The evolution of the “long drop” in the 20th century.

 

With special thanks to Traugott Vitz for his help with this article.

 

Although large strides were made in the science of hanging, particularly in the last quarter of the 19th century, as noted in the previous article, considerable further developments and progress lay ahead, particularly in the first three decades of the 20th century.  All of these were aimed at making death by hanging more humane, quicker and less prone to error.

 

1900 saw 14 executions in England and Wales, but unusually the first two were both of women.  On 9 January French born Louisa Massett was hanged at Newgate for the murder of her four year old son, Manfred.  William Warbrick who assisted at the hanging recorded that Louisa’s hair had turned white in the last 24 hours of her life.  This phenomenon would also be reported in the case of Charlotte Bryant at Exeter in 1936.  Whether this really happened and if it did, over what time period is not known.  It is generally considered to be impossible.

 

24 year old Ada Chard-Williams followed Louisa to the same gallows on 6 March for a “baby farming” murder. She had been convicted of battering and strangling to death 21 month old Selina Ellen Jones at Grove Road, Barnes in London.  She was the last woman to hang at Newgate.  In both cases James Billington was the hangman.  Reporters were not permitted at either execution and the LPC4 forms are not available so there are no details of these women’s deaths, however James Scott, the medical officer, recorded that both Massett and Chard-Williams were given reduced drops and the outcome was satisfactory.

 

In the same letter Scott records the training of William Billington in February 1900, using a life size dummy.  He also noted that the Register of Executions at Newgate, recording 18 hangings there since 1892 showed that only one of the 16 men had been given the drop specified by the 1892 table and this was because the prisoner had attempted suicide by cutting his throat.  In the other 15 cases the drop given was greater, from 1 1/2 inches to 26 inches and in Scott’s opinion in no case was it excessive.  He commented upon the discomfort to the prisoner’s wrists caused by the hard leather pinioning straps and felt that softer leather, such as buckskin should be used.

 

In 1901 the rule requiring tolling of prison bell during executions was amended to only require tolling for 15 minutes after the hanging had been carried out.  Thus the prisoner was spared the sound of it for up to 15 minutes before their hanging, as had been the case for Louisa Masset above, when the bell of St. Sepulchre’s church began tolling at 8.45 a.m.

 

The following year saw the end of the flying of a black flag over the prison after an execution. Bystanders had to content themselves with the posting of the official notices on the prison gates.

 

In December 1901 the Governor of Durham prison sent a memo to the Prison Commission regarding the use of gutta-percha to cover the splice and eyelet of the noose.  In cold weather this material hardens and may crack, the jagged pieces cutting into the prisoner’s neck.  The Prison Commission acknowledged the problem and instructed that the gutta-percha be warmed and kept warm until the hanging.  However the problem recurred and was commented on by the medical officer in the case of Charles Robert Earl who was hanged at Wandsworth on 29 April 1902.  The LPC4 form records that “there was a wound on the right side under the chin, about 2 inches long and a 1/4” deep caused by a splinter from the gutta-percha covering of rope.”  James Knox, the governor, was asked to report on the matter.  Modifications were made to the rope over the next two years.
On December 29, 1903, Emily Swann and John Gallagher were hanged by William Billington at Armley Prison in Leeds for the murder of Emily’s husband.  This would be the last time a man and a woman would be hanged side by side.  Dr. Exley, the medical officer, noted some cutting of the skin of Emily’s neck, caused by the incorrectly positioned sewn seam of the leather covering of the noose.  In January 1904 Brixton Prison reported their findings on the nooses used for the Swann/Gallagher execution.  They noted that the gutta-percha covering the splice was too rigid and prevented the noose conforming perfectly to the shape of the prisoner’s neck.  It was suggested that the gutta-percha might be replaced with tar on the part of the rope that passes round the brass eyelet and that soft leather (white russet hide) be used to cover the splice.  A new pattern rope was made available for inspection in February 1904.  The seam of the leather covering had been repositioned to avoid contact with neck and the length of the gutta-percha covered portion reduced.  The tar idea was abandoned and Edgington & Co. gave their opinion that no further improvement was possible, without a complete re-design.  The revised noose was first used on 29 March, 1904 for the hanging of James Clarkson at Leeds and was considered satisfactory.

 

1902 saw the closure of Newgate prison in London which was no longer considered fit for purpose. Additionally its land was required for the expansion of the Old Bailey court complex. Male executions were transferred to Pentonville prison and female ones to Holloway. George Woolfe became the last to be hanged at Newgate on 6 May of that year for the murder of his girlfriend. A total of 1,120 men and 49 women were executed there (including three women were burnt at the stake for coining) over the 119 year period from 7 November 1783, after the move from Tyburn, to May 1902.

