Executioner’s Life Masks
Two of the more macabre pieces of the Hyder Collection are the life masks of Albert Pierrepoint and Syd Dernley, two English hangmen. Life masks are plaster molds, distinguished from death masks by the fact that life masks are crafted while the subject is living.
In the United Kingdom, the maximum penalty for criminal offenses until the mid-twentieth century was death by hanging; the profession and duties of executioner and assistant executioner were well established. However, executioner was not a full-time position and members of the profession also held day jobs to earn a living. The official list of qualified executioners was maintained by the Home Office. To become an executioner, a candidate would interview with prison officials and undergo a medical examination. Successful candidates would then receive six days of technical training and, finally, attend an execution to test their nerves. Executioners earned £15 and assistants earned £3 per hanging. Executioners who failed to be discreet about their profession could be removed from the list at any time.
The long-drop method of hanging was used in the UK after the 1870s. The prisoner was dropped a pre-determined length, based on height and weight. The objective was to quickly break the neck. The night before an execution, the executioner and his assistant would determine the appropriate drop for the condemned individual, working from a scaffold adjacent to the prisoner’s cell. They would “hang” a sandbag of the same weight as the prisoner to test the scaffold and stretch the rope; the next morning they would adjust the drop to compensate for the rope’s stretching and then reset the scaffold’s trap door.
At the appointed time, 9 a.m. in London and 8 a.m. elsewhere, the executioner and his assistant would quickly enter the cell of the prisoner and tie his arms behind his back. The prisoner was led to the scaffold and placed directly atop the trap door. The assistant tied the legs of the prisoner while the executioner put a white cotton hood over his head and fitted the noose around his neck. The area was cleared, a lever was pulled, and the prisoner fell through the trap door. The entire process took about 15 seconds, from the time the cell was entered to the death of the prisoner.
The last executions in England took place in 1964. In 1965, the death penalty for murder was suspended in England, Wales, and Scotland and, in 1969, permanently abolished by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act. The death penalty was ended in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act of 1973.
Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992) was only 11 when his answer to a grade-school essay assignment of his future plans read, “When I leave school I should like to be the Official Executioner.” Young Albert wanted to join the family business; his father and uncle both served as official executioners.
Pierrepoint applied to become an executioner in 1930, when he was 25 years old. His first experience as an executioner was to assist his uncle at the hanging of Patrick McDermott, in Dublin, in December, 1932, even before he was fully qualified in the United Kingdom. Pierrepoint’s uncle, Tom, conducted many of the executions in the Irish Republic. After he qualified, Albert’s first assignment in the United Kingdom, again as an assistant to his uncle, came in June, 1933. The duo earned a reputation as a capable and efficient team, and conducted executions throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland for nearly a decade.
By 1943, Albert Pierrepoint was the U.K.’s unchallenged “Number One,” the unofficial title of the most senior executioner. He was sent worldwide, throughout the British Empire and beyond, to hang criminals. Pierrepoint was especially adept at calculating the drop needed for a quick and efficient hanging, and had a habit of tucking the prisoner’s hood into the pocket of his jacket like a “foppishly worn handkerchief.”
Following World War II, Pierrepoint was retained by the British government for numerous executions of war criminals in Germany and Austria. Among the 200 war criminals he executed during a four-year period was the staff of the Belsen concentration camp, including camp commandant Josef Kramer, the “Beast of Belsen." He also conducted executions for treason in the United Kingdom including those of William Joyce, one of the Nazi propagandists who used the pseudonym “Lord Haw-Haw,” and Theodore Schurch, the only British soldier executed for treachery during World War II. Pierrepoint also took over from his uncle as hangman for the Irish Republic. Considered the most prolific hangman of the twentieth century, Pierrepoint was principal or assistant at the hangings of approximately 434 people before his resignation in 1956.
Albert Pierrepoint is credited with the fastest hanging on record, that of James Inglis, who was executed on May 8, 1951. Assisted by Syd Dernley, the execution, from start to finish, took only seven seconds.
Syd Dernley (1920-1994) holds the distinction of being the last surviving British hangman, following the deaths of Albert Pierrepoint and another executioner in 1992.
Dernley’s first execution was on March 29, 1949, when he watched Albert Pierrepoint conduct the execution of James Farrell. The entire process took eight seconds. Dernley served as an assistant to Pierrepoint and others, helping hang approximately twenty people.
Dernley, a welder by trade, was removed from the list of hangmen in early 1954. No official reason was provided at the time, but in April 1954, Dernley was sentenced to six months imprisonment after he pled guilty to ten charges of publishing obscene books and photographs. Dernley remained a fierce advocate for the death penalty, and hanging in particular, until his death. Dernley felt that the British executioners had so perfected the process that hanging by official executioner was the swiftest and most humane punishment that could be offered.