This is the first piece in our Research and Methods Series that will cast research conducted and methods applied at the Centre. Furthermore, this Series will critically reflect on challenges, pitfalls and ethics in empirical research.
In 1956, an Irish government memorandum espoused the view that capital punishment was “un-Irish” and “a relic of barbarism.” Worse still, the author averred, “The humiliating position in which we find ourselves is highlighted by the fact that we have to import an English hangman to carry out our executions.” A motley succession of professionally-trained executioners had been employed in Ireland since the 1870s – Marwood, Berry, Scott, Binns, the Billingtons, Ellis, Willis and the Pierrepoints – English specialists reviled by the Irish public. Post-Independence, responsibility for conducting hangings in Ireland remained, for want of a better word, “colonised.”
While the Irish authorities almost always called upon the services of Thomas and Albert Pierrepoint, there were a small number of occasions when other English hangmen were employed, despite serious concerns about their capacity to fulfil their duties in England and Wales. A mere twenty-four days after executing James Myles with “marvellous celerity” in Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison in 1926,William Willis was removed from the official Home Office list of approved executioners “after the careless way” in which he placed the leg-strap on the condemned man while assisting Robert Baxter at an execution in Pentonville Prison. One observer attributed the error to the fact that he was “fat, clumsy and possibly a little flurried.”
As to the personality of Willis the governor was not impressed. Willis was “offensive, over-bearing, ostentatious, and generally objectionable in his manner” and “most aggressive on arrival when he found his tea was not prepared.” Yet whatever about the vitriol that Willis’s empty stomach provoked, there were more pressing concerns: “One considers cold calculated callousness as part of an executioner’s make up but brutal callousness bordering on blood-lust is not desirable.” Distraught at the notification that he was now an ex-hangman, Willis pursued the matter with the Home Office but to no avail and thus had little alternative but to settle into retirement, however reluctantly.
In January 1934, the Irish authorities hired Robert Baxter to officiate at the execution of John Fleming. Both the Irish Independent and the Irish Press erroneously reported that Thomas Pierrepoint was Fleming’s executioner, but as the Governor of Mountjoy, Sean Kavanagh, explained, the change of personnel was due to a diary clash. Yet although no “unusual incident occurred,” it was recorded that the assistant executioner, Stanley William Cross (who was also “on the official list”) appeared to have “defective eyesight.”
It is, of course, difficult to substantiate the veracity of this assertion, but files in the National Archives (Kew) reveal that it was not just Cross who suffered from defective vision. After a mishap at Swansea prison it was discovered that Baxter had “no vision whatever in the left eye.” A medical examination established that he had “sufficient acuity of vision to perform the duties of an executioner efficiently,” but the authorities in Mountjoy were not persuaded. After the execution of Fleming, the governor noted that Baxter “was not as efficient or expeditious as Pierepoint [sic], and if possible should not be employed here again.”
Excepting the executions of Myles and Fleming, it appears that it was one or other of the Pierrepoints, and frequently both, who crossed the Irish Sea to work the gallows in Mountjoy. Notably, Albert’s first experience as a hangman, which set him on course to become Britain’s most prolific executioner in the twentieth century, actually came in Dublin acting as an assistant to his uncle Thomas, at the execution of Patrick McDermott in 1932. Thus, in one of the most aberrant of dynasties, Thomas Pierrepoint, his brother Henry, and his successor, Henry’s son Albert, were paid to execute Irish prisoners over a period comprising precisely half a century.
Yet around 1940, concerns began to emerge about whether Thomas Pierrepoint was “still altogether suitable for the post of executioner.” The governor of Wandsworth Prison, Major Benjamin Grew, complained that Thomas had “passed his peak of efficiency” and was “becoming less tactful and more abrupt in his methods.” Although the Prison Commission conceded that he was “in fact 72 years of age” it also acknowledged that “reports to hand” indicated that he appeared to be “efficient” and “expeditious,” and that they were not entirely persuaded that “abruption” was “to be considered as a matter for criticism in an execution.”
The 1944 execution of IRA Chief-of-Staff Charles Kerins (the “bravest man” Governor Sean Kavanagh “ever saw die by hanging”) would prove to be the last occasion that Thomas Pierrepoint went to work in an Irish hang house. Kerins may have “stood at attention on the scaffold,” but he was dealt with in death like a common criminal rather than the soldier he believed himself to be. To borrow a Shakespearian phrase, “Nothing in his life Became him like the leaving it” even if his last sensation was the tightening of a noose rather than the sound of fusillade.
The last prisoner to be judicially executed in the Irish Republic was Michael Manning (1954), after which Albert Pierrepoint made the remarkable comment, “I love hanging Irishmen – they always go quietly and without trouble. They’re Christian men and they believe they’re going to a better place.” But after an extraordinary double life, which involved regular time away from his usual domestic routines to execute an estimated tally of 450 people (including more than two hundred Nazi war criminals after the Nuremburg trials), Albert noted that this was not the only distinctive feature of Irish executions. “Nowhere except in Ireland,” he reminisced, “have I known the bottle to come out after an execution, but in Ireland it was the regular rule”.
Indeed, such was the level of consumption in the aftermath of Manning’s execution that a Department of Justice memorandum was sent to the prison enquiring as to the “special circumstances which made it necessary to obtain so much whiskey”. The deputy governor responded that an execution was “a most undesirable and unpleasant experience for the officials concerned” and that “three and sometimes four bottles of whiskey were purchased for such occasions. The quantity provided and consumed on this occasion—two bottles—was, therefore, reasonable”, he observed.
It is ironic that Manning himself, by virtue of the Prison Rules, would have been entitled to a drink the night preceding his death and that his case was to become, for many years, the leading authority on self-induced intoxication as a defence to a criminal charge in Ireland. Pierrepoint was himself a publican in England. He could hardly have been unaware that the drinking ritual in Mountjoy reflected a wider funeral custom in Irish society during this period. And yet, from our perspective sixty years later, it is striking that alcohol played such a role in Manning’s execution given its pernicious presence when he hastened both his victim’s, and ultimately, his own premature demise.
This blog piece is based on an essay to be published later this month in New Hibernia Review.