English Executioners from 1850 to 1964. Part 3.

James Berry - The hangman of Yorkshire
John 'Babbacombe' Lee, famously dubbed 'the man they could not hang'
Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt
He lived until the age of 80, dying on 19 March 1945 in Milwaukee.
The 'chin trough' (British Medical Journal, 6 October 1888)
Elizabeth Berry has the odd distinctions of being the first woman to be hanged at Walton Prison in Liverpool which had facilities for female inmates

George Incher or Insher – of Dudley. (1831 – 1897)

Period in office. – 1875 – 1881.

He acted as executioner at Stafford on three occasions between 1875 and 1881 for the hangings of John Stanton, Henry Rogers and James Williams. At this time Dudley was in Staffordshire.

He also assisted William Marwood at the multiple execution of the four ‘Lennie Mutineers’ at Newgate Prison in May 1876. His last execution was that of 24 year old James Williams at Stafford on the 22nd February 1881, for the murder of his girlfriend. He was given a drop of four feet and reportedly died without a struggle.

Bartholomew Binns from Dewsbury in Yorkshire. (1839 – 1911)

Period in Office – 1883 – 1884.

When William Marwood died, an amazing 1,400 applicants applied to succeed him. Two men were eventually selected and were seriously considered for the post. They were Bartholomews Binns and James Berry. Binns had assisted at a small number of executions whereas Berry had not and as a result it was Binns who was appointed at Newgate.

His first ‘solo’ execution was that of Henry Powell on the 6th November at Wandsworth Prison.

On the 17th December 1883, Binns officiated at Newgate in the execution of Patrick O’Donnell, an Irish Republican, who murdered the chief witness in the Phoenix Park murder case. He carried out the double hanging of Catherine Flanagan and Margaret Higgins at Kirkdale Gaol on the 5th March 1884 assisted by Samuel Heath. The execution of Henry Dutton at Kirkdale on the 3rd December 1883 was botched by Binns. The twenty two year old was to die for the murder of Hannah Henshaw, his wife’s grandmother at their home in Athol Street, Liverpool. Dutton weighed just 128 pounds and was given a drop of some 7 feet 6 inches and using an over thick rope with the eyelet positioned at the back of the neck. Death resulted in strangulation. Dr. James Barr, the prison doctor, was dissatisfied with the way that Binns had conducted the hanging and there was a strong suspicion that Binns had been drinking before the execution.

His last job was the hanging of 18 year old Michael McLean at the same prison, on the 10th March 1884. Binns was seen to be in a drunken state and the execution was again, not entirely satisfactory – it took 13 minutes for McLean’s heart to stop. After the formal complaint about his drunken behaviour, he was removed from the Home Office list of hangmen. However, he did later assist Tommy Scott on several occasions in 1900/1901

Binns was perhaps one of the least successful English hangmen, only holding the job as principal for a year during which he carried out ten executions.

James Berry of Heckmondwike, Yorkshire. (1852 – 1913.)

Period on Home Office list – 1884 – 1891. 

James Berry was born on the 8th February 1852. He carried out total executions, including those of five women plus that of John lee. Berry was also the first British hangman to write his memoirs called ‘My experiences as an Executioner.’ This book is still available in local libraries. He was, like Marwood, proud of his calling and both had their own waxworks in Madame Tussauds. Berry had previously been a policeman in Bradford and had met Marwood and became acquainted with his methods. Berry worked in England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, but strangely never in his native Yorkshire, where James Billington always got the job,

His seven years in office didn’t pass without a few events.

His first commission was the double hanging of William Innes and Robert Vickers at Edinburgh’s Carlton Prison on the 31st March 1884. Innes and Vickers were two poachers who had shot and killed two gamekeepers. Mary Lefly was to be his first English execution, on the 26th May at Lincoln County Gaol. Lefley aged 44 years, poisoned her husband with arsenic and had to be dragged to the gallows screaming ‘murder,’ ‘murder’ and struggling with the two warders. In both of these executions Berry was assisted by ‘Richard Chester,’ – not his real name, which he always kept concealed. He assisted Berry on a few other occasions when required, although Berry normally worked alone.

One of his most famous (non) jobs was the strange case of John Lee – ‘The man they could not hang.’ On the 23rd February 1885 at Exeter Prison Twenty four year old John Lee was convicted of the murder of his elderly employer, Emma Keyse, for whom he worked as a footman. All the normal preparation were made on the gallows, set up in a ‘coach house’ in Exeter Prison, but when Berry pulled the lever, nothing happened. Berry stomped on the trap but to no avail. Lee was then taken back to his cell whilst the trap mechanism was tested and it worked perfectly. The whole process was repeated with Lee being brought back from his cell. Everything was made ready and checked again.

Berry pulled the lever and again nothing happened. Lee was again taken back to his cell. The trap was again checked and was found to be working correctly. Once again Lee was brought from his cell and everything was made ready for a third time. Now; the lever was pulled and nothing moved.

The Prison governor stayed the execution while he made contact with the Home Office in London. The result: – Lee was reprieved and released from prison. Once again every part of the mechanism was checked and it was found to be working perfectly.

Various theories abounded as to why the trap didn’t work, with Lee standing on it, ranging from divine intervention through to the wood swelling in the damp weather to the more believable one that one of the prisoners who had helped to erect it placed a wedge between the leaves of the trap door which he removed it again as soon as lee was taken off and reinserted at each new attempt.

