Wandsworth Prison

Doctor George Henry Lamson, the ‘Sleight of Hand Poisoner’; Not as clever as he thought.


 

george_henry_lamson

The case of George Lamson, a once-promising doctor before becoming a drug addict and murderer, is a prime example of writer H.L. Mencken’s maxim on murder:

‘The easiest murder case to break is the one somebody tried to get very cute with.’

Lamson did indeed try to get very cute and, ultimately, it made no difference. Today in 1882 was the day he paid the price. By the time he was helped to gallows at London’s infamous Wandsworth Prison his nerve, tested by years of bad debts, hounding from creditors, rampant drug addiction and outright fear, had deserted him. He spent his final seconds begging the prison chaplain to stay the hangman’s hand for just one final prayer.

All in all, a sorry fate for a man who'[d once shown such promise.

Lamson was an American citizen, serving with distinction in the Balkan War and Franco-Prussian War. In the process the young doctor had been decorated, earning France’s Legion of Honour. While acquiring his decoration and military experience, however, he’d also acquired a habit that would come to rule his life and then destroy it;

Morphine.

By the autumn of 1881 Lamson, still not thirty years old, was a hopeless drug addict with a lengthy reputation for swindling patients, friends and family in order to fund his rampant drug habit. Creditors were hounding him and he’d moved to several different places to escape their demands. Unfortunately, however, their demands followed him. In desperate need of something to pay off his creditors and still sustain his addiction, his drug-addled mind turned to his wife and her cousin Percy John.

Percy’s youth had been spoiled by a crippling spinal disorder that denied him many of like’s simple pleasures. Should he die, the £1500 held in trust for him would be inherited by his wife. Lamson, naturally, intended that the money should come to him and thence to his creditors and the nearest available source of morphine. With that in mind, our medical murderer looked for a way to murder his brother-in-law while setting a false trail to protect himself if he were accused of Percy’s murder.

Capsules were then a new fad and, Lamson decided, would play a crucial part of both his murder scheme and emergency alibi. If he could induce Percy to take capsules obviously not laden with poison while delivering it in some other way then Percy would die, Lamson’s wife would inherit and Lamson would pocket the cash. In December, 1881 his scheme went into effect when he visited Percy at his boarding school.

Percy admired and trusted his dashing, outwardly respectable brother-in-law. He also trusted him, as did the school headmaster specially invited by Lamson as an unwitting alibi witness. In the event of Lamson being accused and trid for murder, he would point to the capsules and deny everything. He also hoped the prosecution might accuse him of using the capsules when a lethal dose of aconitine (a drug he believed untracable) was actually in the raisins of a Dundee cake.

That evening he made a point of describing the new way for Percy to take his medicine, making sure the headmaster saw him filling the capsule with harmless sugar. Making his excuses (he had a train to catch, Lamson left, purposely leaving behind two packets of empty capsules to strengthen his alibi.

Before Lamson even caught his train to Paris, Percy John was already dead.

Suspicion, as Lamson expected, immediately pointed the finger at him. With that in mind Chief Inspector Butcher of Scotland Yard was summoned to investigate and apprehend his prime suspect. London’s newspapers, sensing a classic murder to get their teeth into, helped in the hunt and, before long, Lamson was arrested. The charge was wilful murder, then carrying a mandatory date with the hangman.

The trial, at London’s legendary Old Bailey with Mr Justice Hawkins presiding, didn’t go as Lamson had planned…

Photo_of_Henry_Hawkins,_1st_Baron_Brampton

Chief Inspector Butcher had been as diligent as you’d expect from a Scotland Yard detective. He’d found a pharmacist who identified Lamson as buying aconitine while signing a false name in the pharmacist’s Poisons Register. He had evidence of both Lamson’s many debts and that his wife was to inherit Percy’s trust fund. He could place Lamson as being one of the last people to see the victim alive before suddenly and hastily leaving. Lamson’s one shot at an acquittal lay in the prosecution building their case around the capsules. In that there lay one small kink in Lamson’s plan…

They didn’t.

Lamson’s drug-addled mind had failed to account for a very important factor; The jury didn’t need to be convinced of exactly how he’d poisoned Percy, only that he’d done so. And convinced they duly were. After a six-day trial garnering a great deal of publicity (destroying what remained of Lamson’s personal and professional reputation) the jury foreman rose to deliver the verdict;

Guilty as charged, with no recommendation for mercy.

With that Mr Justice Hawkins had only one duty left to perform before a packed and silent courtroom. Donning the dreaded ‘Black Cap,’ a traditional gesture of mourning for the soon-to-be-departed, Hawkins read the final lines of this rather rather sorry drama;

“George Henry Lamson, you stand convicted of the crime of murder.  The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterward your body be cut down and buried within the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul…

Remove the prisoner.”