On 30 September 1902, John MacDonald became the first of 120 men to be hanged at London's Pentonville prison. Newgate’s gallows were transferred to Pentonville and an execution shed built adjoining B Wing where two condemned cells had been created.  Pentonville took over the role as the training prison for hangmen.
Also in 1902, Holloway was converted to become London's first female only prison.  On 3 February 1903, the first hangings were carried out in the newly constructed execution shed
at the end of B Wing, when Annie Walters and Amelia Sach, the "Finchley Baby Farmers" became the first of five women to be executed here.  William Billington was the hangman, assisted by Henry Pierrepoint and John Billington.  The LCP4 forms recorded fracture/dislocation of the upper cervical vertebrae in both cases.  This would be the last female double hanging in the UK.

 

The press were still generally permitted to attend male executions up to around the beginning of World War I in most prisons. Thus we have the report of the hanging of Abel Atherton at Durham on the 8 December 1909. Henry Pierrepoint was the executioner. At 7.50 a.m. that Wednesday morning, the Under Sheriff entered the prison with three newspaper reporters who were stationed in front of the execution shed. Atherton was brought to the doctor's room by two warders where his hands were pinioned and then led forward to the gallows in a procession consisting of the Chief Warder, the Chaplain, Atherton, held by a warder on either side, Pierrepoint and his assistant, William Willis, the Principal Warder, the governor, the prison surgeon and finally another warder. All but the Chaplain entered the shed and once Atherton was on the drop, Willis dropped to his knees behind him to pinion his legs while Pierrepoint placed the noose over his head and adjusted it before pulling the white hood over him. (Pierrepoint was unusual in this - all other 20th century hangmen put the hood on first followed by the noose.  This was also in contravention to the Memorandum of Instructions.) As the nearby Assize Courts clock began striking the hour Pierrepoint released the trap giving Atherton a drop of 7 feet 3 inches. The execution was over before the clock finished striking and the press men who looked down into the pit reported that Atherton's death was instantaneous and that he was hanging perfectly still.  The prison bell began tolling and the execution shed was locked up leaving Atherton suspended on the rope for the customary hour. The official notice of the execution was posted on the prison gate and an inquest carried out later in the morning.

 

In most cases the hangmen gave drops significantly greater in the early 20th century than those specified in the 1892 table.  From surviving LPC4 forms just two cases of asphyxia can be found, even though in both instances there was also some dislocation of the vertebrae.  They were 57 year old Samuel Herbert Dougal who was hanged at Chelmsford by William Billington and John Ellis on 14 July 1903.  It may be that Billington reduced the drop slightly in view of Dougal’s age.  The second instance was that of 23 year old Alfred Stratton who was hanged at Wandsworth on 23 May 1905 by John Billington and Henry Pierrepoint.  Stratton’s drop of seven feet six inches was one foot ten inches more than specified in the 1892 table and would have produced an energy of 1103 ft. lbs. for his weight of 147 lbs.  This should have been adequate and did produce dislocation of the 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae. No untoward circumstances were noted.  Beside Alfred on the drop was his younger brother, Albert, whose neck also showed evidence of fracture/dislocation of the 4th and 5th cervical vertebrae.  There were no signs of asphyxia in his case.

 

Finally in 1913 the Prison Commission issued a new table of drops, as under.  In all cases an energy of around 1000 ft. lbs. would be developed, or 160 ft. lbs. more than the 1892 table provided.  As previously the actual drop given was frequently greater than specified in the table and typically produced an energy in the 1040 - 1100 ft. lbs. range.

 

Weight of culprit lbs.

Drop in Feet & inches

Energy developed

ft. lbs.

118

8' 6"

1003

120

8' 4"

1000

125

8' 0"

1000

130

7' 8"

996

135

7' 5"

1001

140

7' 2"

1003

145

6' 11"

1003

150

6' 8"

999

155

6' 5"

995

160

6' 3"

1000

165

6' 1"

1004

170

5' 10"

992

175

5' 8"

991

180

5' 7"

1005

185

5' 5"

1002

190

5' 3"

998

195

5' 2"

1008

200

5' 0"

1000

 

It was rare for a drop of more than eight feet six inches to be given, although it did happen.  Walter Brooks was a diminutive man, just five feet one and a half inches tall and weighing 110 lbs.  Thomas Pierrepoint gave him a drop of eight feet ten inches, at Strangeways on 28 June 1928, resulting in fracture/dislocation of the second and third cervical vertebrae.  Thomas Pierrepoint gave John Joseph Dorgan a drop of nine feet two inches at Wandsworth on 22 December 1943.  Dorgan weighed 113 lbs and stood 5’ 3.5” high.

