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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 03:47 GMT 04:47 UK
How Britain made its executioners
By Dominic Casciani
BBC News

Albert Pierrepoint: Last chief hangman

They called it "the profession" - and it was one of the hardest jobs in the world to get.

Previously secret documents released from deep within the British justice system reveal the rules, ethics and code of being an executioner in the 20th century.

The job was not as simple as having a strong stomach - and the strength to pull a lever when it mattered.

According to the papers in the National Archives, not only did candidates need skill under pressure, they also had to be judged psychologically sound.

The process of becoming an approved name on "the list" has long been shrouded in secrecy.

But the documents reveal that the men were selected largely through informal approaches, sometimes because of experience as an executioner in the forces.

Papers from 1938 review the then list of seven men judged "competent to carry out the duties". In almost all cases they were in stable and often dull jobs, living happily married settled lives.

The motivation of some candidates was however questionable. Daniel Clifford of Fulham was one man rejected after initially telling prison governors he wanted "to uphold the prestige of our justice".

However, he was blacklisted when it was discovered he had been showing off his interview letter in pubs.

Selection process

Mr Clifford's mistake was not to understand the golden rules of how Britain intended executions to take place: discreetly.

Your particular attention is drawn to rules six and nine and the Prison Commission's desire to emphasise the importance of complete reticence in regard to your official duties
Regulations for hangmen, 1938
And so a key test for eligibility was trustworthiness.

This stopped at least one candidate during the period - Arthur Gill, a butcher from Harrogate. He was blocked when the local police chief warned that he "is known to my officers as being a man of loose morals."

If candidates passed police checks, they were invited to an interview with prison governors, along with medical examinations.

Henry Kirk, a police officer with the London Port Authority, was one of those blocked at this stage.

Following his interview, the governor of Brixton jail said Mr Kirk "would never be equal to the work he applies for - he appears to have a somewhat morbid interest in the work, aroused through having a friend who carried out many executions in Arabia." While he may have been trustworthy, they were unsure about his state of mind.

The final stage of selection was six days of technical training at London's Pentonville Prison where governors judged whether or not they were competent.

Family dynasty

The released documents also fill in some missing elements in the story of Britain's most famous hangmen - the Pierrepoint family. Britain's last official chief hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, became a household name when he was sent to Germany to execute war criminals after the Nuremburg Trials.

As long as I can give in the last moments of these people, whoever they are, whatever they've done, if I can give them the respect and dignity at the last moment, That's my job and I come away satisfied
Albert Pierrepoint

His father, Henry, and uncle, Thomas, had perfected the craft that later made Albert such an efficient and, from the perspective of the government, admired hangman.

All three men took immense pride in their work, believing that it was their responsibility to be humane to the condemned by ensuring that death occurred swiftly.

But despite this family pride, questions were asked within government over the efficiency of Thomas who was still performing executions in his 70s even though his nephew had taken on the lion's share of the work.

Albert's own problems, well documented in his own interviews and in the recent film of his life, began at the end of the war and dogged him until he quit in 1956.

Albert had honoured the code of silence - but found himself and his family being hounded by the press after his name leaked out as the war crimes hangman.

Pentonville Prison: Six days of training on its gallows
Albert urgently wrote to the Prison Commission, insisting that he had not talked to a journalist from the Sunday Pictorial who was planning a major profile, saying he felt he had been set up to appear as if he was talking freely of his work.

The commission was satisfied he had not given an interview - but officials quietly noted that some of the details in the article must have come from family or close friends to whom Pierrepoint may have talked.

According to the newspaper, Pierrepoint had held a conversation with one prisoner, John Amery, a Nazi-sympathiser hanged for treason after the war. The story, which has been regularly repeated since, suggests Amery attempted to crack a joke with Pierrepoint on the way to the scaffold.

But the archive papers tell a different version.

The Prison Commission official wrote: "Amery did in fact extend his hand and said 'Oh! Pierrepoint.'

"Pierrepoint took his hand, placed it behind his back for pinioning. The conversation was entirely limited to that remark."

Rules and regulations

Beyond the clinical guidelines of how to efficiently hang a prisoner, the critical element was the conduct of the hangman himself, and it was Albert Pierrepoint who was considered in the late 1930s to uphold the standard of "complete reticence".

New additions to the official list of executioners were told that they would be contacted if needed - and offering to carry out a specific execution would result in them being struck off the list.

According to the rulebook, the hangman "should avoid attracting public attention in going to or from the prison; he should clearly understand that his conduct and general behaviour must be respectable and discreet, not only at the place and time of execution, but before and subsequently; in particular he must not give to any person particulars on the subject of his duty for publication."

Both the prison governor and medical officer were expected to keep records of the hangman's conduct which would have some bearing on his pay.

As for pay, during the 1930s, it was left open to local agreement, although Prison Commission officials recommended 10 guineas plus a third class railway fare.

Assistants received a fixed 1, 11 shillings and six pence with the same amount again two weeks after the execution - providing they had not broken the code of secrecy.



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