English Executioners from 1850 to 1964.
English Executioners from 1850 until 1964.
The post of Hangman became much sought after in the mid 19th Century and remained so until capital punishment was abolished in 1964 with large numbers, including women, applying for each vacancy. When William Calcraft retired, the post of hangman for London and Middlesex ceased to be a salaried position. His successors were paid a fee for each execution they carried out and these fees remained static at £10 for the hangman and three guineas for the assistant from the 1880’s until the late 1940’s. Then the fee was increased to £15. The cost of rail travel was also reimbursed. These fees were paid half at the time and half two weeks later. It is therefore reasonable to suppose that most of those who held the post of Hangman did it not for financial gain but for other, more personal reasons.
After Berry resigned, the Home Office maintained a list of Executioners and Assistants that were made available to Under Sheriffs when they had to organise an execution in their County. The Under Sheriff selected the Hangman and Assistant’s from his list. Where there was to be a double-Execution there were normally two assistants. It was also decided that all future Executions and Assistants would undertake a week’s training. This was initially at Newgate Prison and then after the prison closed in 1903, the training moved to Pentonville Prison. At the end of the training, applicants could be added to the list if they were deemed to be satisfactory. Merely being on the list did not automatically mean that they would be chosen by the Sheriffs. Normally they would attend an execution or two as a second assistant, just to observe the proceedings and for the Governor to observe them and their attitude and report back to the Sheriff.
Not everyone could cope with the reality of an execution. Then the successful candidates had to sign the ‘Official Secrets Act’ and were not permitted to divulge any details of what went on in the Execution Chamber, and especially to the press.
A few short biographies of the Hangmen from 1850 through to 1964.
George Smith from Dudley, Staffordshire. (1805 – 1874.)
Period in Office was 1840 1872.
George Smith was born in Rowley Regis in 1805 and happened to be a prisoner himself at Stafford when he entered the ‘trade’ as an assistant to William Calcraft. His first job was to assist at the double hanging of James Owen and George Thomas outside the Stafford Gaol on the 11th April 1840. Smith was known as the ‘Dudley Higgler.’ A ‘Higgler’ being a local slang term for a hangman. His first execution as Principal (Executioner) was the execution of Charles Higginson at Stafford Gaol on the 26th August 1843. It is believed that he hanged Betty Eccles at Liverpool’s Kirkdale Gaol on the 6th of May 1843 for the murder of her stepson, and also Mary Gallop at Chester Gaol on the 28th December 1844 for killing her father.
George Smith’s most famous solo execution was that of the Rugeley poisoned, Dr. William Palmer for the murder of John Parsons Cook, before a huge crowd outside the Stafford Gaol on the 14th June 1856.
On the 7th August 1866, Smith failed to secure the rope adequately to the beam and William Collier fell to the ground when the trap doors were released and he had to be hanged again a few minutes later. This happened to be Staffordshire’s last public hanging. George Smith hanged 20 men and 1 woman during his time as the Public hangman. The woman, Sarah Westwood at Stafford and a further three men at Chester Gaol. These were then private hangings as by then the law was changed so that there were no further public hangings.
Smith also assisted William Calcraft at the first two private hangings in England. These hangings were of two men, Thomas Wells and Alexander Mackay in 1868.
George Smith was renowned for his long white coat and top hat which he wore at all his public hangings. Smith’s son, also called George, may have assisted at the three executions outside of Stafford Gaol in 1866. Initially, it is said that Smith (junior) was hired by the Under Sheriff of Staffordshire to save the cost of bringing Calcraft up from London,
George Incher took over the post of Staffordshire’s hangman after George Smith’s death on 4th April 1874.
William Calcraft – from Little Baddow, near Chelmsford, Essex (1800 – 1879.)
Period in office – 1829 – 1874.
William Calcraft was the longest serving Hangman of all. It is not known exactly just hw many executions he carried out but it is somewhere between 430 – 450, including those of some 34 women, of which there were at least 388 public hangings and about 41 executions carried out in private.
In some provincial executions the records of 1830 and thereabouts, do not show clearly who the hangman was.
William Calcraft was a cobbler by trade and also sold pies outside Newgate Prison on ‘hanging days’ Here he became acquainted with the then hangman for London and Middlesex, James Foxen and through this was recruited to have the job of ‘flogging juvenile prisoners’ in Newgate Prison.
His first experience as an executioner was the hanging of housebreaker Thomas Lister at Lincoln Castle and the highwayman George Wingfield at Lincoln Beastmarket on the 27th March 1829. The latter was a Lincoln City execution.