 

In only one instance, using the new table, does a surviving LPC4 form record evidence of asphyxia.  This is of Dorothea Waddingham who was hanged at Winson Green prison in Birmingham by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his nephew, Albert on 16 March 1936.  The form gives both fracture/dislocation and asphyxia as the causes of death.  “Nurse” Waddingham weighed 123.5 lbs and was given a drop of eight feet five inches, which should have been sufficient.

By coincidence, Charlotte Bryant was the same weight as Dorothea Waddingham and was given the same drop, by the same hangman, at Exeter three months later.  Her form records only fracture/dislocation.

 

Albert Pierrepoint, in his autobiography describes in detail his four day training course at Pentonville in 1932.  His tutor was the prison engineer and the “prisoner” was a life size dummy known as “Old Bill”.  The routine of “draw on the white cap, adjust the noose, whip out the pin, push the lever” was endlessly repeated.  Note that the lever was pushed, not pulled.  “Cap, noose ,pin, push, drop” was the mantra.  The engineer required Albert and fellow trainee, Stanley Cross, to practice and speed up the procedure, until they could perform all the necessary actions in around 15 seconds.  The 1913 Home Office drop table had been given to them, but they were told they had to use their own judgement too, in setting the drop length for each individual prisoner and that mistakes would not be tolerated.

 

From around 1939 an extra nine inches was added to the drop to produce an energy of around 1100 ft. lbs.  Strangely a revised table was never issued.

 

The realities of the hanging of Edith Thompson remain shrouded in mystery.  About the only things we can be certain of is that she was executed by John Ellis on 9 January 1923 at Holloway.  It has been variously stated that she fainted and had to be carried to the execution shed and that she was dragged screaming to it.  Elizabeth Cronin, who was deputy governor of Holloway and was present at the time, refuted these claims.  This is supported by a statement in the Commons, reported in Hansard of 27 March 1956, by then Home Secretary, Major Lloyd-George, stating that Edith was sedated and thus had to be carried to the gallows and supported on it.  Major Lloyd-George told Parliament that he had examined all the available evidence and concluded that nothing untoward happened.
According to René Weis’ book The True Story of Edith Thompson, Dr. John Hall Morton who was both the governor and medical officer of Holloway decided to give Edith the following medications.  She had major mood swings even up to the morning of execution as she expected to be reprieved all along, so at 8.15 a.m., 45 minutes before her death, she was injected with 1/32 grain (2 mg,) of strychnine and at 8.40 a.m. she was given 1/100 grain of scopalmine-morphine (Purlight sleep) and 1/6 grain of morphia (10.8 mg.).  At the stated dose strychnine is a tonic and the other drugs would have sedated her with there maximum effect being reached after 20 minutes, hence why she was semi-conscious at the time of execution.
The LPC4 form gives fracture/dislocation as the cause of death and mentions bruising of the neck from the rope.  However it does not mention that there was allegedly a considerable amount of blood dripping from between her legs after the hanging. Some, including Bernard Spilsbury the famous pathologist who carried out the autopsy on her, claim it was caused by her being pregnant and miscarrying whilst others claim it was due to inversion of the uterus . Edith had been in custody for over three months before the execution so would have probably known if she was pregnant.  Under English law, the execution would have been staid until after she had given birth. In practice, she would have almost certainly been reprieved. She had everything to gain from claiming to be pregnant so it is surprising that she didn't if she had indeed missed two or three periods. However, she had aborted herself earlier and this may have damaged her uterus which combined with the force of the drop caused it to invert. The bleeding may equally have been the start of a heavy period. Research done in Germany during World War II on a large number of condemned women showed that menstruation was often interrupted by the stress of being tried and sentenced to death but could be brought on by the shock of being informed of the actual date of the execution, which in Edith's case was likely to have been only one or two days before she was hanged. Whatever the truth, this hanging seemed to have a profound effect on all those present.  Several of the prison officers took early retirement. John Ellis would carry out 11 more hangings, including that of Susan Newell, before he retired at the end of 1923.

Whatever the truth of this, it led to the introduction of special underwear for women to be hanged in.  It is variously reported that these underpants were made from rubberised canvas or calico and had short legs, extending some way down the thighs.  It has also been suggested that there was a leather lining in the crotch area and that this may have been in the form of an inverted bowl to prevent the uterus inverting.  I have not been able to find an official source for the specifications and materials for this underwear.  The first woman to suffer this new indignity was Susan Newell, who was hanged in Glasgow’s Duke Street prison on 10 October 1923.  There would be a further ten women in the UK up to 1955 and another ten in Germany hanged as war criminals, who would also be subjected to it.

 

In 1932 a revised Memorandum of Instructions was issued, as under.

Memorandum of Instructions for carrying out the details of an Execution

 

1. The trap doors shall be stained a dark colour and their outer edges shall be defined by a white line three inches broad painted round the edge of the pit outside the traps.

