Official Executioner

Rillington

Albert Pierrepoint born on this day in 1905.  His father and his uncle were executioners, part time hangmen.  As a child Albert wrote in a school exercise “When I leave school I should like to be the Official Executioner”.  He achieved his goal.

He began his career as executioner in Dublin.  He was assistant executioner to his uncle in the Hanging of Patrick McDermott in Mountjoy Gaol in 1932.

In the course of his career he hanged over 400 people.  His total was boosted by the war.  Pierrepoint carried out the executions of 200 war criminals in Germany between 1945 and 1950.

William Joyce (lord Haw Haw) the Irish born Nazi propagandist was one of his “customers”.  Pierrepoint also had the distinction to hang both the wrongly convicted  Timothy Evans and the rightly convicted serial killer John Christie for the murder of Evans wife in an illegal abortion.  The events were portrayed in the film “10 Rillington Place”

Pierrepoint also hanged the last man to be executed in Ireland, Michael Manning (1954) and the last woman to be hanged in Britain, Ruth Ellis (1955).  He resigned in 1956.  The British Home Office asked him to reconsider as he was the “most efficient and swiftest executioner in British history”.

Despite working as a hangman for over 20 years Pierrepoint observed that hanging was not a deterrent.

And now some selected verses from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by prisoner C33, the pen name adopted by Oscar Wilde after his release from prison.

I

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

II

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer’s collar take
His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!

IV

There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God’s sweet air we went,
But not in wonted way,
For this man’s face was white with fear,
And that man’s face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.

The view from my prison cell.

oscar-wilde

You can imprison a body, but you cannot cage a man’s soul. There have been some “great” prisoners through the years. People who used their time in custody wisely and continued to fight for their cause. Time looks upon such people kindly. Nelson Mandela, Thomas Francis Meagher, Bobby Sands, Mohandas Gandhi, Leon Trotski, Aung San Suu Kyi. For the smart person prison can represent an opportunity as much as a setback, a classic case of life giving you lemons and you make lemonade. Many people know the Ballad of Reading Gaol, but it is not the only tale of woe from the Irish guest of his Majesty who had nothing to declare but his genius. Sadly his time in prison gave him only a very limited redemption. The fight for homosexual rights is far from won.

At Verona; by Oscar Wilde
HOW steep the stairs within Kings’ houses are
For exile-wearied feet as mine to tread,
And O how salt and bitter is the bread
Which falls from this Hound’s table,–better far
That I had died in the red ways of war,
Or that the gate of Florence bare my head,
Than to live thus, by all things comraded
Which seek the essence of my soul to mar.

‘Curse God and die: what better hope than this?
He hath forgotten thee in all the bliss
Of his gold city, and eternal day’–
Nay peace: behind my prison’s blinded bars
I do possess what none can take away,
My love, and all the glory of the stars.