.

Albert Pierrrepoint (1905-1992) served as one of Great
Britain’s chief executioners from 1931 to 1956, during
which time he hanged over 500 persons. All the names
and events mentioned here are real.

My father and my uncle had the job.
I learned from both of them those little things
That one should know in any skilled profession:
How body weight and length of rope must match;
How fast the drop must be so that a noose
Will snap a neck just at “the hangman’s joint”
And kill the convict quickly; how to bind
Both hands and feet securely, but not tight.

I hanged both men and women, old and young—
Almost all for murder, but there were
Some traitors and war criminals as well.
In Germany, in 1945,
Eleven times I pulled the trap-door latch
(The most I ever sent off in one day).

Once I hanged a friend—my mate James Corbitt
Who killed his mistress. I had bought him drinks
At the local pub. He called me “Tosh”
And I in friendly banter called him “Tish.”
The morning of his execution came
And I went to his cell to bring him out.
I asked “How are you, Tish?” The chap smiled back
And answered “I’m well, Tosh. Let’s get this done.”

I looked upon each hanging as a trust—
A sacred task that I did for the Crown
And for the larger ends of human justice.
Deterrence? No, that’s just a lame excuse.
Murder and treason go on endlessly,
Part of the corruption of our nature,
Perennial as avarice or lust
Or any of the other deadly sins.
We always need the Hangman, for he gives
Catharsis, retribution, and revenge—
The necessary balms for outraged souls.
Hanging makes justice real and tangible,
And not a vague abstraction in the mind.

Some of those I hanged I could not stand—
Like Derek Bentley, a retarded sod.
He killed an unarmed constable who sought
To apprehend him in a burglary.
But others I felt pity for: Ruth Ellis,
Who shot her vicious and abusive husband.
Each case had a story of its own
But my job was to execute the law,
And send them down that trap-door to their deaths.
My feelings had no bearing on the task.

The strangest case was one that hinged upon
Two murders at 10 Rillington in London.
A mother and her infant child found dead:
The father—one Tim Evans—seemed to blame.
He was a half-wit who could hardly read
And made a vague admission to the act.
He was convicted, and I swung him out
In March of 1950. Three years passed.
Police discovered the real murderer
Was one John Christie, the Evanses’ landlord.
In July of 1953
I placed the noose on Christie’s guilty neck.
Before I pulled the latch, he said to me
“My nose is itchy. Please, I need to scratch it.”
I said “Don’t worry—in a few brief seconds
Your itchy nose won’t trouble you at all.”
Then I sprung the trap-door and he fell.
I thought I’ve done my best to make amends
For the mistake that sent off poor Tim Evans.

That mistake put pillocks in a rage.
You know the type: the Labourite MPs,
The Nonconformist clergymen, the gits
Who prate of socialism, human rights,
Progress, advancement, and enlightened thought.
They outlawed the gallows, I retired,
And now you have the Britain you deserve.

More crime? No, the crimes are always there.
What’s missing is societal response:
The sense that outrage calls for broken necks,
That murder, treachery, and violation
Evoke vindictiveness, not mewling mercy.
Capital crimes demand severe reprisals.
Absent the gallows, law is a mere joke
As meaningless as penny-ante poker.
An execution makes life sacred through
The ritual solemnity of death.
If life is precious, let it be the price
We ask for violation of those things
That make a life worth living. Without me
Existence is mere pretense, just a string
Of futile, childish, unimportant acts:
Pointless, inconsequential, and inane.

.

.

Joseph S. Salemi has published five books of poetry, and his poems, translations and scholarly articles have appeared in over one hundred publications world-wide.  He is the editor of the literary magazine Trinacria and writes for Expansive Poetry On-line. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at New York University and in the Department of Classical Languages at Hunter College.


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19 Responses

  1. Lawrence Fray

    A poem that provokes much reflection. Well written, Mr. Salemi.
    Many years ago my mother used to say that she knew Pierrepoint as she and my father frequented his public house in Oldham, Lancashire, to which the locals had given the fitting nickname of ‘The Last Drop’. Such is bleak Lancashire humour!