2. On the day preceding an execution the apparatus for the execution shall be tested in the following manner under the supervision of the Works Officer, the Governor being present:-

The working of the scaffold will first be tested without any weight. Then a bag of sand of the same weight as the culprit will be attached to the rope and so adjusted as to allow the bag a drop equal to, or rather more than, that which the culprit should receive, so that the rope may be stretched with a force of about 1,000 foot-pounds. The working of the apparatus under these conditions will then be tested. The bag must be of the approved pattern, with a thick and well-padded neck, so as to prevent any injury to the rope and leather. As the gutta-percha round the thimble of the execution ropes hardens in cold weather, care should be taken to have it warmed and manipulated immediately before the bag is tested.

3. After the completion of this testing the scaffold and all the appliances will be locked up, and the key kept by the Governor or other responsible officer until the morning of the execution; but the bag of sand should remain suspended all the night preceding the execution, so as to take the stretch out of the rope.

4. The executioner and any persons appointed to assist in the operation should make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the working of the apparatus.

5. In order to prevent accidents during the preliminary tests and procedure the lever will be fixed by a safety-pin, and the Works or other Prison Officer charged with the care of the apparatus prior to the execution will be responsible that the pin is properly in position. The responsibility for withdrawing the pin at the execution will rest on the executioner.

6. Death by hanging ought to result from dislocation of the neck. The length of the drop will be determined in accordance with the attached “Table of Drops.”

7. The required length of drop is regulated as follows:

(a) At the end of the rope which forms the noose the executioner should see that 13 inches from the centre of the ring are marked off by a line painted round the rope; this is to be a fixed quantity, which, with the stretching of this portion of the rope and the lengthening of the neck and body of the culprit, will represent the average depth of the head and circumference of the neck after constriction.

(b) About two hours before the execution the bag of sand will be raised out of the pit and be allowed another drop so as to completely stretch the rope. Then while the bag of sand is still suspended, the executioner will measure off from the painted line on the rope the required length of drop, and will make a chalk mark on the rope at the end of this length. A piece of copper wire fastened to the chain will now be stretched down the rope till it reaches the chalk mark, and will be cut off there so that the cut end of the copper wire shall terminate at the upper end of the [page break in the facsimile] measured length of drop. The bag of sand will be then raised from the pit, and disconnected from the rope. The chain will now be so adjusted at the bracket that the lower end of the copper wire shall reach the same level from the floor of the scaffold as the height of the prisoner. The known height of the prisoner can be readily measured on the scaffold by a graduated rule of six foot long. When the chain has been raised to the proper height, the cotter must be securely fixed through the bracket and chain. The executioner will now make a chalk mark on the floor of the scaffold, in a plumb line with the chain, where the prisoner should stand.

(c) These details will be carried out as soon as possible after 6 a.m. so as to allow the rope time to regain a portion of its elasticity before the execution, and, if possible, the gutta-percha on the rope should again be warmed.

8. The copper wire will now be detached, and after allowing sufficient amount of rope for the easy adjustment of the noose, the slack of the rope should be fastened to the chain above the level of the head of the culprit with a pack-thread. The pack-thread should be just strong enough to support the rope without breaking.

9. When all the preparations are completed the scaffold should remain in the charge of a responsible officer while the executioner goes to the pinioning room.

10. The pinioning apparatus will be applied in some room or place as close as practicable to the scaffold. When the culprit is pinioned and his neck is bared he will be at once conducted to the scaffold.

11. On reaching the scaffold the procedure will be as follows:–

(1) The executioner will:-

(i) Place the culprit exactly under the part of the beam to which the rope is attached.

(ii) Put on the white linen cap.

(iii) Put on the rope round the neck quite tightly (with the cap between the rope and the neck), the metal eye being directed forwards, and placed in front of the angle of the lower jaw, so that with the constriction of the neck it may come underneath the chin. The noose should be kept tight by means of a stiff leather washer, or an india-rubber washer, or a wedge.

(2) While the executioner is carrying out the procedure in paragraph (1) the assistant executioner will:-

(i) Strap the culprit's legs tightly.

(ii) Step back beyond the white safety line so as to be well clear of the trap doors.

(iii) Give an agreed visual signal to the executioner to show that he is clear.

(3) On receipt of the signal from his assistant the executioner will:-

(i) Withdraw the safety pin.

(ii) Pull the lever which lets down the trap doors.

12. The culprit should hang one hour, and then the body will be carefully raised from the pit. The rope will be removed from the neck, and also the straps from the body. In laying out the body for the inquest, the head will be raised three inches by placing a small piece of wood under it.

