Meeting the Hangman

 

Hangman

I used to speak out against capital punishment
From a soapbox at Speakers’ Corner.
This was when it was thought that hanging people
Was helpful in maintaining order.

One day someone called Barry Trenoweth came over.
His father, Gordon, had been hanged for murder.
He’d killed a shopkeeper in Falmouth during the war
In a robbery that went wrong. A non-starter.

There was only four pounds ten shillings in the till
And Gordon didn’t have the time to buy a drink
Before the police called at 3, Mutton Row, Penryn,
To take him away to Falmouth’s clink.

Gordon Trenoweth was put on trial at Bodmin Assizes
And then hanged at Exeter Jail
By Albert Pierrepoint, the hangman, famous for boasting
Of a “craft” he swore could never fail.

Barry’s mother had suffered a breakdown after
And Barry was sent to an orphanage.
He’d wonder how he got there but was only told,
“You’ll learn when you reach a certain age.”

At eighteen he was summoned by the Warden
Who informed him that he’d had a family
But, the Warden said darkly, due to “circumstances”
They’d had to forfeit their baby.

Barry was given the address of his mother
And his grandmother, a Mrs. Rapson,
Who looked after Barry’s mother, Gladys, left shattered
In a tiny cottage, two-up two-down.

There was no hot water, just an outside tap
And a tin bath in the front room.
Gran heated water from the hob and then poured it in.
They’d turn the TV round so no one saw them.

Barry said he was shocked and distressed by their lives:
They’d been innocent of any criminal action,
Yet their lives were destroyed and his life was scarred
By the law’s vengeful chain reaction.

It was this that drew him to the campaign platform
When he was working in London, in a hotel –
Picking up guests’ shoes at night then polishing them,
“While”, as he put it, “I tried to forget myself.”

Was he, Barry Trenoweth, going to be a murderer?
Was he one day going to be hanged?
Sometimes he’d wake up, clutching his neck, breathless…
He was hurt that his family had been ostracized.

One day he said casually, he’d “like to meet Pierrepoint.
“’Cause he was the last man to know my Dad.”
I couldn’t deny that but then I had to wonder why –
Something about his insistence felt odd.

However, he was now a friend and I promised to find out
Where Pierrepoint lived and I learnt he’d retired –
To an aptly named pub called ‘Pity the Poor Struggler’
But on enquiry his involvement was denied.

Another call revealed he’d given up his public house,
Having attracted “an interest of the wrong sort”,
But now had a place called ‘The Land of the Little People’
Which was a fairground attraction in Southport.

We took the train from King’s Cross to Southport, Lancs.,
And arrived at a deserted amusement park.
We asked a security guard with a large Alsatian
If he had an address for a Mr. Pierrepoint.

He said yes, and we explained that we’d come
To do an interview with him for “the paper”.
He didn’t ask which paper so we didn’t have to lie
And he readily directed us to “the gaffer.”

We arrived at a terraced house called ‘Ivanhoe’
And we knocked with some apprehension.
A plump man in gray trousers and braces answered.
Barry froze as if in suspended animation.

“Yes. What do you want?” his reaction was hostile
To two unknown youths calling at his door.
“Are you collecting? What do you want? Do I know you?
“Come on, out with it. Who are you collecting for?”

Barry was silent while I stuttered and then blurted out,
“We’re here to interview you on behalf of The Times.”
Quick as a flash Pierrepoint said that that was “Impossible.
“I’ve been under contract for years to Reynolds News.”

This was somewhat peculiar as I was sure I remembered
That Reynolds News was long defunct.
When I pointed this out he just said, “Is there any money?”
We said we were freelancers and doing it on spec.

A little begrudgingly, Pierrepoint invited us in.
His front room was filled with display cases
Crammed with miniature objects, tiny lace-clad dolls
And fragile animals, Bambis, made of glass.

To break the ice I said, “You’ve retired now?
“Yes,” he said, “but it’s all in the attic.”
We looked puzzled. “All my equipment,” he said,
“My ropes and my weights. Kept in good nick.”

“Leather straps for pinioning the arms and the legs;
“White cotton hood prior to execution;
“The charts for measuring the length of the drop –
“To break the spine without decapitation.”

“But one peep through the ‘Judas Hole’ in the cell door –
“That’s quite enough for me to tell
“The length of the rope that affords the right drop
“To take them in one piece to hell.”