Lamson was immediately transferred to Wandsworth Prison and the Condemned Cell. The ‘CC’ was only a short walk to the end of ‘A’ Wing where Lamson would end his days in what Wandsworth inmates called the ‘cold meat shed.’ But first, surprisingly under the circumstances, there was a powerful campaign to see his death sentence overturned and Lamson reprieved.

Lamson soon found himself watching his lawyers before a three-judge panel at the Court of Criminal Appeal. Barred by law from speaking in his own defence, he could only watch as his barristers trampled the remnants of his personal and professional reputation in a failed effort to overturn his conviction and sentence.

It was here that his ploy with the capsules came back to bite him. He’d intended for the prosecution to accuse him of spiking the capsules and for the defence to easily destroy their case and win his acquittal. Unfortunately for Lamson, the prosecution hadn’t taken the bait. Without it, the defence couldn’t spring the trap. Moreover, appeals at the time were based entirely on evidence used at the trial, ruling out any chance for them to do so before the appellate judges. It must have loomed large in whatever remained of the good doctor’s drug-ravaged mind that, if the defence couldn’t spring their trap, the public hangman certainly could.

And was probably going to…

Lamson’s court appeal having failed, petitions were arranged, personal appeals were made, a public meeting was organised by other Americans living in London. Even the US Ambassador tried to persuade the Home Secretary to reprieve Lamson after requests from Lamson’s family in the US. All were to no avail. Lamson was unaware of something else, an unwritten rule that a Home Secretary didn’t reprieve poisoners unless they absolutely had to. Chief public executioner William Marwood was instructed to make a date in his diary.

WilliamMarwood

After a brief postponement from April 2, the fatal day finally dawned on April 28, 1882. At dawn Lamson was awoken in the Condemned Cell. He declined a final breakfast and, when his time came, had to be helped along his last mile between the ‘CC’ and the ‘Cold Meat Shed.’ Unable even to stand on his own two feet, the ravages of fear and morphine withdrawal taking their toll, he had to supported on the trap as the hangman went about his business. William Marwood (pioneer of ‘long drop’ hanging) worked as quickly as possible to bring this once-promising young man’s suffering to an end.

George Henry Lamson was dead.

Albert Pierrepoint – Master Hangman.


 Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.


Albert Pierrepoint, King of the swingers.

.Public Executioner. It’s not what you’d call an everyday profession. Unusual? Certainly. Skilled? Absolutely. Dark and scary? Well, it depends on why you fancy the job, really. But it’s certainly not the sort of work that most people would consider a life’s ambition or the family business unless you happen to be Albert Pierrepoint. Albert really wanted the job and even wrote a school essay on how much he fancied doing it, possibly because his uncle and father were hangmen as well and he ended up working with his uncle quite a few times. Albert ended up having legally killed more people (at least 435 men and 17 women) than any half-dozen British serial killers combined and then, having ‘topped’ that many people (as he so quaintly put it) the ‘Master Hangman’ (as he so modestly called himself) had a sudden revelation that killing people to demonstrate that killing is wrong slightly failed any semblance of logic or common sense. Which was bit late for him (after 25 years in the job) and ever so slightly late for the 450 or so people that dear Albert referred to as his ‘customers’ (although the complaints department phone never rang, for some reason utterly unrelated to their all being dead).

 The 'Execution Box' containing the tools of Albert's grisly trade.


The ‘Execution Box’ containing the tools of Albert’s grisly trade.

For our diminutive death merchant (he was a little chap, only about five feet and six inches tall) stringing people up wasn’t a sordid, grim, depressing affair that most people wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. It was a skilled and potentially dangerous ‘craft’ at which he liked to excel with his speed and skill. British hangmen had an unofficial competition to hold unofficial records for the fastest and cleanest killings possible. Sort of a ‘Death Race’ if you like. Albert managed to ‘top’ his rivals (not literally) when he executed a prisoner and took only 7 seconds from start to finish. 7 seconds. Not even long enough to say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Pierrepoint’ before his latest dance partner was doing the hangman’s hornpipe before a bevy of (somewhat stunned) local dignitaries. Still, it was Albert’s job to make things go with a swing, when you think about it.

 Where the bottom fell out of their world.


Where the bottom fell out of their world.

Albert was always somewhat irked by the miserly pay for what he considered a skilled and potentially dangerous profession. The pay for the job was, frankly, lousy. It was a small amount that was only paid half before a job and half after and if a prisoner’s sentence was commuted then the executioners weren’t paid anything at all, not even travel expenses. Albert often went from one end of the UK to another and came home penniless and that was why he quit the job in 1956, leaving the authorities to go hang, as it were. It didn’t matter to the powers-that-be that their master butcher ended up out of pocket, just as long as they saved some cash as well as saving a prisoner’s neck (literally).

 You weren't paid a thing if they didn't have to swing.


You weren’t paid a thing if they didn’t have to swing.

Still, Albert’s job did have its lighter side. He owned a pub when he wasn’t travelling round the country performing his famous rope trick and it had an amusingly appropriate name all things considered. His pub was named ‘Help the Poor Struggler’, something Albert had made a career out of. It’s even said there was an appropriate sign dangling over the beer pumps, presumably for the benefit of more tardy customers, which read ‘No Hanging Round the Bar.’

 Albert was a professional until the last drop.


Albert was a professional until the last drop.

Albert even found time to become an unwilling celebrity. He’d always kept his ‘craft’ a secret from anybody who didn’t absolutely need to know (it tends to invite a certain amount of unhealthy curiosity when you say you kill people for a living, after all). But his best efforts to stay out of the limelight ended courtesy of World War Two when it was publicly announced that he’d be popping over to Germany to perform his rope trick on over 200 Nazis. Not surprisingly in 1945 this made him a pretty popular chap all round. His amusingly-named pub did more business than ever as voyeurs turned up in droves just to look at him, get their photos taken with him, buy him pints of beer (which he kept behind the bar and sold back to other customers) and simply so they could say they’d shaken hands with the ‘Genial hangman’ as he became known.

Albert resigned in 1956 in a dispute over money. As usual, he’d been engaged to execute Thomas Bancroft, a murderer of no particular note, gone to Walton Prison at his own expense and then Bancroft was reprieved with only 12 hours to spare. Albert, tired of being stuck with travel and hotel bills, demanded that his superiors pay his expenses and they refused. So he quit as he’d rather be dropping convicts than dropping cash every time an inmate’s lawyer managed to get them off. His bosses begged and pleaded (they didn’t have anyone else who could do the job as well as Albert and you could call him ‘Top of the drops’ really) but he held firm and even refused their oh-so-kind invitation to go back on their list and continue providing cut-price carnage on their behalf. He finally turned against his former occupation (a bit late for himself and certainly far too late for 450 convicts) and later said that the death penalty achieved nothing but revenge.

Which was nice…

The Brits Who Fought For Hitler.


Insignia of the ‘British Free Corps’, former prisoners-of-war who enlisted in the infamous Waffen SS.

The SS motto – ‘My honour is loyalty.’

 

As a freelance scribbler and long-time student of military history I love finding the more overlooked or forgotten aspects of the subject. For instance, the popular narrative of the Second World War holds that the British people pulled together, fighting as one for a common cause.

Erm, not exactly.

While British troops and the vast majority of the British public did rally round, a tiny handful didn’t. Some turned traitor for money. The notorious ‘£18 traitor’ Duncan Scott-Ford (not one of Plymouth’s favourite sons), was hanged at Wandsworth Prison in November, 1942 for selling convoy information to German Intelligence at a bargain discount. For others the shift was ideological. They were in it for the cause, such as Wiliam Joyce (AKA ‘Lord HAW Haw’ and star of Nazi propaganda broadcast) and John Amery, founder of the ‘British Free Corps.’

The BFC were British troops, former prisoners-of-war, recruited in their camps by the Waffen SS. The BFC was originally Amery’s idea but, given his recruitment efforts were farcically unsuccessful, the unit was turned over to the Waffen SS in the hope that they would run it better than Amery (not difficult). Amery’s original idea was to recruit thousands of British prisoners ranging from committed Nazis and Fascists to disaffected soldiers, those whose anti-Communism outweighed their patriotism and so on.

Recruiting foreigners into the SS wasn’t nearly as rare as you might think. Scandanavia produced the ‘Viking’ Division, there were several thousand Indians possibly motivated by Indian nationalism, a Muslim division active in the former Yugoslavia and even Russian prisoners choosing to enlist. Far from an entirely Nazi unit with strict racial and religious selection criteria, the SS were far more flexible than many might believe.

With their previous success at recruiting foreigners, the SS thought that recruiting British traitors would be equally fruitful. It wasn’t. The BFC never had more than 27 members at any time and only 60 or so ever joined at all. Many who did claimed later that they joined either to escape or to gather intelligence and desert at the earliest opportunity. Throughout its (mercifully brief) existence the BFC never numbered a platoon, let alone a corps.

The BFC didn’t last long, either. Originally named the ‘Legion of Saint George’, recruitment started under Amery in 1943. Thousands of leaflets were delivered to POW camps all over the crumbling Third Reich. Recruiters like Amery visited camps, dishing out gifts accompanied by their sales pitch. The sales pitch appealed more to anti-Communism than outright Nazi or Fascist sympathies and, like the BFC itself, recruitment never really achieved anything. It achieved so little that Amery was replaced as recruiter in late 1943 and the unit handed over to the Waffen SS. By 1944 it was obvious to any British prisoner that the war was already lost and it was only months before the ‘Thousand Year Reich’ would collapse. Even if there were many receptive prisoners they were highly unlikely to join an already-defeated side when they could simply wait for liberation, rather than risk being killed in action or captured and hanged as traitors.

Enduring the POW camps was painful. Albert Pierrepoint’s rope was worse.

Recruitment wasn’t confined solely to British prisoners. Canadians, New Zealanders, Australians and others were approached. Only a handful ever enlisted, many who enlisted didn’t stay for more than a few days before returning to their camps. Very often, they simply signed up for a few days of forbidden pleasures (beer and prostitutes being the most popular) before deciding it wasn’t for them. The supposed Corps never even reached platoon strength at its largest.

Nazi and traitor John Amery, founder of the British Free Corps.

John Amery, like the ‘Cambridge Spies’ after the war, was an unlikely traitor. He was the son of one of Churchill’s War Cabinet, Leo Amery (then Secretary of State for India). His brother Julian did excellent wartime service in the British Army and, after John was condemned, did his best to secure clemency. Decades afterward he still refused to discuss his brother. John Amery was an arch-imperialist, a raving anti-Semite, an equally raving anti-Communist and a traitor. His far-right beliefs led him to claim he’d run guns to General Franco during the Spanish Civil War (this was a lie, but gained widespread belief). After bankruptcy in 1936 he moved to France, briefly visited Spain, became further embroiled in Nazi collaboration while living in Vichy France and made propaganda broadcasts for Nazi radio during the Second World War. His final treachery was forming the British Free Corps. He was, according to British upper-class stereotypes, the last person expected to turn traitor.

But his family connections, his fictional gun-running for Franco (still ruling Spain at the time) and his brother’s efforts to gain clemency didn’t save him. Amery was captured by Italian partisans weeks before the German surrender and handed over to the British for trial on a charge of high treason. High treason carried a mandatory sentence, death by hanging. At first Amery tried to claim Spanish citizenship, arguing that as a naturalised Spaniard he was no longer British so couldn’t be tried for treason. His lies caught up with him. The Spanish government denied Amery had smuggled them weapons during the civil war. They also confirmed that Amery had taken some steps towards Spanish citizenship, but not all of them. Legally, Amery was still British. His defence simply didn’t exist.

Amery knew it. In an almost-unheard of move he stood before Justice Humphries at the Old Bailey on November 28, 1945 and pled guilty. Humphries warned Amery of the mandatory death sentence before accepting the plea. Amery refused to change his mind. The trial lasted only 8 minutes before Humphries donned the ‘black cap’, a square of black silk traditionally placed on a judge’s wig before a death sentence.

Humphries spoke briefly and bluntly:

“John Amery… I am satisfied that you knew what you did and that you did it intentionally and deliberately after you had received warning from your fellow countrymen that the course you were pursuing amounted to high treason. They called you a traitor and you heard them; but in spite of that you continued in that course. You now stand a self-confessed traitor to your King and country, and you have forfeited your right to live.”

“The sentence of this Court is that you will be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead and that afterward your body will be cut down and buried withing the precincts of the prison in which you were last confined before execution. And may the Lord have mercy upon your soul.”

“Remove the prisoner…”

Final Destination: The gallows at Wandsworth Prison where Amery met his end

Amery’s brother Julian did his best for a reprieve. There was no chance of that. In 1945 the public mood was vengeful, especially towards homegrown traitors. At 9am on December 19, 1945, John Amery took his final walk. It was brief, seven steps from condemned cell to gallows. He walked firmly, unaided, as the prison clock started chiming the hour. By the time the chimes stopped, Amery was dead. It took only seconds. Chief executioner Albert Pierrepoint and his assistant Henry Critchell had achieved their usual speed and precision. After hanging for the traditional hour to absolutely ensure death, Amery was cut down. A post-mortem was performed and he was buried, as was traditional, in an unmarked grave within Wandsworth Prison.

Oddly enough, it was Albert Pierrepoint who complimented Amery’s courage at the end. In an article written for the ‘Empire News and Sunday Chronicle’ but not published after official pressure, Pierrepoint described Amery as ‘The bravest man I ever hanged.’ Considering Amery’s Nazi beliefs, his treachery and that Pierrepoint hanged 433 men and 17 women in his career, perhaps the most positive thing about John Amery’s life was the manner in which he met his death.