 

As the 20th century progressed executions became increasingly secretive with reporters and witnesses being excluded.  The last time a newspaper reporter was present was in 1934.  On Friday 4 May, Albert Probert, 26 and Frederick William Parker, 21,were executed, side by side, by Tom Pierrepoint, at Wandsworth.  W.G. Finch, chief crime reporter of the Press Association, witnessed the hangings.  The Prison Commission sent a stiffly worded letter to the Under Sheriff of Sussex, prohibiting admission of reporters in future.  Newspapers still reported executions but now all they were able to say was the named prisoner(s) was hanged yesterday at named prison for the murder of ….  In the late 19th century newspapers had reported every detail of hangings.

 

Alfred Allen assisted at 14 hangings and acted as executioner at three more between 1932 and 1937.  In the last two cases, Frederick Field at Wandsworth on 30 June 1936 and Frederick Murphy at Pentonville on 17 August 1937, the spinal cord was not crushed or severed, due to Allen effectively botching the execution by putting the noose on with the eyelet facing towards the back of the neck.  He was removed from the official list on 24 August 1937.

 

In 1942, the plain rubber washer to hold the eyelet of the noose in place was replaced with an internally star shaped one which gripped the rope better. The gutta-percha covering the rope over the attachment eye to the chain was omitted in 1952. In 1955 it was omitted from the noose end and replaced with vulcanised rubber which obviated the problem with splintering. The rope continued to be stretched before use, by dropping a sandbag of approximately the same weight as the prisoner through the trap and leaving it suspended overnight. This reduced its diameter to about 5/8 inch. The purpose of this was to remove most of the stretch in the rope prior to the execution, because stretch at the end of the drop would reduce the force applied to the prisoner's neck.

In November 1948 the Labour government set up a Royal Commission on Capital Punishment to look at all aspects of the U.K. death penalty, under the chairmanship of Sir Ernest Gowers.
A change was recommended where a double hanging was to take place – that there should be an executioner and assistant for each prisoner instead of one executioner having to hood and noose both prisoners with inevitable delay.  The last double hanging took place in 1954 and after that, where required, the two prisoners were executed at the same time in different prisons. Cremation after execution was recommended in place of burial within the prison grounds.  Neither of these recommendations took effect.  A detailed analysis of the this report is here.

Those giving evidence to the Commission frequently emphasised their belief that execution should be rapid, clean and dignified.  It was concluded that hanging as described and demonstrated by Albert Pierrepoint to the Commission members on a visit to Wandsworth on 2 November 1950 came closest to this model.  They determined that British style hanging was still the best available method of execution.

Executions still did not always go exactly to plan.  When Harry Kirk hanged Norman Goldthorpe at Norwich on 24 November 1950 for the murder of 66 year old Emma Howe at Yarmouth, snorting sounds were heard coming from him after the drop. This was due to the hood becoming stuck in the eyelet of the noose.  Apparently the rope was new and the rubber washer was stiff.  Acting in haste, Kirk did not close it fully against the eyelet.  As the rope tightened it pulled a fold of the hood into the eyelet, jamming it.  The LPC4 form records that there was fracture/dislocation between the 1st and 2nd cervical vertebrae but that it was not as complete as usual and that there was a 2 1/2 inch long, 1/2 inch deep cut immediately below the point of the chin.   This was Kirk's first and last hanging as principal.

Condemned Suites.

From the early 1920’s new “Condemned Suites” began to be constructed in those prisons which were to continue to have executions.  As the transport infrastructure improved, it became unnecessary for every county prison to have its own condemned cell and gallows.  By the end of World War II there would be just eighteen prisons in England and Wales with execution facilities.  In London, there was Holloway for women only, Pentonville serving North London, Essex and Hertfordshire.  Wandsworth, serving South London, Kent, Sussex and Surrey.  The other towns and cities to retain a facility were Bedford, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds, Leicester, Lincoln, Liverpool, Manchester, Norwich, Oxford, Shrewsbury, Swansea and Winchester. 

In Scotland there was a similar reduction, with just Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Glasgow retaining their gallows.  Typically when a person was sentenced to death at a County Assize they were transferred to the nearest prison with a condemned suite.

 

The condemned suite was normally constructed within a wing of the prison on three floors.  The top floor housed the twin beams with the brackets for the chains and was reached via a permanent wall ladder from the gallows room.  This arrangement was much safer for the hangman and obviated the need for him to balance on a step-ladder to attach the rope and set the drop. 
The first floor contained one or two condemned cells, with a full bathroom and a visiting area with a glass partition.  The condemned cell was typically the size of two or three standard cells and contained the prisoner’s bed and a table and chairs. A wardrobe was placed in front of the door to the execution room which was slid out of the way immediately prior to the hanging.  The trap doors were usually just 12-15 feet from this doorway.

On the ground floor was a the drop room into which the trap doors opened and in the three London prisons, at least, there was an autopsy room immediately adjacent to it.  This room was reached by stairs concealed beneath a second trap door in the execution room and had access to the exterior for removal of the body for inquest and burial.

