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50 Years Ago: Away With Hanging

‘They pull the lever and away he goes,’ Mr. Albert Pierrepoint, public hangman, in evidence to the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment.

One of the conclusions of the last Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was that, in the words of one of its witnesses, hanging is ‘... certain, painless, simple and expeditious’.

Whatever the truth of this (and there are some horrible rumours which contradict it) the fact is that hanging was not originally designed as a quick and humane method of dispatching a criminal. The poor man was often dead before they hung him up. The idea was to display him in as humiliating a way as possible, strung up in public for the mob to spit and jeer at - and to take warning from.

Thus hanging was regarded as a particularly abject and dishonourable form of execution. Beheading used to be considered more dignified and soldiers, immersed in the fatuities of military chivalry, still prefer the firing squad.

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The end of public hanging still left a lot of gruesome ritual, which has been slowly dismantled. No longer is a black flag hoisted and a bell tolled, or a notice posted, at a prison after an execution. No longer does the executed person suffer the last indignity of being left hanging for an hour after his death.

These reforms left the execution a cleaner, more clinical affair, but still a ritual. The condemned prisoner had to be weighed and measured, and secretly observed by the hangman, before the length of his drop could be calculated. (There is an official table on which this calculation was done). The execution had to be rehearsed with a bag of sand as a stand-in. Finally, amid unbearable tension within the prison, the execution itself.

Now, it seems, the whole thing is finished. After about 150 years of battle, the abolitionists appear to have won. Unless something unexpected - and, let us be clear, unplanned for - happens in the House of Lords, Mr Sidney Silverman's private member's Bill will soon become law. The hangman's noose has rattled and jerked in this country for the last time.

(Socialist Standard, Feb 1965)