    Reply
  2. James Sale

    A fine poem on a topic completely under-examined – and as the poem points out, appropriated by the virtue-signallers and woke everywhere as a sign of their ‘enlightenment’. Indeed, the real criminal ‘rot’ in the UK began its abolition. It was estimated (in an article in The Listener) some 20 innocent people has been hanged between 1947 and about 1967; and that in the succeeding 20 years from 1967 to 1987 some 200+ innocent people had been murdered by convicted murderers who had not been hanged but let out! So much for progress. Nice one, Joe – as trenchant and eloquent as usual.

    Reply
  3. David Watt

    A well written poem which presents an unfashionable point of view. It is difficult to argue with an executioner whose experience leads him to believe that carrying out his grisly duty reaffirms the sanctity of life.

    Reply
  4. D.G. Rowe

    Well, what a ballsy, unique, subject to approach.

    Capital Punishment was never about being a deterrent. It annoys me when folk parrot this narrative when speaking on the Noose. It is retribution, and should be so. Eye-for-an-eye.
    Mistakes are a crying shame, and it’s difficult to witness them with a steeled eye and mind.

    It poses, perhaps, to one who wishes to indulge in such, a curious philosophical question: Which is more galling to witness? A wrong conviction for murder leading to Capital Punishment; or a cosy life ( in British Prisons, at least ) for the unequivocal conviction for the malicious murder of a child. (some-times these types don’t even get life)

    There is a difficult fine line, as in the case of Ruth Ellis, did she deserve the Noose, I don’t think so, some folk can be driven to murder justifiably, or find themselves in a bar fight and some-one gets knocked out for life, or a Father driven to met out his own retribution for abuses committed against his family.

    Anyhow, well approached, Mr Salemi. Reminds me of the open blank verse structure of Coleridge’s “Conversational Poems”.

    Cheers.

    Reply
  5. Daniel Kemper

    A conversational piece to be sure: Great topic, great ire and indignation.

    I think capital punishment is for deterrence, but perhaps not to much effect in the modern world. It seems to me that it has to be done publicly and with immediacy to function that way.

    First person seems a potent tool for this one. One off hand question: did he take tips?

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      An old Southern expression:

      “There never was a corpse done give the undertaker a tip.”

      Quoted by Flannery O’Connor in her story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”

      Reply
      • Daniel Kemper

        True enough; however, wasn’t it a real thing in history– tipping the executioner? The idea was that he was going to really butcher and torture without his tip…

        But a tip yielded a clean, quick job.

      • Joseph S. Salemi

        I have heard the story, but I’m not sure it’s true. Sometimes a person before execution would publicly forgive the executioner, as way to to show that no personal malice was held (as did Thomas More at his beheading). In any case, Pierrepoint received an adequate payment from the Crown for every single hanging he carried out.

        Sloppy or botched executions in the past were more likely due lack of expertise in the executioner, unsharp weapons, or an unforeseen mishap. This occurred at the execution of the Duke of Monmouth in the 17th century.

  6. Susan Jarvis Bryant

    Personally, I don’t agree with the death penalty. I don’t trust any governmental judicial system to determine who should live and who should die. Having said that, I have read James Sale’s figures and think there is a strong case to argue for it… but, as the powers that be become increasingly evil, they are more and more likely to use the death penalty as a ‘deterrent’ for nefarious reasons.

    Joe S, your poem is perfect. In 2005, I saw the British film “Pierrepoint” starring Timothy Spall (a favourite British actor of mine) which made a huge impression on me for exactly the same reason that your opening stanza does. Apparently, if one was destined for death at the end of a rope, Pierrepoint was their man – he did them a kindness in:

    How body weight and length of rope must match;
    How fast the drop must be so that a noose
    Will snap a neck just at “the hangman’s joint”
    And kill the convict quickly; …

    I particularly like the first person narrative about Pierrepoint’s feelings concerning “Tish”. He did his very best for his friend under difficult circumstances. Pierrepoint was a man of his time, a man to be revered not reviled. I learned that in 2005, and your remarkable poem has reinforced every view I had.

    Thank you very much for a poem that gives the alternative perspective in an age where such viewpoints are forbidden.

    Reply
    • Susan Jarvis Bryant

      … I would like to add, I still disagree with the death penalty, but I have every respect for Albert Pierrepoint.

      Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      Susan, have you seen the film “Ten Rillington Place,” starring Richard Attenborough and John Hurt? It’s a very powerful dramatization of the murders in that horrific case. Attenborough plays John Christie, and Hurt plays the luckless Tim Evans.

