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Michelle's corner

Michelle Knight. Writer, photographer, programmer, truck driver and general, all round nut case. Life is a journey and that's what this blog will probably end up being. Let's see where we go, eh? ;-)

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Science and Philosophy in the Indian Buddhist Classics
Dalai Lama XIV, Ian Coghlan
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Review - Executioner: Pierrepoint

Executioner Pierrepoint - Albert Pierrepoint

Few books offer an insight into human nature and its multi-faceted existance as the autobiography of Albert Pierrepoint, one of the longest serving and most respected executioners in Britain.


An extremely controversial subject and one which was subject to as much, "fake news," back then as we see in our modern press today.


I was brought to this book by the film which starred Timothy Spall. The American version erroneously subtitles the film, "The last hangman." He wasn't. After his resignation, two others who trained under him performed a number of executions, the last of which was a double hanging at two separate locations; so effectively there was never a last hangman for the record. There are also a number of dramatisations in the film which are not corroborated by the auto-biography.

I never knew the force of the word Jealousy until I was an executioner.

Pierrepoint conveys so much about humanity and society throughout his life, in just a couple of hundred pages. A rare book in this regard.


He goes from historical details...

In 1832 there were two hundred and twenty offences for which the punishment was death. By 1837 the number of capital offences was reduced to fifteen, and in 1861 the death penalty was confined to the offences of murder, treason, piracy with violence, and arson in the Sovereign’s vessels, arsenals and dockyards.

... to commentary on what he saw as inconsistencies in society...

One of the most glaring inconsistencies occurred in September 1922, when on the same day a reprieve on the ground on insanity was granted to the well-connected Ronald True, convicted for a commonplace sordid sexual murder, and simultaneously a reprieve was refused for the page-boy Henry Jacoby, convicted for what, at its worst showing, was a bungled and unpremeditated assault  during the course of an “inside” hotel robbery which led to the deal of Lady White, a well-connected person.”

...to accounts of his family in war time Britain, including personal loss...

My sister Ivy was working at the emergency hospital at Winwick, near Warrington, in Lancashire when the lads came home from Dunkirk. For a considerable time she was on duty in the operating theatre for eighteen hours a day. She was, I know, a great healing influence in the wards. She collapsed and died of exhaustion. All she left was her autograph book. I have it now, with messages and home-made rhymes from men in the South Lancashires, the Green Howards, the Gordon Highlanders, the Royal Artillery, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers.
There was the light-heartedness of youth: a soldier wrote, “Always remember, Ivy,  when you make a bed, make it properly – you may have to share it some day. Lawrence G Royal Horse Artillery, 23.7.40”  To which my sister had later added a postscript: “Some hopes you have, Lawrence. I.O., 27.7.40”

He details his upbringing as being typical of many working families of the time, a childhood made all the more strange, but yet all the more normal, by having a father and uncle who were also executioners. As such, the lure of being able to work at a young age and earn a pay packet was something that he came to regret a little...

I think education is the finest thing in the world. Any money I had I would spend on educating children, and never worry about leaving them money afterwards. I often think about this, the education I have missed.

During his closing years as an executioner, there was an enquiry at which some common assumptions were turned on their heads...

“Have you ever known a case in which it was too much for a woman at the last?”
“I have never known it. I have never seen a man braver than a woman.” But not the sort of glamorous bravery you used to see at the end of a spy film, with a disdainful Mata Hari slinking sexily to the execution post.

...and the final conclusion of the book, which is actually given at the very beginning in the preface, although he does expand on this at the end of the book...

The fruit of my experience has this bitter after-taste: that I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

Pierrepoint was a man who is detailed as taking a silent pride in his work; but not the sort of pride that many might conclude. The book details his explanation of paying respect to the last moments of any human life, no matter what they have done; for they are paying the ultimate price. He recalls the words of his training...

Cap noose pin lever drop. You've got to get it right. There's no allowance for error.

Perhaps the one thing I was looking for in the book, I did not find. Whether his execution of one of his customers and good friend, "Tish," took him to the point where he could no longer accept the duties of the executioner. The explanation for his resignation remains a secret; although who knows if it may be uncovered in years to come as various documents become unsealed. Maybe this will never be known. Who knows. It is certainly painted in the film as being an extremely emotional time for Pierrepoint.


Will we see capital punishment brought back to the UK? I don't know. Society seems to have periods of swinging between extreme conservatism and liberalism, at a much slower rate than we change parties. At the moment there is a rising burning for revenge among the population. Revenge on who... for what... who knows... and perhaps that is the most dangerous type. Hang everybody, and when a load of people are laying dead... then try some introspection as to whether anything has been achieved.


Certainly from my own perspective of learning about humanity, this has been a very worthwhile read.