Regardless of an individuals opinion on the rights and wrongs of Capital Punishment, most would agree that the subject is usually considered entirely in a male context and that the very idea of executing a woman is perhaps unthinkable, possibly abhorrent to our modern sensitivities. Yet between 1900 and 1955, Britain is known to have executed 27 women at home and abroad, with perhaps many hundreds more suffering a similar fate in previous centuries.
The most common method of Capital Punishment employed by the British courts during our country’s long history has been the public or private hanging of convicted people, although prior to 1874, it would have been more accurately described as “judicial strangling”. Public executioners such as William Calcraft who operated between 1829 and 1874 would have typically employed a “short drop” to suspend people by the neck, a method which resulted in most prisoners being slowly asphyxiated to death while they were still temporarily conscious. One male prisoner, who was revived after suffering one of these judicial hangings in Britain, described the extremely painful nature of this particular method of execution, relating how his “spirits” departed his body and the excruciating pain finally passing away as he lapsed into unconsciousness, only to return as he was later revived.
There is also some evidence from modern day executions, in countries that still employ this “short drop” method of judicial hanging that women prisoners who are subjected to this form of punishment, typically survive and struggle longer on the rope, than do their male counterparts. Whether or not this is simply accounted for by a weight differential between the genders is unclear, but generally most prisoners executed in this fashion take around 15 minutes to die, during which time the condemned person is seen to desperately struggle for the life giving breath which is being denied them.
It was another British executioner, William Marwood, operating between 1874 and 1883 that has largely been credited with introducing the much more effective and humane “long drop” which became the common method of execution in Britain. Thought to have first been devised by Irish doctors, this method rendered the condemned prisoner unconscious and at the same time immobilised them by breaking their neck and severing the spinal chord. Although the prisoner was still asphyxiated, their state of unconsciousness rendered them completely unaware of their fate as their body slowly died. Marwood’s method of hanging calculated for the individual persons height, weight and their physical condition, all of which determined the correct length of drop required to break that particular persons neck and end their lives in the most efficient and humane manner possible. Although death was generally regarded as being instantaneous, it was not uncommon for the prisoner’s heart to take between 15 and 20 minutes to stop beating entirely, when the prison doctor could finally declare them officially dead. Once their death had been pronounced it was then the usual practice in Britain to allow the prisoner’s body to hang for an hour before it was finally removed from the gallows and an autopsy carried out.
His successor, James Berry a former policeman, followed Marwood’s method of executing condemned prisoners and has been credited with refining his predecessor’s calculations into a standardised table of “drops” which were used and improved upon from his time onwards. Although it proved to be a far more reliable method of executing prisoners, mistakes were still known to have occurred, several of which where Berry himself was the hangman. In the one and only instance of the event happening in modern times, Berry as executioner was reported to have miscalculated the length of drop required for a prisoner, which resulted in the condemned man being decapitated by the force of the fall. Two further men nearly suffered the same fate, but their underlying physique just about managed to keep the body intact, much to Berry’s obvious relief. In at least one of these instances Berry was quick to point the finger of blame at a Prison Doctor, who he accused of interfering with the length of the rope and thereby causing the near disaster.
However, this wouldn’t have accounted for the three prisoners who Berry was accused of giving too short a drop, which was said to have resulted in their slowly being strangled to death and being totally aware of their lives inevitably ebbing away. Far from such instances indicating a problem or failure with the judicial execution process itself, some historians have suggested that these few occurrences point to a fault with Berry himself, rather than the procedure or equipment.
A later executioner, John Ellis, a mild mannered barber from Rochdale in Lancashire followed members of the famous Billington family, who like their later successors, the Pierrepoints, made the execution of condemned prisoners a family business. Ellis was employed in the task from 1901 to 1924 and like the Pierrepoints took his responsibilities and duties as the official executioner extremely seriously, seeking to despatch the condemned prisoner in the most humane and painless way possible.
Unlike many of the other individuals who performed this onerous task however, Ellis seems to have been highly unfortunate when dealing with female prisoners that he was called upon to execute. On the 9th January 1923 he was assigned to execute 28-year-old Edith Jessie Thompson who had been found guilty, along with her paramour Freddie Bywaters, of murdering her husband Percy. The distraught woman had to be physically carried to the gallows by Prison Officers and following her execution her underwear was found to be drenched with her own blood. It was a shocking and distressing discovery for all of those involved, which ultimately led to all future condemned female prisoners having to wear canvas underpants, to prevent a repetition of such an awful occurrence.
