The executioner is a dark and fascinating topic that spans across different cultures, times and methods of killing.
Executioners are the official agents of the state or the law who carry out the sentences of death on condemned criminals. Historically, they often had other duties as well, such as torturing, flogging, branding, or disposing of corpses and animal carcasses.
Executioners were sometimes chosen from among slaves, convicts, or outcasts, and were usually of low social status. They were also often shunned, feared, or despised by the public, who associated them with death and evil. However, some executioners gained fame or infamy for their skill, brutality, or personality, and became the subjects of legends, stories, or art.
Executioners used various methods of killing depending on the crime, the law, and the tradition of their location. Some of the most common methods were hanging, beheading, burning, drawing and quartering, and guillotining. Each method required a different level of expertise, equipment, and preparation.
Some executioners were known for their speed, accuracy, or mercy, while others were notorious for their cruelty, incompetence, or sadism. Executioners also had to deal with the psychological and physical effects of their job, such as stress, guilt, trauma, or disease.
The history of executioners reveals a lot about the society and culture that employed them. It shows how people viewed crime and punishment, justice and injustice, life and death. It also shows how executioners themselves coped with their role and identity in a world that both needed and hated them.
Albert Pierrepoint: Britain’s Most Famous Executioner
Albert Pierrepoint was an English hangman who executed between 435 and 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956. He was the son of Henry Pierrepoint and the nephew of Thomas Pierrepoint, both official hangmen before him. He was born in Clayton in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1905 and became interested in his family’s profession at an early age.
Pierrepoint applied to become an assistant executioner in 1930 and was accepted after a short training course. He assisted his uncle Thomas in his first execution in 1932, hanging a man named Anton van der Lubbe at Wandsworth Prison. He soon gained a reputation for his speed, efficiency and discretion, and was appointed as the Chief Executioner in 1941.
During World War II, Pierrepoint executed many war criminals, including some of the most notorious Nazis such as Josef Kramer (The Beast of Belsen), Irma Grese (The Hyena of Auschwitz), Fritz Klein and William Joyce (Lord Haw-Haw). He also hanged several British traitors, spies and murderers, as well as some famous or controversial cases such as Derek Bentley, Ruth Ellis and Timothy Evans.
Pierrepoint retired from his official duties in 1956, after a dispute over his fees with the Home Office. He later ran a pub in Southport called The Help The Poor Struggler and wrote his memoirs, Executioner: Pierrepoint, in 1974. He died in 1992 at the age of 87.
Pierrepoint was acknowledged by the Home Office as the most efficient executioner in British history, with an average time of 12 seconds from entering the cell to dropping the trapdoor. He claimed that he did not have any personal feelings or opinions about his job, and that he treated every prisoner with respect and dignity. He also said that he did not believe in capital punishment as a deterrent, and that he hoped one day it would be abolished.
Pierrepoint was a controversial figure who aroused both admiration and criticism from the public and the media. Some saw him as a hero who served his country and delivered justice to the worst criminals, while others saw him as a cold-blooded killer who profited from human suffering. His life and career have been the subject of several books, documentaries and films, such as The Last Hangman (2005), starring Timothy Spall as Pierrepoint.
© Colin Lawson Books