James Berry, a pious Yorkshireman, was Britain’s hangman during the latter half of Queen Victoria’s reign, and throughout the period of the Whitechapel murders. A man of strange contradictions – capable of cold, callous detachment but so affected by his job that he was often unable to speak before an execution – Berry was the last hangman able to write freely about his work. Through Berry’s experiences, Stewart Evans takes us on a journey into the world of Victorian crime and punishment.
Berry was an ex-policeman who took a genuine interest in his ‘victims’ – even creating his own ‘black museum’. Aiming to be both efficient and merciful he worked to a table of drops of his own creation. Unfortunately, this did not prevent a few horrific incidents. The most notable was the execution of Robert Goodale who was decapitated by the force of the drop. In contrast, in the famous case of John Lee, Berry was unable to open the gallows trap. After three attempts – during which the gallows trap worked perfectly when Lee was removed – Lee was reprieved.
During his eight years as hangman, Berry executed over 130 men and women – and even claimed to have hanged Jack the Ripper. He enjoyed publicity and toured the country talking of his experiences and showing lantern slides of grim prison scenes and executions. Yet in later life this contradictory character suffered from depression and became almost suicidal.
Executioner is a biography which offers insight into the world of the public executioner. It will appeal to all those interested in crime and punishment in the Victorian era. pp. 356 illusts