Later the same year, Ellis was called upon to execute Susan Newell, the mother of a young girl who had been convicted of killing a teenage newspaper boy in Scotland. Perhaps nervous about hanging yet another woman prisoner, it was reported that Ellis failed to pinion Newell’s hands properly, so as he placed the white hood over her head as she stood on the gallows, she was said to have reached up and removed the hood, instructing Ellis “Don’t put that on me”. Possibly unnerved by this unexpected outburst and action, Ellis was said to have carried on with his duties anyway and launched the highly irascible woman into eternity, with her head and face uncovered.
The third incident which came Ellis’ way was at the double execution of Emily Swann and her boyfriend John Gallager, at Armley Jail on 29th December 1903, following their conviction for the murder of Emily’s husband William Swann. As she was led into the execution room by Ellis who was assisting William Billington, Emily noticed her lover, already hooded and pinioned on the gallows, “Good morning John” she said to him. Rather startled at the sound of Emily’s voice, Gallagher managed to reply “Good morning love”. As Ellis placed the noose around Emily’s neck she called out “Goodbye love, God bless” at which point Billington pulled the lever, plunging them both to their instantaneous deaths.
Although he would continue with his executioners work for another year, it seems clear that these events and the failing state of his barber’s business caused Ellis great emotional and financial hardship, to the point that he finally resigned his position in 1924. However, leaving his post does not seem to have exorcised whatever ghosts or demons that pursued him for the remainder of his life, which only ended with him committing suicide on the 20th September 1932.
Around the same time that John Ellis began his career as an official executioner, Henry Pierrepoint, brother of Thomas and father of the much more notable Albert, began his own career as a hangman. Taking part in over 100 executions, both as principal and assistant, he was noted for the great pride and care that he took in his work, a trait that would be followed by all three members of the family whose name would ultimately became synonymous with the job of official executioner.
Henry’s career was cut short however, when in later years he began to drink heavily, although the reason for this has never been fully explained. Needless to say though, such a dependency was always likely to cause problems, which it inevitably did in 1910. Called to an execution at Chelmsford in that year, Henry was reported to have turned up at the jail “worse for wear” the night before the hanging. His assistant was John Ellis, who was said to be an inoffensive sort of man that very few people could find fault with. Perhaps because Ellis had suggested that Henry shouldn’t make a habit of drinking before an execution, Henry was reported to have attacked his assistant and knocked him to the floor. A Prison Officer who had heard the commotion rushed into the cell and separated the two men, but not before Henry had struck Ellis for a second time.
The following morning the two men completed the execution of the condemned prisoner in their usually efficient fashion, but the events of the previous evening were reported to the Home Office and a decision was made to strike Henry’s name from the official list of executioners. Although he appealed the decision, as far as the authorities were concerned his drinking made him a completely unsuitable person to perform such a responsible and dignified role. It was later reported that Henry had got angry with Ellis because he believed his assistant was trying to replace him as Britain’s number one executioner.
During his tenure, Henry was thought to have only participated in the execution of three female prisoners; firstly when he assisted William Billington in the double hanging of Amelia Sachs and Annie Walters at Holloway Prison on December 3rd 1903, both women having been convicted of child murder. His third female execution was that of Rhoda Willis, another “Baby Farmer” who was hung at Cardiff Prison in 1907, with Henry assisted by his brother Thomas. Henry was said to have been particularly struck by the attractive Willis, but whether or not he was adversely affected by having to execute the pretty 44-year-old is unclear.
Thomas Pierrepoint, brother of Henry and uncle to Albert, served as an official executioner between 1906 and 1946 and in common with his relatives was known to have adopted a highly professional and skilful approach to his duties. He was particularly notable for having officiated at the executions of around 16 American servicemen who were convicted of various murders and rapes while they were stationed in Britain during World War II. He is also thought to have been involved with at least four female executions during his time on the list; assisting Henry with the execution of Rhoda Willis in 1907; being the hangman for Louie Calvert at Manchester Strangeways in 1926; executing Dorothea Waddingham at Winsom Green Prison in 1936, where he was said to have assisted by Albert; finally he was the man who executed Charlotte Bryant at Exeter Prison in the same year.