Holloway, Pentonville and Wandsworth in London all used this arrangement as did Barlinnie, Durham, Strangeways and Walton prisons.

 

One of the advantages of the condemned suite was that it considerably speeded up the process.  In the first two decades of the 20th century it was not unusual for a hanging to take between one minute and one and a half minutes to carry out where the prisoner had to walk from the condemned cell to the outside execution shed.  These times being from when the hangman arrived at the condemned cell to the prisoner being suspended.  By reducing the distance the person had to walk to their doom to the minimum, the time reduced to around 15 seconds. Simplifying the pinioning process also helped reduce the time taken.  By now there was just a simple strap around the wrists, applied in the condemned cell by the hangman and another around the ankles, applied by the assistant on the trap doors, while the hangman was putting on the hood and noose.  These improvements minimised the risk of the prisoner fainting at the last moment.

 

The fastest executions ever recorded were as follows: At Strangeways on 8 May 1951, Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Sid Dernly, had to almost run with James Inglis from the condemned cell the few steps to the gallows. Just seven seconds later his lifeless body was dangling in the cell below. Sid Dernley recalls in his memoirs that Inglis tried to help Pierrepoint pinion his arms and was smiling when they entered the condemned cell.  Inglis had been convicted of the murder of 50 year old Alice Morgan, whom he had battered and strangled to death. Alice was a prostitute and she and Inglis quarrelled over payment for her services.  Harry B. Allen noted in his personal diary that the execution of Walter Cross by Albert Pierrepoint on 19 February 1948 at Pentonville took only six seconds. The hanging of Solomon Stein by Thomas Pierrepoint at Strangeways on 15 December 1931 reportedly took just five seconds from the time Stein was pinioned to the drop falling.  Things were not always this quick however.

 

George Kelly was convicted of the murders of Leonard Thomas and Bernard Catterall at the Cameo Cinema in Liverpool in 1949. He was hanged on 28 March 1950 by Albert Pierrepoint.  His conviction was quashed in 2003 and as a result his body was exhumed from its grave in Walton prison.  A post-mortem discovered that the first cervical vertebra was fractured but there was no fracture of the second cervical vertebra. Albert Pierrepoint has been quoted as stating that the hanging of Kelly “took longer than it should have” (Dernley and Newman, 1989) although no actual time was quoted.  It has also been claimed that Kelly soiled himself on the way to the gallows.  The LPC4 form for Kelly reflects neither event.

 

Albert Pierrepoint was by far the most prolific hangman of the 20th century having been assistant or principal at the hangings of 434 people including 16 women in his 24 years of service in this country and abroad. His tally of executions was greatly increased as a result of World War II, working in Germany (200 executions) and other countries, including Egypt (4 hangings), Gibraltar (2 hangings) and Graz-Karlau in Austria (8 hangings). In England and Wales Albert assisted at 29 hangings and carried out 138 civilian executions for murder as principal, including those of the last four women to hang. He carried out nine hangings in Scotland between 1948 and 1954.  With his uncle Tom he carried out/assisted at the hangings of 16 US servicemen at Shepton Mallet during the war.  Albert hanged 14 men convicted of espionage and Treason during and immediately after World War II. These included John Amery, who told Albert that he had always wanted to meet him, as he was about to be led to the gallows at Wandsworth on the 19th December 1945 and Nazi propagandist "Lord Haw-Haw," real name William Joyce, at Wandsworth for treason on the 3 January, 1946. Theodore Schurch became the last person to be executed for treason in Britain when Albert hanged him at Pentonville on the 4 January, 1946.

 

Albert Pierrepoint hanged 190 male and 10 female Nazi war criminals in batches at Hameln prison in the British controlled sector of Germany after World War II.  It was deemed impractical to leave each prisoner hanging for a whole hour, as required by the 1932 Memorandum of Instructions.  To reduce this time, F.E. Buckland, the assistant director of pathology British Army of the Rhine, proposed that the attending medical officer would inject 10cc of chloroform into the prisoner 30 seconds after the drop had been given.  It was found that if the chloroform was injected directly into the heart it immediately stopped beating and if injected intravenously into the arm the heart would stop in seconds.  This procedure was first used at the execution of 10 men and three women on 13 December, 1945. Analysis found, that although the prisoners were rendered unconscious by the drop, the heart could continue to beat for up to 25 minutes after execution.  The reason that the heart beats for some time after the drop is because of the sinoatrial node.  This is located in the upper wall of the right atrium and is referred to as the heart’s pacemaker. Its action generates nerve impulses that travel throughout the heart wall causing both atria to contract.
On the 8th of March 1946 Albert Pierrepoint hanged eight men at Hameln and it was decided not to inject chloroform. The prison doctor listened to their hearts with a stethoscope in the normal way and recorded his results. These showed that it took between 10 and 15 minutes for audible heart beats to cease. On 15 May 1946 a further ten executions were carried out and this time the condemned were wired up to an electrocardiograph, which recorded the electrical activity of the heart. It showed that impulses were produced for a further ten minutes; taking the total time to 25 minutes.  Two of the men had re-started breathing and had had to be injected with chloroform. In one case, this took place 7 1/2 minutes after execution.  One of the men weighed a mere 112 lbs and Pierrepoint gave him a drop of 8’ 8” which would have produced an energy of 970 ft. lbs.  It is thought that this is the last time chloroform was used.

