January 16, 2015

The Hangman

written by Rosa Morgan

A hangman is a person who carries out a death sentence by order of a legal authority. The warrant he is given to execute the sentence protects him from the charge of murder. But what kind of person becomes an executioner? Is he a sadist with ice water running through his veins, or someone brave enough to undertake one of society's most difficult jobs?


James Botting of Brighton was the hangman for Newgate Prison in London, England from 1817-1819 and was a nasty piece of work to be sure. Boasting to have hung 175 persons, he was paid a guinea a week plus a guinea per execution. 
Retiring after suffering a stroke, Botting lived in abject poverty, recounting his gory stories for the price of hard liquor. He died after falling out of his wheelchair in the street and was such a social pariah that no one came to his aid.

John Foxton was Newgate's next hangman and in 1820 he performed 42 executions, many of them for forgeries. Large crowds gathered to witness hangings and wealthy patrons could pay £10 for a seat in a window overlooking the gallows. His most famous executions were on May 1820 when he hung five members of the Cato Street Conspiracy who plotted to assassinate the Cabinet and the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. The condemned were beheaded after being hung.

One of his most famous executions involved The Red Barn
Murder whereby William Corder killed his lover. Corder was left to hang for an hour as was the usual procedure and Foxton claimed his trousers and stockings by right.

William Calcraft was a hangman for 45 years, but his hanging method was most incompetent due to his use of the short-drop. The condemned died hard, being strangled to death, rather than having their neck broken. To hasten their death and entertain spectators, he would pull on the victim's legs or climb on their shoulders.
He supplemented his income by doling out beatings with cats o' nine tails and birch rods and selling sections of the rope used to hang his victims.

With the arrival of William Marwood came a scientific, professional, and compassionate approach to the convicted's last moment on earthCreating a long drop of four to ten feet based on the convicted's weight with the knot stationed under the left jawline, a more humane and rapid execution was accomplished
He tested the scaffolding and ropes of Italian silk hemp with bags of cement equal to the weight of the condemned. Marwood once remarked of his predecessor, “Calcraft hanged them, and I execute them.” 

A chance encounter with Marwood introduced James Berry of Bradford to this unlikely occupation. Unable to support his family as a boot salesman, he undertook what he described as distasteful though not dishonorable. 

He wrote in detail in "My Experiences as an Executioner" of how when the fateful hour approached he fell ill. And though he approached it with as much care and diligence as did Marwood there were occasionally unfortunate results. 

In the hanging of John Babbacome Lee, the trap door repeatedly failed to open, so Lee's sentence was commuted, and executing Robert Goodale, the drop was too long so the rope decapitated him.

One hundred and thirty one hangings including five women would haunt Berry for the rest of his life, nearly leading him to suicide. Becoming an evangelist after his retirement, he complained, "the law of capital punishment falls with terrible weight upon the hangman and that to allow a man to follow such an occupation is doing him a deadly wrong".