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Thursday, 1 June 2006
How Britain made its executioners
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This is from the BBC.

Previously secret documents released from deep within the British justice system reveal the rules, ethics and code of being an executioner in the 20th century.

According to the papers in the National Archives, not only did candidates need skill under pressure, they also had to be judged psychologically sound. And so a key test for eligibility was trustworthiness.

This stopped at least one candidate during the period - Arthur Gill, a butcher from Harrogate. He was blocked when the local police chief warned that he "is known to my officers as being a man of loose morals." The final stage of selection was six days of technical training at London's Pentonville Prison where governors judged whether or not they were competent.

Papers from 1938 review the then list of seven men judged "competent to carry out the duties". In almost all cases they were in stable and often dull jobs, living happily married settled lives.

Britain's last official chief hangman, Albert Pierrepoint, became a household name when he was sent to Germany to execute war criminals after the Nuremburg Trials.....All three men took immense pride in their work, believing that it was their responsibility to be humane to the condemned by ensuring that death occurred swiftly.

Both the prison governor and medical officer were expected to keep records of the hangman's conduct which would have some bearing on his pay.

As for pay, during the 1930s, it was left open to local agreement, although Prison Commission officials recommended 10 guineas plus a third class railway fare.

Assistants received a fixed £1, 11 shillings and six pence with the same amount again two weeks after the execution - providing they had not broken the code of secrecy.

I wonder what the equal opportunities and diversity people would make of that selection procedure?

The last executions took place in Britain in 1964. The death penalty was suspended the following year in 1965, kept (but never used) for Piracy Treason and Arson in HM Dockyards, and fully abolished in 1999.  There are regular calls for it's return. I don't want to get involved in the moral arguements for and against capital punishment here but I do have two practical reservations about it.

First is the impossibility of correcting an error. A man imprisoned for a long time for a crime he did not commit can be released, given compensation, write a book using the Open University degree studied for while inside and commence a second career appearing on chat shows. 

Secondly I fear that juries would return more verdicts of not guilty if the death penalty were to be the consequence.  Supporters of capital punishment often point to the increase in convictions for murder since abolition; they don't seem to realise that this is because juries are now happier to bring in a guilty verdict. The Judge can direct them that they decide fact while the sentence is his responsibility as often as he likes, but I know that jurors worry about the sentence because of the amount of times I have known a note passed, urging either mercy or strictness, depending on the circumstances.

In my early years in the Department of Light Bulb Changers I met a man who had been a clerk of the court at the Central Criminal Court Old Bailey pre 1965 when the death penalty was in place.  Apparently it was considered a privilege to be given the task of drawing up the death warrant. 

An even better deterrent to crime generally would be greater certainty of apprehension.

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Posted on 06/01/2006 3:55 AM by Esmerelda Weatherwax
Comments
1 Jun 2006
Send an emailMary Jackson
You're quite right. When people clamour for the death penalty - and I know it's tempting in some cases - they never consider the fact that more murderers will be acquitted.