Miller worked in a team with a 16-year-old accomplice in a “queer-rolling” racket: the younger James Denovan would lure a mark with the promise of an assignation, then Miller would jump him and turn a 2-against-1 robbery. Artless, but effective.
With such a crude m.o., it’s no wonder Miller and Denovan beat a man all the way to death in the course of one of their shake-downs. Since he was a minor, Denovan drew a prison term. Miller … not so lucky. His plaintive last words, “Please, Mister …” form the title of a play about his life written by Patrick Harkins.
Tour Barlinnie’s capital punishment environs with one of its old death-watch officers in this David Graham Scott short film, “Hanging With Frank”:
David Graham Scott was good enough to share some firsthand recollections of the film’s title character Frank McKue, and the process of producing “Hanging With Frank”.
Frank McKue was an extremely likeable chap with a very dark sense of humour. Definitely my type of guy. Used to have a drink with him at his local pub in Edinburgh called ‘The Diggers Arms’ (called as such because local gravediggers would drink there) . The sound of the trapdoor swinging open that you hear in the film is actually the door to the beer cellar crashing open in the pub which I recorded as a foley. Frank said it was almost the exact sound! Since the trapdoor in the execution chamber at Barlinnie Prison was shored up and unable to open when we visited it seemed a logical idea to use this nice little soundbite.
Incidentally, the prison that we were filming was still (and still is) very much in operation. There are some shots where you can see prisoners moving about in the upper galleries. It’s Barlinnie Prison in Glasgow, Scotland and dates from the Victorian era. Frank worked there in the 50s as a prison officer who occasionally did deathwatch details. That involved sitting with the condemned man on his last nights and drinking tea, engaging him in conversation and playing draughts [checkers in the U.S.].
Frank showed how the prison officer’s escorting the condemned man would walk a few paces across the gallery and through the doors into the execution chamber.
They’d stand on planks placed over the trapdoors …
… and hold onto safety ropes dangling from the ceiling to stop them from falling down with the prisoner. There had been various instances in the past of prison guards and assistant executioners falling through the trapdoors with the condemned man.
The deathwatch officers would sit with the condemned prisoner at all times after sentence was pronounced. Cups of tea, mingled with small-talk and endless games of draughts and they just chatted away about everything ‘except the obvious’! Their job on the morning of the execution was to escort the condemned man out of his cell (which was actually two normal sized cells knocked into one) and into the execution chamber just a few paces across the gallery in D-Hall of the prison. They steadied the man as the executioner led the way onto the scaffold and the assistant helped buckle his wrists and feet with leather straps when they reached the correct position on the trapdoors. A signal from the assistant to the executioner sent the man on his downward journey to the basement below where the mortuary slab awaited.
The positioning of the noose was crucial for a clean break between the 2nd and 3rd vertebrae The rope always did a quarter turn to throw back the head and cleanly sever the spinal column at those points and the hangman treated the affair with diligence and extreme reverence. Frank would then often sit with the executioner and assistants as they had their breakfast and left the executed man dangling for a full hour. The prisoner was then pulled back up, the noose removed and then he was lowered back down with other ropes to the basement room again where he was stripped and laid on the mortuary slab. The body ‘belonged to the state so it was buried within the prison grounds’ and no relative was allowed to visit the grave site or send flowers.
I storyboarded much of the film due to the restrictions of time, the nature of the equipment we were using and, of course, the mood I was trying to evoke. I also used black and white, grainy, light-sensitive film stock to try and get the feel of the execution facility in its heyday of the 1950s. If I had more money and time I would have made this film about 10 minutes longer but alas it was not to be. There was always the odd event that we shot spur-of-the-moment. Like when I noticed a butterfly trying to escape from the window of the execution chamber. In this space it took on quite a metaphorical aspect as it struggled desperately and futilely against the glass. Strangely, there was a large group of them roosting on the ceiling. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life and have no idea why they were acting like this. There were also mounds of pigeon droppings too which we tried to avoid as best we could (it can be quite toxic when breathed in). There’s a very brief shot in the film of two pigeon chicks which were nested snugly within a cavity of the execution beam … another bizarre metaphor about death and resurrection, I guess.
When we visited there were major renovations taking place within D-Hall and, as we see in the film, the condemned cell and execution chamber were torn apart. Even the grave sites were not spared. Drainage for the new toilets being built (this was the end of the notorious slop-out era) actually passed through the graves of the executed men. Indignity upon indignity heaped upon these pathetic corpses with each flush of the toilet. The graves had been marked with initials to denote where each of the murderers lay but these had been removed at some point as if to completely erase any trace of them. Frank knew exactly where each lay though and reeled them off one by one. He told me about the way the coffins were designed with a hinged flap over the face of the dead man. Once sealed in the coffin with quicklime scattered over him, Frank would open the flap and add water over the face of the executed prisoner to hasten the destruction of the body. The grave was then filled back in. One of the graves was forever sinking and had to be refilled with ashes from the boiler house on a regular basis. It was the grave of James Robertson, a former policeman who had run over and killed his lover in 1950. He was duly executed for the cold-blooded murder but it was as if his body was restless in the grave the way the tarmac kept on sinking down. In refilling the grave Frank told me that the body seemed to be miraculously well preserved and that somehow the quicklime designed to dissolve it had had the very opposite effect! The prisoners on that grave-filling detail were often terrified and were offered extra perks like cigarettes to make it a bit easier for them. To this very day that same grave is still sinking for some odd reason … the depression in the tarmac can be clearly seen in the film.
There were many stories that Frank related to me about his good friend Albert Pierrepoint, who he befriended during his time at Barlinnie Prison. Pierrepoint was the famous British state executioner at that time and conducted various executions throughout the entire United Kingdom. Frank kept up his friendship with Albert way after capital punishment was abolished and used to visit his pub in Manchester called ‘Help the Poor Struggler’. At his home in the west side of Edinburgh, Frank proudly showed me his various bits of execution related paraphernalia.
One of the prize exhibits was an engraved glass from the Albert’s pub. There was also an amazingly detailed scaled down model of the Delaware gallows which his retired carpenter friend and fellow execution enthusiast, Sudsy, had made for him. Frank showed me with great relish how this unique hanging apparatus would operate. It was obvious that he wanted more than mere models to play with and his real ambition was to be the British state executioner. He had contacted the British Home Office to put his name down as one of the persons willing to train as a state executioner should capital punishment come back. There was no way he’d be getting that job at the time I met him though as he’d already undergone a major operation and had a pig’s heart valve sewn into him. I felt guilty asking Frank to climb the rungs of the ladder into the beam room for a third take, I recall. He was happy to do it but breathless by the end! I thought how awful it would have been, and ironic, if he’d died within this space he loved so much.
But it seems that within the film Frank does fulfill the dual role of hangman and condemned man. The two aspects merged into one at the crowning moment as he puts the bag over his own head — a touch that I thought might be ridiculous at first but somehow does work quite well in the finished film.
Alas for Frank the calling to be a state executioner never came to happen and he died in 2008 from heart complications. Hanging with Frank will remain his legacy, however. A film as much a character study as it is a piece of history. [See more movie stills here -ed.]
I made this film with very little funding indeed and despite its receiving various accolades over the years the government funded film agency in Scotland at the time, The Scottish Film Council, refused to send it to film festivals as it was deemed distasteful. My work has frequently led me to being despised by the powers that be in the largely straight-laced documentary scene … I must be doing something right I suppose!
* Not to be confused with the last executed in Scotland full stop. Miller was the second-last in Scotland.