Executions in interwar London

Continuing May Murder Month, this week we take a look at the ultimate outcome of a murder case – the execution. Last week’s May Murder Month entry on police memoirs can be found here.

If you were found guilty of murder in interwar Britain, you would automatically be sentenced to death, unless your legal team had managed to convince the jury that you were insane at the time you committed the murder. After the adoption of the Infanticide Act in 1922, women who killed their new-born babies were tried as for manslaughter rather than for murder, meaning they no longer received death sentences. Yet even those found guilty of murder could appeal to the King (via the Home Secretary) for a reprieve. Reprieves were fairly common: in the first half of the 20th century around 40% of convicted male murderers, and an astonishing 90% of convicted women murderers, were granted a reprieve of execution.[1] This usually meant their sentence was commuted to ‘penal servitude for life’.

The period of appeal following a death sentence was usually ‘three Sundays’, meaning that if an appeal or reprieve was not granted, execution usually followed within a month of the trial. Murder trials were much shorter than we are used to today and prisoners were committed to trial much more quickly. This meant that convicted murderers were usually executed within a year of the crime having taken place. In interwar London, condemned prisoners were held in a special ‘condemned cell’ adjacent to the prison gallows. During the 1920s and 1930s, there were never more than 21 executions in a single year across the whole of Britain; and in many years there were fewer than 10.[2] This meant it was extremely unlikely for two convicted murderers to be held at the same prison at the same time, unless they were both convicted for the same murder committed jointly. There was no concept like ‘death row’ as it currently exists in the US, where prisoners can spend years awaiting execution.

Since 1868, executions were no longer held in public but were conducted inside prison walls. In London, there were three prisons in which executions took place until capital punishment was formally abolished in 1969: Pentonville Prison for male prisoners who lived north of the Thames; Wandsworth Prison for male prisoners who lived south of the Thames; and Holloway Prison for female convicts. Gradually, over the course of the first few decades of the 20th century, capital punishment became less ritualistic and more bureaucratic. Until 1902, a black flag was raised over the prison after an execution had taken place. The tolling of a bell during an execution was abolished around the same time.[3] After the end of public executions, journalists were still regularly invited to attend, so that their newspaper reports could serve as a proxy for public scrutiny. The last time a journalist attended an execution was 1934.[4]

The only ritual elements of execution which remained in place is that they usually took place at 9am; and that an execution notice was posted on the prison door immediately after the event. This is depicted, for example, in the 1938 thriller They Drive By Night, where a small crowd of people is shown gathered around the prison entrance. Papers of record, such as The Times, usually posted brief notices of executions as they had taken place. How an actual execution unfolded was usually ‘shrouded in secrecy’, with official statements invariably confirming that nothing unusual had occurred.[5] This vacuum of official information allowed rumours to swirl. After the controversial execution of Edith Thompson it was suggested that ‘her insides had fallen out’ as she dropped through the trap door, suggesting she may have been pregnant at the time of her death. Thompson’s executioner, John Ellis, committed suicide nine years after Thompson’s death, and it was suggested that he had never been able to get over the horror of that particular hanging.

Hanging had been the principal form of execution in Britain for centuries. By the interwar period, the government prided itself on having perfected a highly efficient method, which was considered ‘humane’ because it aimed to be swift and accurate. The objective was to ensure the prisoner’s neck broke immediately, so that he or she did not have to suffer through asphyxiation. Around a decade after the last execution took place in Britain, one of the country’s most famous hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint, published his memoirs. This book finally revealed in detail how executions were conducted, although interwar fiction novels such as Trial and Error had given descriptions of the process decades earlier.

Pierrepoint described in detail how he would arrive at a prison the day before the execution to make his preparations, which included the crucial calculation of ‘the drop’: the length of rope required which depended on the prisoner’s weight and size. For the neck to break at the 4th or 5th vertebrae was considered ideal as it would cause instant death. If the drop was too short, the prisoner could end up suffocating rather than breaking their neck; if it was too long, the worst-case scenario would be that the prisoner was decapitated as they dropped.

Executions were conducted extremely quickly: the execution of Norman Thorne was reported to last no more than ten seconds ‘[f]rom the time that [he] emerged from his cell door until the moment he passed into eternity.’[6] After the execution, the prisoner was left hanging for an hour before being cut down and submitted to a post-mortem, during which a note was made of the exact cause of death and where the neck had broken. An official statement on a pre-prepared template, signed and sealed by a coroner and jury, would confirm the death of the prisoner under the 1868 Capital Punishment Amendment Act. The body would then be buried in a dedicated cemetery inside the prison walls the same day.[7]

Despite the relative rarity of executions in interwar Britain, the state had developed a highly polished routine to ensure that these executions were conducted as efficiently as possible. This efficiency was considered humane, as it would limit the prisoner’s suffering as much as possible. At the same time, however, it also incorporated capital punishment into the bureaucratic machinery of government. Treating capital punishment as a largely administrative process also minimised the scope for challenging its principles, as it was incorporated into the judicial system as ‘business as usual.’ The abolition movement consequently only gained momentum in Britain after the Second World War.

[1] Shani D’Cruze, ‘Intimacy, Professionalism and Domestic Homicide in Interwar Britain: the case of Buck Ruxton’, Women’s History Review, 2007, vol. 16, no. 5, 701-722 (706)

[2] Source: http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/

[3] Lizzie Seal, Capital Punishment in Twentieth-Century Britain: Audience, justice, memory (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 17

[4] Ibid., p. 36

[5] Lizzie Seal, ‘Albert Pierrepoint and the cultural persona of the twentieth-century hangman’, Crime, Media, Culture, 2016, vol. 12, no. 1, 83-100 (86)

[6] Seal, Capital Punishment, p. 41

[7] Albert Pierrepoint, Executioner: Pierrepoint (London: Coronet, 1998 [1974]), p. 175