Archive for December 13th, 2014

1949: John Wilson and Benjamin Roberts, Syd Dernley’s first(s)

3 comments December 13th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1949, two young miners from northern England were hanged together at Durham prison for unrelated crimes of passion: one had ravaged and strangled another man’s wife when his attempts to seduce her were met with a demand for money; the other had murdered a local girl (and then botched his suicide) when he found himself on the third point of a love triangle.

Both crimes happened on the same weekend, just a few miles apart — so they were tried at the same assizes and advanced through the process from murder to hanging-date together. Double executions were already quite rare at this point: this date’s affair was among the last such events in UK history.*

However, it was the very first execution in which Syd Dernley participated.

Dernley was an assistant executioner for 20-odd hangings, and while he’s far from the most noteworthy man to tread the scaffold, his 1989-90 The Hangman’s Tale: Memoirs of a Public Executioner might interest the person who takes up the pen for a labor history of the modern death penalty.

Dernley, a Nottinghamshire pit welder by day, gives an inside look at the recruitment process and on-the-job operations for a minor-league hangman. Bored with his job, he wrote the Prison Commission cold in January 1947 offering his services (“I feel sure that I could do the job”), got a generic polite dismissal, and then was one of several rookie volunteers summoned in October 1948 for a training course — a rationalization of the qualification process to go with the rationalization of hangings themselves.

Dernley had to wait a full year and then some to actually get into the act.** The basic hanging protocol featured a lead executioner and an assistant who would together escort their man to the gallows platform and perform the hanging; since this was a double execution, there are two such pairs involved. Dernley here is the assistant of veteran hangman Steve Wade. The other pair has Henry Kirk as the lead hangman, assisted by Harry Allen.†

Britain didn’t have the volume of executions for anyone to be a full-time hangman, although some hangmen, like Kirk, were also prison officers.

Jobs were farmed out by the Prison Commission among its small roster of active executioners, and would begin for the hangman with the receipt of a package from the Commission with two copies of a Memorandum of Conditions for executioners’ employment — one for the executioner’s records, and one to return to the Commission when formally accepting the assignment.

The day before the hanging, the executioners traveled to the prison where the sentence was to be carried out. The hanging team would not leave the prison’s walls until the execution was complete: after their prep work on execution’s eve, they slept in the jail.

Although prisoners rarely realized this until the last moment, the gallows platform stood just steps outside the condemned cells, the better for the instant performance of the actual hanging. They waited until Wilson and Roberts were safely out of earshot at chapel or in the exercise yard to set up the ropes.

The lead executioner Wade “controlled and double-checked everything from the moment he opened the execution boxes and took out the three ropes. He examined each of them minutely before rejecting one of them which was immediately coiled up and returned to the box. He measured the drop along the rope and marked it with chalk. I was allowed to shackle the rope to one of the chains hanging down from the beam and I had to go up the steps to adjust the chain as we got the chalk mark to the height of the man’s head, but [Wade] went up the steps to check both the shackling and the chain when I had finished.”

Once both ropes had been prepped, they noosed two sandbags approximating the respective weights of the prisoners, summoned the prison governor, and performed an actual test hanging. Everything went off without a hitch.

They dined that night, and breakfasted the next morning, on prison mash — it was invariably eggs and bacon for breakfast, Dernley remembered later in his career. After stealing silently back into the execution chamber, practically in the shadow of the last devotions of their unwitting prey, they repositioned the ropes which had been (intentionally) stretched out by half an inch from being left dangling their sandbags overnight. The ropes, and their supporting chains, needed to be positioned such that the noose dangled at convenient head height — again, the efficiency of the actual hanging was paramount — and so that, when the trap was released, the rope provided a drop of the precise length necessary to break the neck.

The next forty-five minutes as we waited in our quarters for the call were about the worst of my life. Everything that needed to be said had been said and it was clearly no time for social chit-chat, so we sat there and waited. There was fear afoot in the prison; you could almost smell it. The whole place was silent, waiting.

The butterflies in my stomach, which had disappeared when we went to the execution chamber and had something to do, were back with a vengeance. A jumble of thoughts flitted through my mind. Questions: Would we do a good job? Would I put up a good showing? Would we be quick? There were fears too: Will he fight? How will I handle it if he does?

The door opened and a warder took a step into the room. Wade got to his feet. “It’s time,” he said simply. “Are you ready?” I nodded. I don’t think I could have said anything. Kirky looked across at me and smiled. “Make it a good job, young ‘un,” he said quietly.

In those last few moments I was most conscious of faces, faces turned towards us … screws standing quite still at strategic points, all staring at us … the people standing near the doors of the condemned cells watching us approach … the faces of the official party as they glanced over their shoulders … but above all the face of the clock hanging on the wall at the end of the wing. It was a gigantic thing, about three feet across, and the minute hand was now just a fraction away from nine o’clock.

We were halfway to the condemned cells when the silence was broken and my blood froze. The sound was faint to begin with but it rapidly swelled — singing!

I could not believe my ears. “Jesu … lover … of my soul,” croaked the quavering voice.

Another stronger voice joined in: “Let me to thy bosom fly.”

“Who the hell is that?” I asked one of the screws who was walking along beside me.

He looked shattered but he was not going to admit it. “It’s one of them you’re going to top in a minute,” he replied, trying to sound cool.

With that eerie sound ringing round the wing, we arrived outside the condemned cells. The singing was coming from number two cell, and for the next thirty seconds we stood listening to the doomed man and his priest singing in harmony. In other circumstances it might have been lovely. Here, now, it was weird and unreal.

