Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman


There’s some confusion about the title; I’m going with the one on the DVD release. I hate to say any movie is a true story. Let’s say it’s based on fact. It concerns Albert Pierrepoint, who was not England’s last hangman, but certainly the most prolific, with either 608 or 680 deaths to his credit, depending on which source you believe. Naturally such a story will be a meditation on capital punishment, and you’ll have to examine your attitudes toward it. If you’re a strict abolitionist, the sort who will demonstrate at Ted Bundy’s going away party, I suppose I envy you your certainty. My own feelings are much more mixed. I do {{}}not have moral objections to killing certain people, I do not believe it is wrong, but as a practical matter, it is clear that capital punishment in this country is a disaster and a boondoggle, a fantastically expensive, almost endless (there are guys who have been on death row way over 20 years) farce that we only indulge ourselves in because it makes the majority of us feel good. I mean, it costs much more to execute someone than it does to feed and house him for life. But I don’t have any problem declaring that I feel happy when someone like Westley Allen Dodd—who tortured, raped and murdered a four-year-old boy—makes the Big Drop.

I also feel that, if you support capital punishment, you should be able to say that you would be willing to pull the lever yourself. I know many people brag about their willingness to do so: “Just let me at him!” I suspect that many of them wouldn’t be so brash with the handle actually in their hands … but of course there are some who would take pleasure in it, and they’re almost as scary as the ones at the other end of the rope. Would I pull the lever on, say, Irma Griese or Josef Kramer, monsters of Bergen-Belsen, who Pierrepoint actually did execute? I believe I could. I might get sick afterwards, and I might not sleep well, but I believe it would be the right thing to do. (My fantasies about those who ran the camps are much more brutal than that. I think it would have been all right to round up everyone in uniform at Auschwitz, strip them naked, put them into the gas chambers … and do not drop the Zyklon B canisters. Instead, weld the doors shut, and give them all the water and air they need to survive … but no food. Do you think they’d eat each other? How soon?) (I’d like to put Bishop Richard Williamson and maybe even Benedict XVI in there with them.)

Pierrepoint didn’t seem to revel in his work. He was a man with a job to do, and he was determined to do it properly, in a workmanlike manner, and as humanely as possible. He had formulas for the length of the rope for each prisoner based on weight and physical type, a short rope for heavy people, so the head would not be pulled off, and a long one for light people. The goal was a certain, clean break between the C2 and C3 vertebrae. He also pretty much rushed them from the death cell to the execution cell and into the noose, giving them as little time as possible for that final, bowel-churning fear. He once got that time down to a little over seven seconds. If I was going to drop, I’d like it to be like that. Maybe I wouldn’t have time to shit my drawers.

This is an excellent, thoughtful film, understated in its way. The performance by Timothy Spall is riveting. He is quite emotionless most of the time, but you can always see the thoughts going on in his head. I was dubious about the event that provided the emotional climax of the film, but it turns out it was—more or less—true. You’ll probably see it coming. Pierrepoint’s near-breakdown seems to be made up for the film. Most people say he was a jolly old hangman until he finally resigned, over a pay dispute. After all, it was the family business.