 seconds or less.
The prisoner would be escorted to the execution chamber by guards. Pierrepoint would be waiting for him. Without speaking a word, Pierrepoint would quickly secure the prisoner’s hands behind his back, place a hood over his head, place the noose around his neck, and pull the lever that opened the trap door. The prisoner would die of a broken neck within seconds.
Pierrepoint took pride in his skill as an executioner. He carefully calculated the drop, the length of the rope. If the drop was not the correct length, the condemned would slowly strangle to death instead of having a quick death.
Pierrepoint considered the prisoner’s height, weight, and even age to calculate the drop. He seldom botched an execution.
Pierrepoint began to have regrets and turned against capital punishment.
Pierrepoint began to have second thoughts about capital punishment. Perhaps it began at Nuremberg where he conducted so many executions in a short period of time. Perhaps it was when he was called upon to execute a friend, a man who had murdered his girlfriend in a fit of rage. Perhaps it was because his name became public knowledge and this brought unwanted attention. He cringed when people cheered him for his work, and he cringed when people castigated him for his work. Perhaps it was all of these factors that led him to quit.
Whatever the reasons, Pierrepoint suffered great emotional distress. He felt that he was as much a murderer as the people he executed. In his memoirs, Executioner Pierrepoint: An Autobiography, he came out against capital punishment. He wrote
"I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge."
Because poetry is such an image-rich and concise form of communication, I think I can best explain Albert Pierrepoint’s change of heart with a poem.
The Hangman: A Poem
Albert Pierrepoint, fulfilled his childhood ambition.
He wanted to be a professional hangman.
Hanging the condemned was a family tradition.
His uncle and father had both plied the same trade.
With a total of more than 600 hangings,
He was England’s most prolific executioner.
From the 1930’s thru the 1950’s—
Almost 25 years—he worked this career.
He calculated height and weight to ascertain
The rope length needed to snap the neck without pain.
Too short, and it was death by slow strangulation;
Too long, and it was death by decapitation.
He dressed in coat and tie to maintain dignity.
He took great care to do his job with speed and skill.
He was quick and silent, and that was his mercy.
His executions were usually flawless.
Although the official witnesses often flinched,
Albert, always stone-faced, never showed emotion.
He was always the consummate professional,
And he took a quiet pride in a job well done.
The prisoner was professionally dispatched,
While Albert remained emotionally detached.
He often said, “It’s not me that is the killer,
The hanging is done by ‘The Executioner.’”
Albert walked into the prison, and Albert walked out,
But “The Executioner” killed the prisoner,
Until the huge death toll suffused his soul with doubt,
And this disassociation no longer worked.
His breaking point was the Nuremberg war crime trials.
Every day for months, he hung twenty souls or more.
Over and over, an assembly line of death.
The sheer numbers became more than he could endure.
Previously, Albert kept his work a secret.
But the military gave him public credit.
To his dismay, some gave him adulation,
While others upset him with their condemnation.
His heart was changed about capital punishment.
He cried out, “I murdered the bloody lot of them.
I killed them all, the guilty and the innocent,
Not in anger, not for passion, but for money.”
His regret made him bitter; he was a broken man.
For years, he had been just a part of the machine,
But as his conscience began to invade his thoughts,
He knew that his acts had been immoral and obscene.
Eventually, he could no longer do it.
For his own health and sanity, he had to quit.
”It’s nothing but revenge,” he began to protest;
The hangman had become an abolitionist.
Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
This movie is a little masterpiece of acting, writing, and directing. It tells the poignant story of Albert Pierrepoint's life. I watched it because I wanted to understand what it was like to be an executioner. It is a remarkable story.
The belief that capital punishment deters murder is false.
The belief that capital punishment deters the crime of murder is a cruel myth. The United Nations and numerous academics have done research all over the world, and it has been shown time and time again that capital punishment is not a deterrent. For instance, in the U.S., one of the few Western countries that still has capital punishment, the states with the death penalty (such as Texas) have significantly higher homicide rates than states where the death penalty has been abolished.
I did some research and some thinking to try to understand why the myth persists. My conclusion is that people refuse to admit the facts about the death penalty because they have a psychological need for capital punishment. I wrote about it in “Thou Shall Not Kill: The Immorality of the Death Penalty.”
After watching the movie about Pierrepointe’s life, and learning about the toll his association with capital punishment took upon him, I’m especially dismayed when I hear people being enthusiastic about the death penalty. I would hope that anyone who supports the death penalty at least sees it as an unfortunate necessity. However, many appear to like it quite a bit too much.
I wrote a poem about it.
Stop the Killing: A Poem
Hang them high! Let them fry!
Throw the switch! Jab the needle!
Let me be the one to do it.
I’ll gladly be the one to do it.
Why do people say these things?
It’s not about deterrence.
And it’s not about justice.
Capital punishment does one thing only—
It adds crime to crime deliberately.
Is it all about revenge?
The lizard brain, perceiving a threat
Unthinkingly strikes with lethal force.
Great for an individual’s self preservation—
Not so great when done by a nation.
Is it a symbolic purging?
A murder by proxy?
We are constrained from killing,
But the ones condemned by the state
Become stand-ins for the ones we hate.
Are the executed our scapegoats,
Chosen in some lethal lottery,
To die to cleanse us of sin?
We snuff out their lives—and now
Are we supposed to feel safer somehow?
It’s time to abolish the death penalty.
It’s immoral to kill no matter who does it.
Religious leaders from major faiths—
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—condemn it.
And now the USA must end it.
Stop the killing! End the vengeance!
Let reason replace emotionality!
We will never stop criminality,
When we respond with immorality.
The trailer for the 2005 movie "Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman
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Which side of the debate are you on--pro or con?
© 2014 Catherine Giordano