The Man who Killed Hundreds of People and was Never Charged
Throughout the government knew and sanctioned the kills
Many of us have jobs we don’t always like. We work to survive, with no love for our job. This was not the same for Albert Pierrepoint. He saw his job as his true calling. The pay was insufficient for the work, but that did not deter Pierrepoint; he took a second job to continue his side hustle financially.
He had killed between 435 and 600 people during his twenty-five years. Despite this, he was never classified as a serial killer and never caught. He was never arrested because the authorities who would arrest him were the ones who asked him to do the killing. Pierrepoint was the United Kingdon’s top hangman and executioner, and it was work he took very seriously.
The Raising of an Executioner
Pierrepoint was born in Clayton, West Yorkshire, on 30th March 1905. He was the third of five children and the eldest son to Henry and Mary. Henry Pierrepoint was also an executioner; the young Albert would follow his father and uncle into the family business.
The family struggled financially as work was intermittent for Henry. In addition, he usually drank a large proportion of his wages away, when he did earn before the family saw any of it.
During one execution, Henry turned up for work drunk. He argued with the assistant executioner, shortly after he was removed from the list of executioners in July 1910. Henry would die in 1922 when Albert would receive two exercise books detailing his father’s work. He had not known what his father’s side-hustle was until then, but he was determined to follow him into the family business.
When I leave school, I should like to be public executioner like my dad it’s because it needs a steady man with good hands like my dad and my Uncle Tom, and I shall be the same. — Albert Pierrepoint
Pierrepoint applied to be an executioner several times, finally being accepted in 1932. The job came with limited training, four days of practice hangings with a dummy. Finally, in December 1932, he undertook his first execution alongside his uncle. They hung Patrick McDermott who had been convicted of killing his brother Tom and sentenced to death.
In July 1940, Pierrepoint was an assistant in executing a refugee convicted of shooting Sir Michael O’Dwyer. It was clear from the start that the executioner had got his figures wrong. Pierrepoint stepped in and corrected the calculations; the authorities promoted him to head executioner.
In August 1943, Pierrepoint married Anne Fletcher; he didn’t tell her about his side hustle until two days later.
The procedure for execution rarely changed. The day before the hanging, the height and weight of the prisoner would be measured. Officers would pass on these measurements to Pierrepoint. From here, he would calculate the length of rope needed for the execution. He would then tie a sack to this length of rope, the same weight as the man, and leave it overnight to stretch the rope fully.
Pierrepoint would walk into the cell and secure the prisoner’s arms behind their back. He would then walk the prisoner over to the marked spot on the trapdoor. Placing a hood and noose over their head, he would walk back and push the lever to open the trapdoor and execute the prisoner.
Pierrepoint became a minor celebrity for his work, mainly due to some of the high profile cases he executed. For example, he executed serial killers Gordon Cummins, John Haigh and John Christie. He was also the executioner that executed the innocent Timothy Evans, only to execute the actual perpetrator of the murder Christie later.
Evans was not the only controversial hanging that Pierrepoint presided over. He executed both Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged, and Derek Bentley.
Derek Bentley was convicted of murder after a policeman was killed in a botched burglary. Bentley and his 16-year-old accomplice were accused of this despite the suggestion that Christopher Craig (the accomplice) had fired the shots killing an officer and wounding another.
Bentley had screamed: “Let him have it” to his accomplice before the officer was shot dead. This, coupled with the English Law principle of ‘joint enterprise’, was enough for him to face the death penalty. Courts could only put people over the age of 18 to death. Despite never wielding a weapon, Bentley, at 19, was hung in 1953 with protesters gathered outside the prison. Both Evans and Bentley earned posthumous pardons many years later.
After the Belsen Trials, Pierrepoint was called upon to use his skills, when eleven war criminals were sentenced to their death for their treatment of prisoners in the Bergen-Belson Camp. Many commented that they were surprised the government did not call him to the Nuremberg trials to carry out sentences.
Executions Were a Poor Business
By the time that Pierrepoint became an executioner, fewer executions were being carried out. The wage they offered was only ever minimal. Each execution earned three pounds three shillings, £205 in today’s economy.
Throughout his work as a hangman, he was also a drayman, transporting goods from grocery stores. In 1950, Pierrepoint gave up this career to take over the lease of a local pub. He was considered a friendly landlord who sang and danced with his patrons, one of these patrons he considered a friend was James Corbitt.
When Corbitt murdered his girlfriend, Pierrepoint was called on to carry out the sentence. He states, in his autobiography, it was one of the hardest executions of his life; it was the only time he regretted the work he did.
In 1956, Pierrepoint would resign his role as Britain’s top hangman over a dispute concerning money. He had attended an execution which was called off. When the authorities refused to pay for his time; as was the custom, he resigned. However, it is unclear how much this resignation was due to money or previously executing a friend.
Life After Killing
Pierrepoint chose to end his working career as a pub landlord, running pubs for another twenty years. During this time, he wrote his autobiography, where he talked about being selected by a higher power to ensure that even convicted killers went to their death with dignity.
I have gone on record … as saying that my job is sacred to me. That sanctity must be most apparent at the hour of death. A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter. He is a man, she is a woman, who, the church says, still merits some mercy. The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and death. The gentleness must remain. — Albert (1977) . Executioner: Pierrepoint. London: Coronet. ISBN 978–0–3402–1307–0.
Pierrepoint died on 10th July 1992, aged eighty-seven. Despite choosing a profession many would not have wanted to work in, he had a strong work ethic and carried his duties to an extremely high standard. Despite his career choice, he was outspoken about capital punishment stating, ‘Capital punishment is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree.’