Albert Pierrepoint was reputed to be the most prolific official British executioner of the 20th century and has been credited with executing over 400 men and 17 women during his time in the post, from 1932 through to 1956. Although it has been reported that he executed around 600 people during his career, this number might be accounted for by the inclusion of 200 Nazi war criminals that he was called upon to execute following the end of World War II, ten of which were women.
It was Albert who executed the final woman to be condemned to death in 1955. 28-year-old Ruth Ellis who had been convicted of murdering her lover David Blakely, was hung at Holloway Prison on 13th July in that year amidst a blaze of negative publicity, some of which was aimed at Pierrepoint himself.. Despite rumours to the contrary, Pierrepoint never expressed any regrets over Ruth Ellis’ death personally; and his later statements about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment have largely been dismissed as publicity for his own later autobiography, rather than anything else.
Any suggestion however, that the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty was entirely gender driven is incorrect. British criminal history is littered with numerous female killers who were just as naive, jealous, greedy and cruel, as any of their male counterparts and in some cases much more so. Although it is sometimes difficult to understand how a woman, with her inborn maternal and nurturing instincts can deliberately take the life of a young child, poison her husband or cold-bloodedly beat another person to death for no good reason, clearly they can, because they have.
Victorian “Baby Farmers” that deliberately killed young children and babies in their care, in order to gain a relatively small sum of money were almost entirely women, although no doubt there were a small number of men involved in these unscrupulous practices. The fact that poison is and was seen as a woman’s “weapon” tends to indicate a preference for this method of killing by a number of female murderers, being an act that required little physical strength to achieve. A lack of physical prowess though has not precluded women from killing others by violent means, they are just as adept at beating, stabbing and shooting other people to death, as is any man, but often such actions are purely the result of a violent emotional outburst, or a temporary loss of control, possibly caused by drink or drugs. However, in the case of the ten Nazi female war criminals that were executed by the British after World War II, there seems to have been some sort of collective or group madness accounting for their often brutal behaviour, rather than any sort of individual plan or choice on the part of the offenders themselves.
Many people regard Ruth Ellis’ execution as a “watershed” in the debate over the rights and wrongs of Capital Punishment, although executions continued for another nine years when two convicted male killers were simultaneously executed at Manchester Strangeways and Liverpool’s Walton in 1964. The death of a pretty 28-year-old mother, who committed what many regarded as a “crime of passion” gave impetus to an abolitionist campaign that had been simmering for some time and they used her case, along with others, to call for a complete cessation of the practice.
It is perhaps worth pointing out with regard to Ruth Ellis, that it was she who fundamentally and deliberately condemned herself by plainly stating at her trial that she intended to kill her victim, which left the judge with little option but to sentence her to death. There is a sense with the Ellis case particularly, that she had purposefully decided that if she couldn’t have Blakely, then no-one else would be able to and she was quite content to pay the price for her act of violence which ultimately brought his life to an end.
Opponents of judicial executions pointed to evidence which suggested that even in countries where capital punishment had been abolished there had been no discernible increase in the numbers of murders, indicating that in itself a death penalty was not a deterrent to those who intended to kill another person.
They also claimed that the prospect or the very idea of a person fighting for their life on the gallows would engender a level of sympathy for the condemned, rather than for the murder victim and that it would inevitably lead to intrusive and morbid investigations by the media, who were looking for a good story. They also pointed out that the death sentence was by its very nature irrevocable and that innocent people might end up paying the ultimate price for a crime they did not commit, which was known to have happened in a number of instances.
Finally, the same opponents claimed that the state by refusing to take a life was in fact strengthening the sanctity of life, presumably making it less likely for an individual to take the life of his fellow citizen. It was also claimed that it was the Christian duty of any modern society to try and redeem the offender, rather than to simply execute them.
Whatever, the rights and wrongs, pros or cons, of the abolitionist arguments, in 1965 the British Government of the time substantially removed the death penalty from the statute book and subsequent political leaderships have essentially prevented any chance of it being reinstated.
The 27 cases that follow are not intended to be wholly definitive records on the women themselves, nor a review of their individual cases from a particular standpoint, but simply offer an overview of their lives, their crimes and ultimately their deaths at the hands of the British state. Each one of these women was a unique individual, but often their crimes were purely the result of basic human frailties, including greed, jealousy and a loss of basic reasoning, which allowed them to ignore both the social conventions and criminal penalties of the time and commit such heinous crimes that they too would ultimately be robbed of their own lives on the state’s gallows.