November 26, 1940, Bedford Prison, England, 8am.
Two experienced executioners, Thomas Pierrepoint and his nephew Albert, walk into the condemned cell and collect the comatose William Cooper, only five feet five inches tall and weighing only 136 pounds, from his cell and strap his arms behind his back. This done, they carry him the few steps from the condemned cell to the gallows across the prison landing. Then, in front of the prison Governor, the county Under-Sheriff, prison doctor, prison chaplain, Bedford Prison’s chief engineer and two other men they place a hood over his head, a rope round his neck and strap his legs firmly together. With a nod to his nephew to get off the trapdoors, Thomas Pierrepoint throws the lever and Cooper, having been held upright by two prison officers, drops eight feet and one inch to his death. The clock started chiming the hour before the execution started. It hasn’t stopped chiming when William Cooper is already dead at the end of the rope. Albert Pierrepoint has left a lit cigar in ana ashtray immediately before the execution. When he returns with his morning’s work done the cigar is still burning. With bitter irony, the statue of John Howard, founder of the Howard League for Penal Reform, stands silently disapproving in the town square…
That in itself was a typical British execution at the time. British hangings took only seconds, not minutes, There was no walking a ‘last mile,’ no time to struggle or fight. By the time a prisoner realised that the gallows was next door to the condemned cell they were already strapped, hooded and noosed. By the time they would normally have recovered from that shock they were dead. Cooper, of course, had fallen into an insensible stupor moments before his execution began so was half-dead even before the hangmen entered his cell.
Cooper himself was a murderer of no particular note in himself. A recently-fired farmhand, Copper had been convicted of seriously injuring his former employer, farmer John Harrison, while robbing him of the farm’s payroll not long after losing his job there. When Harrison died of his injuries two weeks after being attacked the charge was altered from robbery with violence (a non-capital crime) to murder (with a mandatory death sentence if convicted). The evidence against Cooper was strong. He’d been seen near the crime scene area when the crime was committed, Harrison had been robbed, Cooper had some of the stolen money in his possession and, while he claimed self-defence at his mandatory appeal, claiming Harrison had attacked him with a weapon, he didn’t claim self-defence at his original trial, leading many to suggest Harrison had been beaten out of anger or to avenge Cooper’s dismissal from the farm job.
It’s the two young men who were there to watch that interest us now. They were Steve Wade and Harry Allen, both novices who’d applied for the job of Assistant Executioner, passed the initial selection and training and, that morning, passed the traditional graduation exam of watching a hanging, although not taking any active role. The Prison Commissioners (the official body in charge of Britain’s executioners before abolition) took the very wise decision to have would-be hangmen witness an execution before engaging them to be actively involved in one. Their reasing was simple; if you couldn’t handle watching one then you couldn’t handle taking a more active role than standing out of the way in a corner of the room. On November 26, 1940 Harry Allen and Steve Wade graduated with honours.
Allen and Wade are interesting because, between them Thomas Pierrepoint, Albert Pierrepoint, Harry Allen and Steve Wade were involved in 879 criminals. For 879 men and women one of those four faces was the last face they ever saw. Harry Allen went on to hang the last cop killer executed in Britain, Guenther Podola at Wandsworth Prison on November 9, 1959. He performed the last execution in Northern Ireland, Robert McGladdery at Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast on December 20, 1961. He performed the last hanging in Scotland, that of Henry Burnett at Aberdeen on August 15, 1963 (the same day, incidentally, as New York State performed its last electrocution, that of Eddie Lee mays at Sing Sing Prison). He also performed one of the two simultaneous ‘last hangings’ in the UK, that of Gwynne Owen Evans at Strangeways Prison on August 13, 1964, his only execution that year and the last before a five-year moratorium leading to the final abolition of hanging for murder in 1969. During his career he either hanged or assisted in hanging some well-known felons such as Derek Bentley, Styllou Christofi and Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel. He also assisted Albert Pierrepoint in executing over 200 Nazi war criminals. The Nazis included staff members at concentration camps and some of those who murdered 50 Allied airmen after the ‘Great Escape’ of March, 1944. On one occasion there were so many to hang that Pierrepoint and Allen performed 27 executions in a 24-hour period.
Steve Wade’s career was cut short by terminal cancer (he died in 1956, months after performing his last execution in 1955, that of Alec Wilkinson at Armley Jail, Leeds). He carried out 29 executions as chief executioner after assisting at 59. He worked most frequently with Albert Pierrepoint, although Harry Allen was another, less frequent partner in executions. Thomas Pierrepoint was, of course, the uncle of Albert Pierrepoint. Thomas carried out or assisted at a total of 294 executions, including the hangings of 16 American servicemen when the civilian prison at Shepton Mallet in England became the principal US Army prison in the European Theater of Operations during the Second World War. His brother Henry had also been a hangman, assisting at or performing a total of over 200 hangings before being dismissed after arriving drunk for an execution and starting a brawl with the then-chief hangman John Ellis.
And what of Albert Pierrepoint? Albert executed 433 men and 17 women during his career and became an unwilling celebrity after his work in Germany. He trained hangmen in nine different countries before resigning in 1956 in a dispute over money. He’d been engaged to hang Thomas Bancroft at Liverpoll Jail and, as was standard practice, not been paid after Bancroft received a last-minute reprieve. Not only was he not paid for the non-existent execution, he also had to find a hotel for the night at his own expense. When the Prison Commissioners refused to reimburse him, he quit. In 1972 he released his memoir ‘Executioner Pierrepoint’ in which he claimed to have become an abolitionist, stating:
‘It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree. There have been murders since the beginning of time, and we shall go on looking for deterrents until the end of time. If death were a deterrent, I might be expected to know. It is I who have faced them last, young men and girls, working men, grandmothers. I have been amazed to see the courage with which they take that walk into the unknown. It did not deter them then, and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder.’
Pierrepoint also criticized the idea of the death penalty as being anything other than State and public vengeance, stating also that:
‘I have come to the conclusion that executions solve nothing, and are only an antiquated relic of a primitive desire for revenge which takes the easy way and hands over the responsibility for revenge to other people.’
And openly regarded the death penalty as unfair and arbitrary, stating that:
‘The trouble with the death penalty has always been that nobody wanted it for everybody, but everybody differed about who should get off.’
All in all, that gray, grim November morning in 1940 was an historic moment in British penal history, and a rare glimpse into the careers of some of Britain’s most famous, and prolific, public executioners.