After the Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt had been informed of the circumstances of Lee’s execution he immediately passed an order commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment. In answer to a question in the House of Commons on 23rd February 1885 he replied:

The under-Sheriff of Exeter came up to London afternoon to see me, and told me the facts of this painful case; and after considering them I thought that it would shock the feelings of everyone if a man had twice to incur the pangs of imminent death. I, therefore, this afternoon signed a respite in his case, to continue during Her Majesty’s pleasure.


On the 7th October 1885, the Home Office wrote to the Prison Commission advising them that the hangman should be required to lodge within the prison on the night before the execution to avoid their getting drunk and entertaining the locals in hotels and pubs with their stories of their executions. This was advisory rather than mandatory as the Home Office recognised that it was the Sheriff who appointed the hangman and oversaw the execution. In Berry’s case drunkenness was not an issue at this time as he was a teetotaller.

Another unfortunate experience for Berry concerned the execution of Robert Goodale at Norwich Castle on the 30th November 1885. Goodale weighed 15 stones (95 kg) but was in poor physical condition and was decapitated by the force of the drop, the only recorded instance in Britain, although two other of Berry’s victims, Moses Shripton at Worcester and John Conway at Kirkdale were nearly decapitated by the drop. Berry blamed the prison doctor, Dr. Barr, for interfering with his calculations in the Conway case.

The opposite problem occurred in at least three of Berry’s other executions when the condemned men clearly strangled to death due to the length of rope being sufficient. These were David Roberts, hanged at Cardiff on the 2nd March 1886, Henry Delvin executed on the 23rd September 1890 in Glasgow’s Duke Street prison for murdering his wife and Edward Hewitt who was executed at Gloucester Gaol in June of 1886.

(Robert Goodale – He was found guilty of murdering his unfaithful wife. He was a market gardener and farmer. His wife’s body was found at the bottom of a well on the farm. On the day of the execution as when the hangman entered his cell Goodale was in a state of terror and had to be half-carried to the gallows.)

The government were concerned about these incidents when they heard, especially as they resulted in bad publicity and were raising questions over the continuing use of hanging as the form of capital punishment. So in 1886, the Conservative Home Secretary, Sir Richard Assheton Cross, commissioned a former Liberal Home Secretary Lord Aberdare, to chair a committee with a ‘brief’ to inquire into and report to the Home Secretary upon ‘the existing practice as to carrying out the sentence of death and the causes which in several recent cases have led either to the failure or to unseemly occurrences and to consider and report what arrangements my be adopted (without altering the existing law) to ensure that all executions may be carried out in a becoming  manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect.

The committee issued its report in June 1888; none of its recommendations required any legislation to allow them to be implemented. The Capital Sentences Committee, to give it, its full title, took evidence from James Berry in June 1877 which included a discussion of the elasticity of the ropes used and supplied by the Prison Commission, known as ‘government ropes.’ The elasticity issue was very important because if the rope stretched significantly, the condemned person got a greater drop and therefore an increased chance of decapitation. There was also discussion of the correct position for the eyelet or thimble of the noose… Berry was of the view that it should be placed behind the left ear, the sub–aural position. It can be equally well positioned under the right ear if the hangman is left handed. Up until now there had been no official ‘table of drops.’ Marwood and Berry had devised their own.

Some of these recommendations didn’t take effect until after Berry resigned in 1892. Then the sheriffs were able to choose from a list of hangmen and their assistants which were approved by The Prison Commissioners. The suggestion that the hangman and the assistant stay in the prison from 4pm in the afternoon prior to an execution were endorsed by the Committee and thereafter became standard practice.

On the 8th February 1886 Berry had an unusual assistant for a triple hanging at Carlisle. Sir Claude de Crespigney was a magistrate who was expecting to become the next sheriff for the County of Essex and wanted to assist at a hanging in case he had to organise one. He allegedly gave Berry £10 for being allowed to help hang James baker, James Martin and Anthony Rudge. A question was asked in parliament over the participation of a Knight of the Realm at an execution.

By a strange coincidence; Mr. Berry was called upon to hang Mrs. Berry who had poisoned her 11 year old daughter for the £10 life insurance. The execution took place on the 14th March 1887 at Walton Prison, Liverpool. (This was the first execution in this prison.)

Not only did the executioner and the prisoner have the same surname, and although not related, they actually knew each other; having danced together at a Police Ball in Manchester some years earlier. He hanged Mary Ann Britland at Strangeways prison in Manchester on the 9th august 1886 and Mary Eleanor Wheeler (whose father had been hanged 10 years earlier – although some researchers say these two people were not related.) at Newgate Prison on the 23rd December 1890

Berry’s final execution was carried out at Edinburgh on the 11th January 1892 when he hanged Frederick Storey. James Berry was not popular with the Home Office because of his holding ‘court’ in local pubs after executions, which had led to more questions being asked in parliament, and his behaviour at the hanging of John Conway within Liverpool’s Kirkdale prison on the 20th August 1891. To everyone’s relief, Berry resigned in early 1892. James Berry died on the 21st October 1913 aged 61 years.


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Comments about this page

  • The reason the gallows didn’t work at the execution of John Lee in Exeter is that the apparatus had been removed from the old infirmary and re-erected in the coach house, but in the process the drawbar and one of the hinges weren’t installed perfectly perpendicular. So when the lever was pulled and the drawbar slid along, one of the hinge ends didn’t drop through its crank, catching the last 1/8 inch of the tip of the hinge. The trapdoor sagged at one end but didn’t fall. This report is in the national archives.

    By N Short (24/10/2018)

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