Executioners were both heroes and villains. Those who carried out the death penalty on despicable crooks earned the support of the mob which turned up to watch. But if the criminal were popular fellow then it was hangman, beware, for the unruly crowd might instantly seek to avenge the death.
It was not uncommon for hangmen to wear masks, false beards or other disguises to protect their identity. The dilemma of the executioner was increased when, in Britain after 1752, the bodies of murderers were destined by law to go under the surgeon’s knife. Enraged family and friends of the victims were likely to pounce as the executioner cut them down to hand the bodies over to the surgeon’s go-between.
On occasion the executioner was even in danger from the person he was hanging. Hannah Dagoe, sentenced to death for robbery, had attacked warders and fellow convicts in jail and turned the full force of her well-built frame on Thomas Turlis as the cart stopped beneath the gallows. It was several frenzied minutes before he could restrain her.
Executioners were also responsible for carrying out other punishments, including flogging. The pay and privileges of the executioner left him financially secure. Apart from the money he was paid, there were many perks, although these were slowely eroded down the years. The hangman was entitled to have the clothing of the condemned and any other property they had on them at the time. If the victim were notorius, these could be sold as souvenirs, along with the rope.
Usually the house came with the job and the hangman was allowed to claim tax from local tradesmen which would keep him in food and fuel. Before the 1752 “Murder Act” illicit deals with surgeons not only disposed of the corpses but helped to line the hangman’s pocket.
Wealthier clients happily tipped their hangman. Some local councils even paid a pension. More than 200 offences carried the death penalty in britain by the end of the 18th century – even the lowly offence of writing on Westminster bridge was a capital crime – so hangmen and headsmen up and down the country had ample work.
This executioners would argue that they had expenses to meet; the cost of assistants, ropes, transport and so forth. He might save some cash with workaday criminals and re-use the rope. It became mandatory to use a new rope for each hanging only in 1890. But there was always the chance of a reprieve for the condemnd man which would have the executioner jobless for a day.
At the start of the 18th century the post was worth about £40 a year. William Calcraft was paid a guinea a week by the City of London plus a guinea for each execution he carried out. Floggings were worth a half-a-crown to him. Calcraft’s reputation took him to other parts of the country, too, and each execution out of London earned him a fat fee. William Marwood earned £10 for each execution – though the number of executions was fast declining as the felonies warranting the death penalty decreased – as well as enjoying a retaining fee.
Famous executioners in Britain in 18th and 19th century
John Price, the hangman and bon viveur who ran up debts and finally turned to robbery. He was himself hanged on 3rd May 1718, a shining example that the detterent effect of capital punishment is over-estimated.
Thomas Turlis, London’s executioner from 1752, first used the platform drop. His successor was Edward Dennis, a man with the lucky star. Dennis, caught up in the anti-catholic riots if 1780, turned looter and was hauled before the courts.The sentence was hanging, as Dennis knew it must be. From his isolation cell in jail he begged that his son might take the job of hangman. But the authorities deemed it inappropriate that a son should be asked to hang his own father. That decision was to be the salvation of Dennis. For, when there was no one to carry out the orders of the court regarding himself and the other rioters, Dennis was released to continue his work.
This was not uncommon. Ned Barlow, the hangman of Lancaster, stood before the courts in March 1806 charged with stealing a horse. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. But who could carry out the sentence? The penalty was changed to a 10-year prison term during which Ned was allowed leave from jail to carry on hangings.
William Brunskill was a former assistant hangman who nevertheless was somewhat short on skill. It took Governor Wall 15 minutes to die after the noose knot slipped behind his neck in an execution at which brunskill officiated. He also hanged Colonel Despard, a famous traitor, and John Bellingham, the assassin of Britain’s Prime Minister Spencer Perceval.
William Calcraft held the executioner’s job for a mammoth 45 years from 1829. Calcraft’s first victim on the gallows was wearing a straight-jacket. Esther Hibber had been so violent since being arrested for the murder of the workhouse child that all around her were in peril. When Calcraft did his duty the crowd rang with chants of “Good old Calcraft” and he was given three cheers!
Calcraft also carried out the last pblic hanging in 1868, that of Michael Barrett in front of Newgate jail. He used such a short lengths of rope that his victims were always painfully strangled. Wearing flamboyant clothes and with a joke or an obscenity on his lips, Calcraft became an unpopular figure.
William Marwood was Calcraft’s successor, the pioneer of the long drop. His friend James Berry took over the post in 1884, to hang 200 prisoners during the eight years he was in office. Berry was deeply religious and became convinced that he had hanged innocent men. After he resigned in 1892 he became a lay preacher and was fervently against capital punishment. He died in 1913 longing to see its abolition in Britain.
Timeline of hanging in Britain
1571 Triple tree at Tyburn first used
1752 Murder Act – permitting bodies to go for dissection by srgeons
1759 Triple tree pulled down
1780 Last execution at Tower Hill
1868 Public hangings abolished
1964 Last person to be hanged in Britain
1969 Capital punishment abolished