1950: Norman Goldthorpe, knot botch

Add comment November 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1950, Norman Goldthorpe hanged at Norwich prison.

Goldthorpe’s was an open-and-shut case. In a drunken fury when his married lover ditched him for the hubby, Goldthorpe tracked down a 66-year-old prostitute he knew and strangled her to death. Neighbors had seen him coming and going.

Because the realm’s veteran lead hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint and Stephen Wade, had been engaged for an execution in Scotland, the job fell to Harry Kirk. Kirk had been an assistant executioner, a job that entailed helping measure the drop of the rope and set up the gallows, but he had never been the head executioner. That job required actually noosing the prisoner and throwing the lever to drop the trap. The difference wasn’t merely one of degree, but of kind … as Kirk (and Goldthorpe) unpleasantly discovered.

Syd Dernley, the assistant executioner turned memoirist whose career we’ve touched on before, was Kirk’s number two. As he recalled, the whole engagement started off in, er, mortifying fashion.

Having checked into Norwich prison and completed their pre-hanging walk-through, Dernley and Kirk were killing time on the eve of the hanging with a prison guard. Dernley had brought along a book of dirty jokes and before long it had the three of them in uproarious laughter. That is, until “there was a loud pounding on the floor.”

The young screw stiffened, and the smile frozen on his face for an instant before it was wiped away by a sick look of understanding. “Oh Christ!” he exclaimed. “Oh bloody hell!”

A feeling of apprehension hit me in the stomach.

“Don’t make any more noise,” said the screw, now white-faced, in a whisper. “It’s the condemned cell down below … they must be knocking on the ceiling with something.”

Think about that one the next time you recollect your worst faux pas.

Well, this wasn’t even Kirky and Dernley’s worst of the Goldthorpe job.

Moments after Goldthorpe dropped 7 feet, 8 inches down through the Norwich jail trap, Dernley remembered, “I heard the most spine-chilling sound I ever heard in an execution chamber. From the pit came a snort … and then another snort … and another and another! The rope was still, the head seemed to be over … but there were noises coming from under the hood!”

Blessedly for all concerned, the wheezing stopped within a few moments. Dernley maintains in his book that Goldthorpe’s neck was actually broken, the snorts an involuntary muscular contraction. But he admitted otherwise in a subsequent interview: “I feel that it was a bad job — the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards.”

After fretting a nervous hour away while the body dangled for the regulation time, the hangmen finally got a look at what went wrong: the linen hood tucked over the man’s head in his last instant of life had snagged in the eye of the noose, and jammed it up before it could tighten all the way.

In Dernley’s estimation, the rookie hangman botched it by going too fast. Pierrepoint, who had hundreds of executions to his credit, was famous for his lightning-quick hangings, with nary a wasted motion. Dernley relates one instance where the master, in a showoff mode, lit a cigar and set it down before commencing the hanging procedure, and was in time to pick it back up for a puff before it went out while his prey twisted at the bottom of a taut rope. But Pierrepoint’s speed, which helped define the Platonic ideal of an execution for Britain’s last generation of hangmen, was not an end unto itself but a product of the master’s expertise.

Kirk “had been trying to go too fast,” Dernley wrote. “He was trying to show that he was as quick as Pierrepoint. When he put the noose round Goldthorpe’s neck he should have seen that the bag was not properly down; maybe he did, maybe he thought it was near enough, and let it go.”

It was the last hanging Harry Kirk ever worked.

On this day..

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

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