Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Tales of executioners

The diaries of Britain’s last hangman - Harry Allen - are up for auction. Gruesome they maybe, but they also provide a fascinating if somewhat clinical insight into the mind of a person with one of the strangest of all professions. Around 400 years ago, another hangman - Franz Schmidt - was hard at work in Germany, executing more than 10 times as many criminals as Allen, and he too kept a diary.

The Knutsford Guardian revealed on 19 October that Harry Allen’s diary is to be auctioned by local auctioneers, Marshall’s, on 11 November, on behalf of Allen’s widow, Doris. The lot will also include tools of Allen’s trade, such as two black bow ties and a 25ft tape measure. The national press soon picked up the story. The Daily Mail, for example, ran a story on 20 October with the headline ‘Revealed: The macabre diaries of death penned by Britain’s last hangman’.

By the time Allen, born in Yorkshire in 1911, reached 30 years of age he was already working at Manchester prison as assistant executioner. Following the resignation of Albert Pierrepoint (the subject of a recent film) and the death of Steve Wade (both in 1956), Allen and another hangman, Robert Leslie Stewart, jointly became the country’s Chief Executioners. Allen performed the last execution in Northern Ireland in December 1961, and the last in Scotland in August 1963. He also performed one of the two final executions in Britain, in August 1964, when Gwynne Owen Evans was hanged in Manchester (at the same time as Stewart hanged Evans’ accomplice Peter Anthony Allen in Liverpool).

According to Wikipedia’s article on the man, Allen’s most controversial case was that of James Hanratty, hanged in 1962 for the A6 murder case. Efforts to clear Hanratty’s name continued until 2001 when DNA testing finally confirmed Hanratty’s presence at the crime scene. Allen himself died in 1992. True Crime Library has just published a first biography - Harry Allen: Britain’s Last Hangman - penned by Stewart McLaughlin who works for the prison service and had access to prison files.

The Knutsford Guardian gives a good flavour of the diary: ‘In his journal he recorded details of each prisoner’s age, weight, height and worked out how long the rope needed to be to ensure a swift death. In his earlier entries he had also recorded how he felt. Mr Allen was 29 when he witnessed his first execution on 26 November 1940 at Bedford Prison. William Cooper, 24, had been convicted at Cambridge of murdering John Harrison, an elderly farmer. The execution was, according to Mr Allen, a ‘very good and clean job’ despite Cooper’s ‘loss of courage’. ‘The culprit had to be carried to the scaffold owing to faintness,’ Mr Allen wrote in his diary.’

The Daily Mail gives more details from the diary, about how Allen was involved in the execution of five Nazi prisoners of war for murdering a fellow German soldier who had grassed on their escape plan. Of their crime Allen wrote: ‘It was a foul murder. They staged a mock trial, kicking the victim to death and dragging him by the neck to the toilet where they hung his lifeless body on a waste pipe. These five prisoners are the most callous men I have ever met so far but I blame the Nazi doctrine for that. It must be a terrible creed.’

Another hangman, Franz Schmidt, was writing about his executions in the late 1500s and early 1600s. His diaries were last put into print 80 years ago, under the title A Hangman’s Diary: Being the Authentic Journal of Master Franz Schmidt. Although Abebooks has copies for sale, I can’t find any information about the book on the internet, other than that in Wikipedia’s article.

Schmidt was executioner in Germany, in Bamberg from 1573 to 1578, and in Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617. His diary contains details of 361 executions and 345 minor punishments (floggings, ears or fingers cut off), noting for each the date, place, and method of execution, as well as the name, origin, and station in life of the condemned. In later years, the diary becomes more verbose and gives details of each criminal’s crimes.

His executions, again according to Wikipedia, were carried out by rope, sword, breaking wheel, burning, and drowning. However, the wheel was reserved for severely violent criminals, and burnings - of which there were only two - for homosexual intercourse and counterfeiting money. Drowning was prescribed for a woman committing infanticide but was regularly commuted to execution by sword, partly upon the intervention of Schmidt himself. Schmidt’s journal is considered unique as a source of social and legal history. A first printed edition appeared in 1801.

No comments: