So, it’s to London’s notorious Pentonville Prison we go for an historic event in British penal history. Hangings in themselves were nothing unusual, although by 1954 (only a year or so after the wrongful execution of Derek Bentley at Wandsworth) they were becoming increasingly rare events. Double hangings were becoming especially unusual, the days when two prisoners paid their price on the same gallows at the same time were about to end.
Chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint (often erroneously called Britain’s ‘last hangman’) had never liked doubles, preferring to execute what he called his ‘clients’ one at a time. Though the standard British gallows could accommodate two or even three prisoners simultaneously, it still required a chief hangman and three assistants instead of just one.
It took longer, was more complicated to perform and the risk of botches was increased, but it was cheaper to hang prisoners two at a time and, in typical British fashion, the Prison Commissioners preferred to spend as little as possible. Whether the pairs were partners-in-crime or their dates just happened to coincide made no difference. It was simpler, quicker, more convenient and cheaper for the authorities to order double regardless of the executioner’s opinion.
Executioners themselves, including Pierrepoint, often begged to differ. On October 17, 1911 chief hangman John Ellis and assistant Albert Lumb had been on the same gallows to hang murderers Francisco Godhino and Edward Hill. Both prisoners had fainted while the ropes and hoods were being applied and had to be held up by warders for a few seconds before Ellis could throw the lever. That was just the kind of problem executioners loathed, but their employers remained unsympathetic.
Pierrepoint and his colleagues just had to work around that policy, usually getting the job done as efficiently, though less quickly, than their usual singles. Doubles were eventually banned under the Homicide Act of 1957 which also differentiated between capital and non-capital murder. After 1957 criminals condemned for the same crime were sent to different prisons and hanged at the same time, usually eight or nine in the morning.
By then Pierrepoint had gone, resigning in 1956 due to his long-standing complaints about executioners’ pay. Since his debut in 1932 Pierrepoint had felt they were skilled servants of the State performing a technical and potentially dangerous job for next to nothing. When he became chief hangman in the early 1940’s one of Pierrepoint’s first actions was to demand (and get) a doubling of fees for every man on the Prison Commissioners ‘Official List.’ By 1954 he was still dissatisfied with the arrangements. By 1956 his frustration led him to quit what he called his ‘craft’altogether.
In 1954, Ian Grant and Kenneth Gilbert earned a footnote in British criminal history as the last felons to face the double drop. The prison was Pentonville in North London. The date was Thursday, June 17, 1954 at nine in the morning. Pierrepoint would be in charge, assisted by Royston Rickard, Harry Smith and Joe Broadbent. Never again would British felons die together for the same murder or different ones. Never again would two convicts drop side-by-side on the same gallows.
That murder, committed at the Aban Court Hotel in Kensington, London on March 9, 1954, had been of night porter George Smart. The 55-year-old Smart had caught them trying to rob the hotel bar only to be beaten, tied up and gagged. The beating hadn’t killed him, he died of asphyxia from the clumsy gag the pair had applied. Grant and Gilbert both blamed each other and denied having intended to kill, claiming it was manslaughter (a non-capital crime) rather than murder. That cut no ice whatsoever with the judge and jury. As far as they were concerned 22-year-old Grant and 24-year-old Gilbert had gone to commit a robbery and killed an innocent member of the public in the process for trying to stop them. They would pay in full for having done so.
As was their right under the law the condemned pair appealed their sentences, only they couldn’t have faced a more hard-line judge to do it. The three-judge panel included Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard, the same Rayner Goddard who had effectively rail-roaded Derek Bentley to Wandsworth’s gallows the previous year. Decades later when quashing Bentley’s conviction, Lord Chief Justice Bingham castigated Goddard’s handling of the Bentley trial remarking that Goddard had denied Bentley the fair trial that should be the birthright of every British citizen.
That would be no help to Grant and Gilbert. Steered by the ardently pro-death penalty Goddard who was known as a hanging judge even then, the panel upheld the verdicts and sentences. With that done Pierrepoint, Rickard, Smith and Broadbent received letters inviting them to hang Grant and Gilbert. With the executioners appointed and all hope lost the only thing left to Grant and Gilbert was time and little of it.
It may seem strange to Americans that British executions came infinitely faster than American ones. Even in the 1950’s America’s condemned could usually expect to be on Death Row for months or often years between sentencing and execution as their cases went through the various levels of appeal. Britain’s condemned were granted only a couple of weeks to appeal to the courts if they wished. Failing that, they could appeal to the Home Secretary for clemency. What was known as ‘three clear Sundays’ separated Britains’s condemned from the gallows and Miles Giffard, condemned in late 1952 and didn’t appeal, was only in the condemned cell for seventeen days before his date with the hangman. The hangman in question was none other than Albert Pierrepoint.
With no reprieve from the Home Secretary the hangmen made their preparations. They took a covert look at the pair and Pierrepoint carefully calculated the length of drop for each man. The length was all-important, dictating whether a prisoner would die instantly with a broken neck. If dropped too far a prisoner could be decapitated. If not dropped far enough they could strangle for as long as thirty minutes. Pierrepoint, by then a master and veteran of nearly 450 hangings, made his calculations accurately.
While the prisoners were elsewhere the gallows, only feet from the prisoners’ cells was tested. Once the doors had dropped with their usual deafening crash the ropes were left to stretch, the nooses holding two sandbags filled precisely to match the weight of each man. The next morning Pierrepoint and his colleagues, always mindful that the two men were only feet away from them, worked as quickly and quietly as possible to reset the gallows exactly in line with his specifications. With little more than an hour to go Grant and Gilbert would die as quickly and painlessly as Pierrepoint could arrange.
When their time came it was mercifully brief. The hangmen entered the two condemned cells just as the prison clock chimed the hour. Grant and Gilbert had their arms strapped behind their back and were hustled the dozen steps to the trapdoors, the last sight of their lives would be the twin nooses dangling before them. Pierrepoint hooded and roped the pair while his assistants bobbed down behind them, firmly strapping their legs together to ensure a clean drop. Mere seconds had passed before Pierrepoint, taking a final glance to ensure his assistants were clear of the trapdoors, shoved a large iron lever. Almost before the clock had finished chiming Gilbert and Grant were dead. It was the end of an era and what (aside from George Smart’s death) had Grant and Gilbert died for? What huge haul had made the risk worth taking?
Two pounds in cash and some cigarettes.