published: 8 January 2021
Against a backdrop of federal executions in America and signs of a worrying shift towards a favourable view of capital punishment in Britain, Joe Giles argues that a return to the death penalty would be detrimental to the fabric of our society.
Content Note: This article includes graphic depictions of capital punishment
At around 8am on execution day, Albert Pierrepoint and his assistants entered the designated cell, bound their prisoner’s arms with a leather strap, and proceeded to the gallows. Having carefully calculated the length of the drop with sandbags the previous evening, the executioner offered his charge a final swig of brandy and an opportunity to express any last words, then placed a white hood over their head and escorted them to a spot marked ‘T’ above a trapdoor, where a noose was placed around their neck. Pierrepoint pulled a large lever, opening the trapdoor and severing the spinal cord.
The body was usually left suspended for between twenty minutes and one hour until death was confirmed, then buried in an unmarked grave within the prison walls.
This haunting, macabre process is one that Britain’s most prolific 20th-century hangman followed over 500 times between 1931 and 1956. We tend today to view capital punishment through a distant, American lens: docuseries like Life and Death Row have exposed the inner workings of the USA’s controversial brand of justice.
Now, at the head of a grim roll-call of headlines, including those concerning Lisa Montgomery, Donald Trump has become the first lame-duck president to oversee an execution since the 19th century, and is set to federally execute more prisoners in a year than any previous US president.