1953: John Christie, a little late in the day

3 comments July 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1953, English serial killer John Christie was hanged by Albert Pierrepoint for the murders of six women.

The sex-killer is most infamous, though, for a different death: that of Timothy Evans, a neighbor and fellow client of Pierrepoint whom Christie had stitched up three years before for strangling Evans’s wife and child.

Back then, the respectable Christie was the star witness against Evans. Evans tried in vain to blame Christie (“this perfectly innocent man,” Evans’s prosecutors scoffed) for the murders.

Nobody knew then that Christie had strangled an Austrian prostitute during sex back in 1943, nor that he had done a gassing-strangulation-rape job the following year.

Both their bodies were both buried in the garden at 10 Rillington Place: the first inhabitants of what would be the British Isles’ most notorious corpse hotel.

Strangulation sex killings would become the definitive Christie m.o. after Evans hanged. He got himself a no-fault divorce by throttling his wife in bed late in 1952, then raped and strangled at least three other women whom he had invited back to his pad. The remains of each were secreted in the apartment’s nooks and crannies.

This is Richard Attenborough as Christie doing his thing to Evans’s wife (he’d later confess to that crime) in the 1971 flick 10 Rillington Place.

Christie seemingly could’ve gotten away with it all, if it weren’t for his penny-wise and pound-foolish decision to move out of the charnel house early in 1953 and let someone else stumble upon the remains. (Christie had quit his job the previous December, and hocked his strangled wife’s stuff to make ends meet for a while. He was homeless when the subsequent manhunt tracked him down.) There was even a human femur being used to prop a fence.

Having quite a lot of damning evidence, and Christie’s confession besides, his lawyer went for a hail-Mary insanity defense, but Christie didn’t even bother with an appeal when that didn’t take.

But there was the small matter of that other gentleman hanged back in the day for a strangulation murder, all the while unsuccessfully accusing his then-respectable neighbor Christie.

An inquiry launched by the government very conveniently concluded that (Christie’s confession notwithstanding) Evans was indeed guilty of killing his wife. Two stranglers in the same place at the same time, and the one had just happened to try to blame the other one when he was accused.

For obvious reasons, this whitewash was greeted skeptically and — though the two-killers theory does still have its defenders — officially reversed when Evans was posthumously exonerated in 1966.

On this day..

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

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1950: James Corbitt, the hangman’s mate

16 comments November 28th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1950, famed British executioner Albert Pierrepoint carried out his most difficult assignment: hanging his friend.

Though not literally the Isles’ last hangman, Pierrepoint is the last one everyone thinks of, the man who defined the hangman’s job for the 20th century.

Discreet, orderly, and as quiet as he was efficient,* he was the brand-name executioner for stiff-upper-lip England of the waning empire, with over 400** hangings to his name from 1932 until he resigned over a fee dispute in 1956.

Despite his proper avoidance of the spotlight, Pierrepoint’s excellence at his craft would make him a celebrity — especially after the press fixated on his role hanging Nazi war criminals after World War II. The ready-made morality play upon the scaffold boards could hardly be resisted: the English grocer, meting out a dignified and precise measure of justice to the likes of the Beast of Belsen.

Hanging Around

Pierrepoint’s characteristic client wasn’t a war criminal, but a humdrum British murderer, only a handful of which attract especial remembrance today.

Still, in the immediate postwar years, the growing reach of the mass media and burgeoning public controversy over the death penalty would frequently put Pierrepoint in the middle of the era’s highest-profile hangings, including:

Tish and Tosh

Like as not, this day’s affair hit the sturdy hangman harder than any of those.

James Henry Corbitt was a regular at “Help the Poor Struggler”, the piquantly named Oldham pub Pierrepoint bought and managed after World War II. Known as “Tish” to Pierrepont’s “Tosh,” the two had sung a duet of “Danny Boy” on the night that Corbitt went out and murdered his girlfriend in a jealous rage.

Corbitt was not exceptional as a criminal, and he was indisputably guilty; we wouldn’t notice him if not for his acquaintance with the man who put him to death.

But Pierrepoint would remember this one well, as he later wrote in his his autobiography:

I thought if any man had a deterrent to murder poised before him, it was this troubadour whom I called Tish. He was not only aware of the rope, he had the man who handled it beside him singing a duet. The deterrent did not work.

Remarkably, the most prolific executioner in British history had come out against the death penalty, or so it seemed. (He later backed away from a strong anti-death penalty position, though without retracting his original reservations. The death penalty had been a decade off the books by this point, in any case.)

It is I who have faced them last, young lads and girls, working men and grandmothers.

I have been amazed to see the courage with which they walk into the unknown.

It did not deter them then and it had not deterred them when they committed what they were convicted for. All the men and women I have faced at that final moment convince me that in what I have done I have not prevented a single murder. And if death does not work to deter one person, it should not be held to deter any … capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.

It’s an open question how much Tish’s hanging this day really contributed to Pierrepoint’s retirement six years later or his apparent change of stance on his trade. But it provides the gut-wrenching dramatic pivot for the film Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.

Interestingly, while the hangman saw in Corbitt’s fate a troubling indictment of the death penalty, the hanged man’s son to this day still says dad deserved to die.

More on Albert Pierrepoint

For a man so ubiquitously present in the mid-century experience of Great Britain, and who undertook such a dramatic volte-face, it’s no surprise that Pierrepoint has attracted plenty of attention — including this website, and a number of books.

Also of possible interest: Hangmen of England: History of Execution from Jack Ketch to Albert Pierrepoint (we’ve met Jack Ketch here before). More dry factual data about Pierrepoint, the father and uncle who preceded him in the post, and other recent practitioners in Britain’s colorful line of executioners is here.

* The English practice was for Pierrepoint to pinion the prisoner’s arms in the condemned cell, escort him a few steps into a hanging chamber, hood him, and execute the sentence without further ceremony. The whole process took mere seconds — a record fast seven seconds from cell door to trap door in the case of James Inglis — which Pierrepoint seems to have had a gift for dignifying in his (usual) silence with a sort of calming paternal assurance.

Pierrepoint hanged six American soldiers under the auspices of U.S. military forces deployed to England during the Second World War, and confessed to considerable discomfort with that entity’s protracted pre-hanging procedures that had him standing on the scaffold with the condemned man for several minutes.

* And perhaps well over 600 hangings; the figures are disputed.

On this day..

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

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