Everyone was in position as the hands of the huge clock moved the last fraction of an inch to nine o’clock: Wade and I outside the number one cell; Harry and Kirky a few steps away across the landing outside the number two cell …

From the instant the cell door cracked open, the prisoner should have just a few seconds left to live — although the prisoner wouldn’t realize that fact since his guards were under strict orders to brush off the doomed fellow’s inevitable questions about procedure. The two executioners would walk to the center of the cell, stand the prisoner up, and each taking an arm, efficiently pinion them behind his back. Then they whisked him out a secondary door which opened directly to the execution chamber, where they’d glide right into the waiting head-height noose. The name of the game for the hangmen was calm and firmness: don’t scare the man unnecessarily, just enter with professional inevitability and have the man on his noose in less time than it would take him to find the wit for panic or swoon or fight.

The double job complicated matters, but only slightly. The plan was for Wade and Dernley to enter cell number one only moments before Kirky and Allen entered cell number two. That way, both Wilson and Roberts would enter the scaffold singly and the respective hanging teams wouldn’t be in one another’s way — but it would only entail an extra second or two on the traps for the dead men as they were positioned in rapid sequence. It didn’t quite work out that way.

Wade moved straight through the door and I followed him into the cell. It seemed quite crowded with the two warders backing clear and the white-faced priest sitting on the other side of the table looking up at us. The condemned man was positioned as per the book, sitting at the table with his back to the door.

By the time I got to him, he was on his feet and Wade was bringing his left arm behind his back. There was no resistance as I caught hold of his right arm. He just let me bring it behind his back and Wade was waiting for it.

Things were moving incredibly quickly, there was hardly time to take anything in. Wade was walking through the yellow doors. Our man had turned to watch him but had not moved so I just put my hand on his shoulder and, with only the gentlest of pressure, he started to follow. A warder either side of him, we walked through and on to the trap. Wade stopped him and I slipped the legstrap out of my pocket, bobbed down and fastened it round his ankles.‡ I doubt I had ever done it so quickly but by the time I stood up and took a pace off the trap, Wade had finished and the man was standing with his head hidden under the bag and the noose round his neck.

Just the way they drew it up … except the Kirky-Allen team was nowhere to be found.

They should have been on the trap by now and there was no sign of them!

They were having some sort of trouble, but what? As the seconds ticked away, I strained to hear what was going on, but there was not a sound coming from the other side of the landing. That at least was reassuring because whatever was going wrong it was not some massive fight. We would have heard that.

I looked around the cell. Wade was staring through the open door, brow creased in a frown, with wide, worried eyes. By God, he looked worried. The governor and the under-sheriff looked as white as a pair of sheets.

In the centre of all this, the hooded and noosed figure of our man — who should have been dead by now — stood waiting patiently without a sound.

I looked back through the door. Still nothing. I felt so helpless; I wanted to run through and help or do something, but I knew I had to stand just where I was.

A double hanging should take around fifteen seconds from start to finish; we had now been standing with our man ready to go for at least forty-five seconds, although it felt like hours.

A sound to my right brought my eyes back from the door into the execution chamber. One of the screws seemed about to take a pace towards our man, a look almost of horror on his face. The hooded figure was starting to sway. He was going to faint!

At that moment Kirky rushed through the door followed by the lover and Harry. Kirky, looking red-faced and flustered, immediately peeled off to the left and Wade in a blur of motion was stopping the man on the chalk T. In what seemed almost one motion, he whipped the white hood over the man’s head and flicked the noose on. I didn’t even see Harry get the legstrap on before Wade was hurling himself off the trap. The lever went over and away the whole lot went with that massive boom.

Allen later told Dernley that their man, the singing one, “just wasn’t ready” and while he didn’t fight the executioners he also didn’t comply with them as they tried to get his arms into their straps. “In the end we just had to force him.”

His nerves none the worse for the off-script debut, Dernley would remain an assistant executioner — he was never the head man — until another one of his hobbies came embarrassingly to light.


From the April 28, 1954 London Times.

Dernley published his book in 1989, by which time the British hangman was almost as archaic as the smut bust. (The poor lech died in 1994, just short of the Internet revolution.) But Dernley, unlike Pierrepoint, never evinced any second thoughts about his career on the gallows and had an unabashed pro-capital punishment position.§

“I have no regrets about what I did and I sleep pretty soundly in my bed,” he sums up. “I do not believe that my career as a hangman has had any ill-effect on me. Not that you ever get away from it so far as people are concerned — once a hangman always a hangman, it seems. Even after all these years I am still pointed out to people and I have a little chuckle to myself when I find somebody in a pub staring at me in that familiar way and I wonder who has been talking to them.” The inference from his lines, and the photos of Dernley jovially showing off his private model gallows, is that the old hangman made it a point to keep the talk going.

* Per the extremely useful Capital Punishment UK page, there was a double execution in 1950, another in 1951, another in 1952, and the last in 1954.

** Dernley did avail himself of an opportunity to witness personally the March 29, 1949, hanging of James Farrell.

† A man named Harry Allen, from Manchester, would one day be dignified Britain’s Last Executioner. In the 1960s, Allen literally did conduct one of the two simultaneous last hangings in England, as well as the last in Scotland and the last in Northern Ireland. However, Dernley’s counterpart in this execution is a different Harry Allen, from Birmingham.

‡ “As assistant your job will be to strap [the prisoner’s] ankles and get yourself off the trap; the number one will do everything else,” Dernley had been told at his training the year before. “If you’re still mucking about when he’s ready, the number one will tap you on the shoulder and then you don’t bugger about … you get off or go down — and it’s a nasty drop even if you haven’t got a rope round your neck.”

§ Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant for the hanging of Timothy Evans, for a murder that, three years later, would be imputed to a serial killer living in his building. Dernley’s autobiography credulously backs the government’s whitewash conclusion that Evans was probably guilty too, citing the weak grounds that Evans failed to declare his innocence at his hanging.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Sex

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