His signature trick was to light a cheroot, and to leave it
In the condemned cell’s ashtray while burning.
He’d then escort the prisoner to the gallows next door:
“Do him quick. Come back to my cigar. Still smoking”.

“Cap, noose, cotter pin, lever and drop…
“Always had that routine in my head.
“Then it’s nip down below to the trap door pit.
“The doctor’s stethoscope. ‘Yep. He’s dead.’”

I asked him what happened if anyone ever fainted
Before they’d reached the scaffold’s trap door.
“We’d a flat board the size of a stretcher in the corner.
“We’d strap ‘em to it. That’s what that was for.”

“Me? I’d always take my uncle’s advice and have
“A boiled sweet inside my mouth.
“Barley sugar’s best. A humbug is good.”
He made a moist sucking with his breath.

Barry didn’t react. It was down to me to do the talking
While Barry was overcome, if not rooted to the spot.
I mentioned the case of Ruth Ellis and her crime passionel
For whom Pierrepoint had tied the terminal knot.

“I can tell you about the last woman to hang,” he said,
“All the women were braver than the men.
“No idea why, but women go without a murmur.
“Men grip their crotches; want their Mam.”

He’d hanged 200 Nazis after the Nuremberg trials:
“One after the other. Never gave it a thought.”
I noticed Barry scrutinizing Pierrepoint’s hands –
Perhaps imagining them pulling a rope tight…

“When I carried out post-war executions in Austria
“They were so impressed with my technique
“That Austrian executioners told the authorities:
“’Adopt Pierrepoint’s methods or we strike.’”

“Up to that time the Austrians had to hang on
“To the legs of a strangling prisoner,
“Until my showing them the best British method.”
He said with a smugly patriotic fervor.

“I’ve hanged six hundred people,” Pierrepoint went on.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was eleven.
“I’ve kept a detailed log book. You can see it if you want.
“My dad and uncle Tom were Home Office hangmen.”

“They succeeded Bartholemew Binns who experimented
“By hanging dogs and cats in his own home,
“And Bradford’s James Berry, a careless decapitator
“Who hung the Lambeth poisoner, Dr. Cream.”

‘They taught me how to push the lever slipping the bolt
“From its socket beneath the trap-door on the floor,
“And how to truss up the prisoner so that he didn’t kick up…”
A feral look indicated we’d have to pay to learn more.

“I hanged twenty-seven in one day in Germany.
“Never cost me a second’s sleep.
“Your priest presses his cross to a pair of white lips
“Then it’s the hood for Billy-boy and Lovers’ Leap.

meeting

Illustration: Elena Caldera

 

“When you enter the condemned cell your hood’s folded up
“And it’s peeping out of your suit’s breast pocket.
“They think it’s your handkerchief until it’s too late –
“In seconds you’ve drawn the bolt from its socket.

“You’ve made your T-mark on the drop’s trap doors
“Where you align the prisoner’s toes.
“The arches of his feet should be over the crack.
“You push the lever hard. Down he goes.

“The hood’s there to cover all the horrid expressions
“That can arise from strangulation,
“But always your first choice is to have the spinal cord snap
“Then you’re spared any facial contortion.”

“I’ve never had trouble save in the Irish Free State.
“They had banners outside Mountjoy one time:
“’BRITISH HANGMAN DESTROYS IRISHMAN’ And, daft buggers,
“‘ABOLISH THE SYSTEM AND ABOLISH CRIME!’”

Barry remained awkwardly silent then notably seething.
I felt Pierrepoint was wondering what he was up to.
To keep Pierrepoint’s attention I told him that I’d heard
That men climaxed when hanged. ”Is that true?”

He fixed me steadily and said, “No. That’s a rumour.
“That’s put about by the filthy minded.
“The way I do it”, he grinned, “they don’t get pleasure.”
Barry was now looking at him with hatred.

Then Pierrepoint warmed to the subject and revealed,
“The men often do have an erection
“And there’s also a small discharge, I’ll grant you that,
“But it’s entirely due to the constriction.”

There was a knock on the door and a woman came in
Whom Pierrepoint introduced as his niece.
She seemed needy. He got up and whispered something
Then shooed her off unkindly. “A screw loose.”

Barry was now restless and I felt we should leave.
The atmosphere was loaded and eerie.
Pierrepoint had offered us nothing. No tea, nor coffee
Although he had answered every query.

He took great pride in his work and he told us so.
“The Home Office receives mountains of mail
“From people keen to offer their services as hangmen
“But they’ve stuck with me, knowing I don’t fail.”