Double hangings.

Up to 1954 where two persons were convicted of the same murder they could be hanged at the side by side on the same gallows.  I say could because the under-sheriff and the governor could also decide that it would be better to carry out the executions separately with a one and a half hour interval between them or simultaneously in different prisons as was the case with Edith Thompson (Holloway) and Frederick Bywaters (Pentonville).

Britain’s last double side by side hanging took place at Pentonville on Thursday, 17 June 1954, when 22 year old Kenneth Gilbert and 24 year old Ian Grant were executed for the murder of George Smart, the hotel night porter at Aban Court Hotel in Kensington, London.  For this execution Albert Pierrepoint had three assistants, Joe Broadbent, Harry Smith and Royston Rickard.  Three assistants were normal for double hangings.  Harry Smith led one man to the gallows while Albert took the other.  Joe Broadbent and Royston Rickard pinioned their legs and Albert applied the hoods and nooses to both and pushed the lever.  While still quick, it meant that one man had to stand there, pinioned, hooded and noosed while the final preparations were made to the other man.  The 1953 Royal Commission recommended that there should be an executioner and assistant for each prisoner instead of one executioner having to deal with each in turn with inevitable delay.  Double executions were outlawed as part of the Homicide Act of 1957.  Strangely the last four men hanged in England were executed simultaneously in two pairs, but in different prisons.  They were Russell Pascoe at Bristol and Dennis Whitty at Winchester on 17 December 1963 and Peter Anthony Allen at Liverpool’s Walton prison and Gwynne Owen Evans at Manchester’s Strangeways prison on 13 August 1964.

 

Prior to 1957 the prisoner was still left on the rope for a whole hour.  One of the recommendations of the 1953 Royal Commission was that the body of the prisoner be taken down after the Medical Officer had certified death and not be left hanging for an hour.  Normally heart action would cease, at the latest, in 20 minutes and usually far sooner.  However at the execution of Joseph Chrimes, on 28 April 1959 at Pentonville, the body was removed from the noose shortly after the execution had been carried out and when examined by the prison doctor was found to be showing signs of life.  Chrimes had to be re-suspended until his heart ceased to beat.  It is notable that 19 year old Herbert Mills, the last man to be hanged at Lincoln in 1951, is reported to have had heart action continue for 20 minutes after the drop fell.  As a result a new Memorandum of Instructions was issued in 1959 which specified in Paragraph 12 that the body should henceforth be left on the rope for 45 minutes to ensure that life was extinct.

This Memorandum remained in force until abolition and is reproduced below in full.

 

Memorandum of Instructions for carrying out an Execution

 

1. The trap doors shall be stained a dark colour and their outer edges shall be defined by a white line three inches broad painted round the edge of the pit outside the traps.

2. (a) A week before an execution the apparatus for the execution shall be

tested in the following manner under the supervision of the Works Officer, the Governor being present:-

The working of the scaffold will first be tested without any weight. Then a bag of dry sand of the same weight as the culprit will be attached to the rope and so adjusted as to allow the bag a drop equal to, or rather more than, that which the culprit should receive, so that the rope may be stretched with a force of not more than 1,000 foot-pounds. See Table of Drops. The working of the apparatus under these conditions will then be tested. The bag must be of the approved pattern, with a thick and well-padded neck, so as to prevent any injury to the rope and leather. Towelling will be supplied for padding the neck of the bag under the noose. As the gutta-percha round the noose end of the execution ropes hardens in cold weather, care should be taken to have it warmed and manipulated immediately before the bag is tested.

(b) On the day before the execution the apparatus shall be tested again as above, the Governor, the Works Officer and the executioner being present. For the purpose of this test a note of the height and weight of the culprit should be obtained from the Medical Officer and handed to the executioner.

3. After the completion of each test the scaffold and all the appliances will be locked up, and the key kept by the Governor or other responsible officer; but the bag of sand should remain suspended all the night preceding the execution, so as to take the stretch out of the rope.

4. The executioner and any persons appointed to assist in the operation should make themselves thoroughly acquainted with the working of the apparatus.

