GENBRIT-L ArchivesArchiver > GENBRIT > 2003-07 > 1057872160
From: John Bennett <>
Subject: Re: The Man They Could Not Hang
Date: Thu, 10 Jul 2003 22:22:40 +0100
On Sat, 5 Jul 2003 David Berry <> wrote:
>"John Bennett" <> wrote in message
>I have a copy of the book "My Experiences as Executioner" by James Berry.
>Originally printed in 1892 and re-printed in 1972. Family history mentioned
>that we were related to a James Berry as a public hangman and, even when I
>was an impoverished student in 1972, I couldn't resist buying. Never
>believe everything that elderly aunts tell you - in this case there was no
>link. Anyway, to the book and James' view.
Is the book still available and if so do you have the ISBN number?
>There are several pages devoted to this event including a letter to the
>Under-Sheriff of Devon. In this he explains that the various mechanisms had
>been checked on more than one occasion. It had been suggested that the
>wooden trap-doors had swollen in the overnight rain. James discounted this
>and put it down to "the ironwork of the doors was of a frail kind, and much
>too weak for the purpose".
>There have been a few other questions about James in this newsgroup that I
>can possibly answer (with the aid of his book). The reason why he could not
>be found in the 1881 census is that, at the time he wasn't a hangman. He
>only started this job in 1884. His "possible" details being:
> Hannah ACKROYD Head W Female 58 Bradford, York, England Worsted
> James BERRY Son In Law M Male 29 Heckmondwike, York, England
> Sarah A. BERRY Daur M Female 29 Bradford, York, England Worsted
> Herbert BERRY Grandson Male 5 Bradford, York, England
> Luther BERRY Grandson Male 3 Bradford, York, England
Yes that does look like him and possibly explains why I failed to find
him in the 1881 census. From what I had read he was supposed to have
been a policeman before becoming a part time hangman! (I did actually
think this was unlikely.)
>Other points about incompetence may or may not be true but, in his defence,
>he did try to be scientific about the hanging process. He devised a formula
>based upon the weight of the victim and the drop (hope you are not eating
>your breakfast!). The fact that he was literate enough to write a book
>probably takes him away from the average hangman.
I read Albert Pierrepoint's autobiography recently. It astounded me
just how casually he recounted the hundreds of hangings done in the
course of his "God given duty" with apparently no concern as to whether
his victims were actually guilty or not! In his favour though, I was
impressed with the "professionalism" with which he claimed to have
carried out his part time job and the concern he said he had in
dispatching his charges as quickly and humanely as possible. The book
"spooked" me so much I couldn't sleep for days afterwards!
Interestingly it appears that both Berry and Pierrepoint became anti-
capital punishment after ceasing to be Public executioners (Pierrepoint
having fallen out with the Home Office over an argument about payment
for a cancelled execution and Berry being taken off the Home Office
"approved list" for reasons unknown?).
>Just noticed an appendix which quotes a letter in another book. It goes
>"an old lag in gaol confessed to him (I think when dying) that he was
>responsible for the failure of the drop to work in execution of the
>Babbacombe murderer. It appears that in those days it was the practise to
>have the scaffold erected by some joiner or carpenter from among the
>prisoners. The man inserted a wedge which prevented the droop from working
>and when called in as an expert he removed the wedge and demonstrated the
>smooth working of the drop, only to re-insert it before Lee was again placed
>on the trap."
I have also heard this theory, which is actually quite believable, but
also unfortunately unprovable!
>As mentioned before. I have no direct link with James Berry but I feel his
>side of the case should be put.
Of course. Unlike Ian, who's interest is mainly in the murder itself, I
am more interested in the executioners and what motivated them to do
such an awful job!
UK My genealogy web sites at: http://www.p-bennett.co.uk/ancestors