He recalled how prison chaplains liked to sing
The dirge-like hymn, “Jesus loves my soul”
Then added, “Everything’s done to make it humane
“Before I flush them down the hole.”

Pierrepoint would let us in to the secret of his success.
He’d always go to the prison the previous night,
“I’d shake them by the hand and I’d say, ‘You know
“Who I am, do as I say and you’ll be all right.’”

“Know why I retired? fed up with their meanness.
“I was paid by the neck. No job, no fee.
“I’d drive for miles and then turn up to do the business,
“Only to find they’d had a bloody reprieve.”

* * *

On the train back Barry kept reenacting the scene
Of Pierrepoint in Exeter Jail greeting his Dad,
Barry repeated, “‘Do as I say and you’ll be all right.’”
Then he quivered as he spat out, “Lying sod.”

Barry buried his face in his hands at the carriage table,
“My Dad would have come when I was conceived…
“Do you think he came for that bastard when he died?”
He went chalk white with anger and then groaned.

He couldn’t get the atavistic imagery out of his head
And he kept saying, “That man killed my Dad.”
Barry saw it in simple terms: he’d been humiliated
And was psyching himself up for something bad.

A couple of days went by and then he rang me.
“I’m at King’s Cross. I’m going to go back.”
My heart sank, “No, wait there. I’ll come with you.”
“No.” He put down the ‘phone with a sharp click.

I was left in agitated suspense for several days,
Expecting to hear the worst on the news.
Headlines composed themselves in my head:
‘HANGMAN FOUND HANGED WITH HIS OWN NOOSE’

I was feeling guilty in case anything had happened –
My inner voice was quick with an accusation.
I responded by saying Barry was desperate to meet him
And I’d thought that it might resolve the situation…

That it might enable him to have some kind of closure;
To draw a line under the whole harrowing thing.
‘Oh? You didn’t think he might repeat his father’s crime?’
‘No, I didn’t.’ …But I did wish the ‘phone would ring.

Finally, on a late November evening,
Barry put me out of my agony:
To my relief he ‘phoned; he suggested
That we went to meet in a café.

He was still shaking from what he’d done
(Or rather from what he hadn’t).
His mouth was dry as he told me about it,
Confessing, “I nearly repeated the pattern.”

“I took a ten inch knife up with me
“From an ex-Army surplus supply.
“I worked myself up, ‘Pierrepoint, you evil cunt.
“Pierrepoint, you’re going to fucking die’.”

“Then I stood outside his house by that privet hedge.
“I tossed the knife from hand to hand.
“I just stood there for what seemed like forever,
“Trying to make up my mind.

“A light went on in the upstairs room,
“I heard him shouting at his niece –
“If she was his niece – and it got out of hand.
“I thought someone might call the police.

“Then, you know what? I just threw the knife
“Into the privet hedge.
“I thought ‘Fuck it’ and I walked to the station.
“I’d taken the thing right to the edge.”

“I was going to give Pierrepoint a barley sugar.
“Beforehand. To ease the tension.
“Then I’d guide him to his attic at knifepoint
“To officiate at his own execution.”

* * *

A few years later capital punishment
Was abolished by Act of Parliament
Due to the cases of Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley,
Both hanged though they’d been quite innocent.

The Hyde Park soapbox was no longer necessary
And Barry and I drifted apart…
But Barry’s grandfather, a former stevedore in Falmouth docks,
And his whole family were left in bits.

Mr. Trenoweth ended up in a shack with chronic depression
Scratching a living repairing fishing tackle,
And Barry was to suffer from fragile health, finishing up
In St. Lawrence’s Hospital, Bodmin, on largactil.

He said he’d had fantasies in the Dr. Barnardo’s home
Of being an abandoned member of the aristocracy.
It was a far cry from such a compensatory pipe dream
To his queuing up in a line of patients for E.C.T.

Meanwhile Albert Pierrepoint was famously stalking Diana Dors.
He was to be fixated by the busty Rank starlet.
He’d use his 600 victims as his display behavior, his ‘come-on’,
In his misguided attempt to get Dors to ‘shack up.’

Under ‘H is for Hangman’ in Diana Dors’ A-Z of Men, she says
That she was “drawn like a snake to a charmer” –
He was “brash”, and he overwhelmed her with “grisly tales”,
And he had “an ego bigger than any film star.”