5. In order to prevent accidents during the preliminary tests and procedure the lever will be fixed by a safety-pin, and the Works or other Prison Officer charged with the care of the apparatus prior to the execution will be responsible for seeing that the pin is properly in position both before and after the tests. The responsibility for withdrawing the pin at the execution will rest on the executioner.

6. Death by hanging ought to result from dislocation of the neck. The length of the drop will be determined in accordance with the attached Table of Drops.

7. The required length of drop is regulated as follows:

(a) At the end of the rope which forms the noose the executioner should see that 13 inches from the centre of the ring are marked off by twine wrapped round the covering; this is to be a fixed quantity, which, with the stretching of this portion of the rope, and the lengthening of the neck and body of the culprit, will represent the average depth of the head and circumference of the neck after constriction.

(b) While the bag of sand is still suspended, the executioner will measure off from the twine wrapped round the rope the required length of drop, and will make a chalk mark on the rope at the end of this length. A piece of copper wire fastened to the chain will now be stretched down the rope till it reaches the chalk mark, and will be cut off there so that the cut end of the copper wire shall terminate at the upper end of the measured length of drop. The bag of sand will be then raised from the pit, and disconnected from the rope.

The chain will now be so adjusted at the bracket that the lower end of the copper wire shall reach to the same level from the floor of the scaffold as the height of the prisoner. The known height of the prisoner can be readily measured on the scaffold by a graduated rule of six foot six inches long. When the chain has been raised to the proper height the cotter must be securely fixed through the bracket and chain. The executioner will now make a chalk mark on the floor of the scaffold, in a plumb line with the chain, where the prisoner should stand.

(c) These details will be attended to as soon as possible after 6 a.m. on the day of the execution so as to allow the rope time to regain a portion of its elasticity before the execution, and if possible, the gutta-percha on the rope should again be warmed.

8. The copper wire will now be detached, and after allowing sufficient amount of rope for the easy adjustment of the noose, the slack of the rope should be fastened to the chain above the level of the head of the culprit with a pack-thread. The pack-thread should be just strong enough to support the rope without breaking.

9. When all the preparations are completed the scaffold should remain in charge of a responsible officer until the time fixed for the execution.

10. At the time fixed for the execution, the executioner will go to the pinioning room, which should be as close as practicable to the scaffold, and there apply the apparatus. When the culprit is pinioned and his neck is bared he will be at once conducted to the scaffold.

11. On reaching the scaffold the procedure will be as follows:–

(a) The executioner will:-

(i) Place the culprit exactly under the part of the beam to which the rope is attached.

(ii) Put the white linen cap on the culprit.

(iii) Put on the rope round the neck quite tightly (with the cap between the rope and the neck), the metal eye being directed forwards, and placed in front of the angle of the lower jaw, so that with the constriction of the neck it may come underneath the chin. The noose should be kept tight by means of a stiff leather washer, or an india-rubber washer, or a wedge.

(b) While the executioner is carrying out the procedure in paragraph (a) the assistant executioner will:-

(i) Strap the culprit's legs tightly.

(ii) Step back beyond the white safety line so as to be well clear of the trap doors.

(iii) Give an agreed visual signal to the executioner to show that he is clear.

(c) On receipt of the signal from his assistant the executioner will:-

(i) Withdraw the safety pin.

(ii) Pull the lever which lets down the trap doors.

12. The body will hang for a minimum of 45 minutes and then be carefully raised from the pit provided the Medical Officer declares life to be extinct. Then the body will be detached from the rope and removed to the place set aside for the Coroner's inspection, a careful record having first been made and given to the Medical Officer of both the initial and final drops. The rope will be removed from the neck, and also the straps from the body. In laying out the body for the inquest, the head will be raised three inches by placing a small piece of wood under it.

 

Abolition.

After the suspension of the death penalty by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act which passed into law on 8 November 1965, capital punishment was effectively abolished in the UK.  This Act provided for another vote on the subject "within five years."  On 16 and 18 of December 1969 the House of Commons and House of Lords respectively confirmed abolition of capital punishment for murder. Treason, piracy with violence and arson in Royal Dockyards remained capital crimes until 1998 but there had been no executions for any of these offences since January 1946.

 

Only three more men of British origin would be hanged.  They were Kevin Barlow (along with Australian Brian Chambers) who was put to death in Malaysia's Pudu prison in Kuala Lumpur on 7 July 1986 for drug trafficking.  Derek Gregory was also to hang for drug trafficking on 21 July 1989, in Malaysia.  The final member of this trio was John Martin Scripps who was hanged for murder, in Singapore’s Changi prison on 16 April 1996.
Hanging remains the most widely used form of execution in the 21st century with nearly 800 executions in 11 countries during the first eight months of 2015.  230 of these utilised a “long drop” although the basis for calculating it in each country is unknown.

 

Back to Contents Page.  The evolution of long drop hanging in the 19th century.