      Actually it was terrible and incompetent police work that allowed Christie to escape detection and kill several more women after the murder of Beryl Evans and her child. The police failed to check the wash-house, where Beryl’s body was hidden, and they didn’t even notice the human bones (from Christie’s earlier victims) that were protruding out of the earth in his back garden! One human femur was actually holding up part of the fence, and not a single investigating constable or detective saw it. Modern police work would have found all of this evidence in a flash, and Christie would have come under immediate suspicion for Beryl’s murder, and for the bodies buried in his back garden.

      This slovenly investigation made it possible for poor Evans to be convicted and hanged. Capital punishment was not to blame in this case, but the inept London constabulary.

      Pierrepoint was a “kindly” executioner, if we realize that he always did his best to make sure the convict died quickly and with as little pain as possible. In fact, the British government sent him to Germany to handle the executions of war criminals, since the American executioner had proven to be an incompetent man who badly botched some of the hangings that he had been assigned. This was an embarrassment, so the Brits sent for Pierrepoint post-haste.

      Reply
      • Susan Jarvis Bryant

        Joe S., yes, I saw “Ten Rillington Place” at around fourteen years of age. I also saw the the waxwork of John Christie at Madame Tussaud’s in London when I was around the same age. We were having discussions at school on capital punishment, and this case made a huge impression on me. While I thought Christie didn’t deserve to live, I also thought the judicial system was untrustworthy. The fact that Tim Evans, “a half-wit who could hardly read/And made a vague admission to the act” was hanged appalled me.

        Inspired by your poem and comment, I’ve just finished watching “Ten Rillington Place” again (an amazing dramatization with exceptional acting). I still feel the same. Christie’s manipulation of Evans reminds me of the government’s manipulation of the people, which has grown worse over the years. The judicial system is just as manipulative and I don’t trust any present day court with anyone’s life. I take on board your reply to Daniel, and I think you make a valid point. Our legal system is broken, seemingly beyond repair, and that saddens me greatly.

    • Daniel Kemper

      I would like to say that I do have sympathy for the argument that government is not competent or moral enough to make life and death decisions. I think maybe a measure would be utilitarianism: when the gov’t steps back from these decisions, what’s the result. Do others step in? Or do gang members, etc.? What’s the best in the balance?

      Reply
      • Joseph S. Salemi

        Every government on this planet kills when it has to. It’s not a question of morality, but the necessities of Realpolitik. Every nation has special extra-legal assassination teams: the American CIA, the British MI6, the French Twelfth Bureau, the Israeli Mossad. Hell… even the Vatican right now has a hit-team out looking for Archbishop Vigano.

        When a government starts letting questions of morality paralyze its ability to defend itself and its interests forcefully, then that government is impotent and useless. As Machiavelli said, “States are not maintained with words.” [Gli stati non si mantengono con le parole.]

  7. Margaret Coats

    “What’s missing is societal response.” Most important line of this poem, for we are almost all entirely ignorant of how dreadful a murder must be today to warrant the sentence of capital punishment for a convicted murderer. I could only read two stories in the recent book, “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed,” and I wish I couldn’t remember them. This is the news that’s never reported, because the natural societal response would be outrage–and a feeling of despair that justice could ever be done.

    No need to feel sorry for the Ruth Ellis of today. Women who kill their husbands, if convicted, are usually sentenced to five years, and with good behavior, spend only one in prison.

    Reply
    • Joseph S. Salemi

      What will happen when we don’t have the public executioner is that we will have the private ones. And those guys will be a lot more terrifying in their justice than Pierrepoint.

      Reply
  8. Yael

    Thank you for this beautifully composed history lesson. I had never heard of this man before and your poem is the nicest way imaginable I could ever learn of him.

    Reply
  9. Cynthia Erlandson

    Very moving and profound. “Absent the gallows, law is a mere joke.”

    Reply
  10. Jeff Eardley

    Dr Salemi, history and poetry at the same time is always good to read and this is an excellent lesson on Mr. Pierrepoint. He was portrayed by the great British actor, Timothy Spall, in the 2005 movie, “Pierrepoint”, which is certainly worth a visit. Thank you for a most interesting piece.

    Reply

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