Albert Pierrepoint had no boundaries. After hanging Ruth Ellis,
He suggested he and Ruth’s sister went on a date.
This lascivious Mr. Punch was British Justice’s cutting edge;
Always adamant no one was hanged by mistake…

Because, for Pierrepoint to have the heroic status
That he routinely accorded to himself,
Every single one of his victims had to be guilty –
There was no profit in hanging the innocent:

In his first Manchester pub, Pity the Poor Struggler,
And later in the Rose and Crown in Preston,
It was tales of pitiless demons twitching on his rope
That supplemented his income as a publican.

“Nights after a hanging the pub’s coach park would be full
“Ghouls from far and wide came to gloat.
“They’d bring me gifts, signs like ‘No hanging about in the bar’ ­–
“It was their idea of a fantastic joke.”

He’d happily exploit his celebrity for sums of money –
Sign photos of himself with a grin and a coiled rope –
Whilst anyone who dared to cross him or to stand in his way
He’d threaten with their being “next for the drop”.

He’d regale the saloon bar and invite them to jeer
At the last words of the unfortunate:
How some “shook uncontrollably” and others would complain,
“You’ve put the noose on too tight.”

And how someone had once accused him, “Pierrepoint,
“Don’t hang an innocent man,” as he faced the drop
And how Pierrepoint had whispered, “Now you take that back.
“You don’t want to die with a lie on your lips.”

He’d speak of someone who’d tried to cut his own throat
Shortly after they’d committed their crime
And how they pleaded with Pierrepoint, “Don’t hurt my neck.”
Before being buried in prison yard quicklime.

* * *

The ex-Bradford butcher was a macabre terrorist
Whose name served to chill the blood.
He worked in secret as if society was ashamed
Of its having hired a man to play God –

A vainglorious God putting six hundred to death
And killing them in an undignified fashion
He’d sentenced himself to be plagued by their ghosts
To please authority’s vengeful passion –

Six hundred ghosts with fear in their faces
As they caught their executioner’s eye;
Six hundred ghosts with ghoulish grimaces
Being guided towards a trapdoor to die.

But Pierrepoint lived with himself by sanitizing
His serial hangings as his “sacred duty”
Whilst the blood money the Home Office paid him
Masked their obscenity and cruelty.

Yet Pierrepoint’s “sacred duty” precluded redemption
And it stifled any thoughts of forgiveness.
It was decreeing that force is the state’s bottom line
And that violence must merit more violence.

For what it’s worth, several of those who met him –
Barry and myself included –
Saw that behind the façade of the jovial common man
Pierrepoint’s eyes were dead.

“I’m in the Chamber of Horrors,” he’d said as we left, “In wax.
“You can see me hanging the notorious John Christie.
“I’ve advised Madame Tussaud’s on assembling their gallows
“So when I visit, unlike you lot, I don’t pay their fee.”

* * *

In a bio-pic that was made of the life of Albert Pierrepoint,
He’d belatedly denounce hanging as revenge
But I’d seen enough of his depredations and so I missed it,
Thinking it’d turn my stomach and make me cringe.

Ever since meeting the hangman, the human addiction
To being in the right has seemed flawed
For ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ is preferable and Pierrepoint
Had exposed the law as an intransigent fraud.

 

Heathcote Williams

 

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By Heathcote Williams

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2 Responses to Meeting the Hangman

  1. Pingback: Straight Up | Herman | Meeting the Hangman

  2. Jon Mahony says:

    Very interesting article and I have no doubt that Albert Pierrepoint was a lot more like what is described here, than the image he attempted to project to the world – The morbid fascination with Ruth Ellis after he retired was a very worrying sign. Ellis’ sister has spoken of Pierrepoint writing endless letters of remorse and regret to her (and has produced these signed letters as proof). But even more sinister was Pierrepoint’s request to have a photograph taken of himself, by her graveside. The Timothy Spall biopic which was made in 2005 was a load of rubbish, the first choice for the roll Clive Revill (who played Pierrepoint in “Let Him Have It”) turned it down because he thought the script was ridiculous.

    However if Barry Trenoweth had murdered Albert Pierrepoint that day, he would have done so for little purpose – Gordon Trenoweth was hanged by Thomas Pirrepoint (Albert’s uncle) in 1928, and on that occasion Albert didn’t even act as assistant. It does also sound like Gordon battered an elderly man to death with the butt of a revolver, in the course of a robbery, some might argue he had it coming.

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