Wandsworth

On This Day in 1934; The last British hanging witnessed by a journalist.


Wandsworth_Prison_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1030498

When Frederick Parker and Albert Probert mounted the gallows at Wandsworth Prison, they died never knowing they’d taken a singular place in Britain’s chronicles of crime. Theirs would be last execution in British prison to be witnessed by a gentleman (or lady) of the press.

Until the Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 executions were performed in public. Anyone, be they prince, pauper, journalist or ordinary member of the public, could watch a felon pay the ultimate penalty. After 1868 executions were performed entirely behind prison walls, although reporters were still permitted to be present. Both hangmen and prison governors alike came to prefer it if they weren’t.

Prison staff came to loathe many reporters who witnessed executions, believing them to fabricate reports of doomed men struggling to the last and kicking and screaming their way to their deaths. This, as a rule, very rarely actually happened. In the eyes of warders, governors and hangmen alike, it appeared in the next day’s newspapers far too often. As former assistant hangman Syd Dernley described it in his memoir ‘The Hangman’s Tale’;

“In the absence of genuine information, the wildest stories were heard and believed. Gruesome reports circulated of nightmare scenes in which condemned people had to be dragged kicking, screaming and pleading to the trap, where the rope had to be forced round their necks and they were dropped to strangle, moving and twitching for minutes on end.”

Reporters weren’t officially banned to avoid accusations of censorship and officialdom muzzling the press. In practice, though, prison governors were able to say yes or no. Increasingly, they said no. By the time of Probert and Parker, Associated Press reporter W G Finch was very much the exception to a firm though unwritten rule. He would also be the last of his kind to receive such a privilege.

Finch was one of the doyens of British crime reporting. A member of a group known in the profession as the ‘Murder Gang,’ Finch made it his business to report murders, sometimes arriving at crime scenes before police officers. Like his fellow ‘Murder Gang’ members, he was as much tolerated as accepted by the police of the time. They couldn’t freeze out crime reporters, so they had to (sometimes grudgingly) tolerate their existence.

 

Parker and Probert themselves were otherwise unexceptional criminals. They’d assaulted shopkeeper Joseph Bedford while trying to rob his store on November 13, 1933. Severely beaten, Bedford died of his injuries the next day. Arrested a few days after the crime, Parker and Probert now faced trial for murder, then carrying a mandatory death sentence.

Bernard-Spilsbury-NLB

They were tried before Mr Justice Roche, legendary pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury testified for the prosecution which was led by the equally legendary Sir Henry Curtis-Bennett, KC (King’s Counsel). Against such heavyweight opposition the pair could only blame each other. This, of course, made no difference. They had gone to rob together, had killed together and so, in the eyes of the law, would be tried, convicted and hanged together.

Convicted on March 16, 1934, they stood before Mr Justice Roche as he donned the traditional Black Cap to pass what reporters often called ‘the dread sentence’;

“Frederick Parker and Albert Probert, you stand convicted of the crime of wilful murder. The sentence of this Court is that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and then to a place of execution where you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and that afterwards your bodies 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 souls…”

Pierrepoints (1)

Their appeals proved fruitless and were denied on April 18, 1934. With that in mind, chief hangman Thomas Pierrepoint was booked to hang the pair. Uncle and nephew would work together so frequently they became known as ‘the firm of Uncle Thomas and Our Albert.’ With him were his assistant and nephew Albert (undoubtedly needing no introduction) and two additional assistants, Stanley Cross and Tom Phillips. Cross was an experienced assistant and Phillips even more so. Albert, however, was the relative novice that day.

Parker and Probert were only the sixth and seventh notches on Albert’s rope. Beginning with Patrick McDermott at Dublin’s Mountjoy Jail on December 29, 1932 (assisting his uncle Thomas), Albert had only assisted at four hangings since then. His uncle, meanwhile, had been involved in almost 200 executions by that point. He would continue until hanging cop killer John Caldwell at Barlinnie Gaol in Glasgow on August 10, 1946. Caldwell would be Thomas’s 296th and final victim.

Parker and Probert died quietly and quickly at 9am, without trouble, dropping simultaneously was the fashion. As they had murdered and been tried together, so they dropped side-by-side. The presence of W G Finch, though causing no problems whatsoever with the hanging itself, was frowned on by higher authority. The customary placing of official notices on the prison gate, announcing the executions had been carried out, was undoubtedly the death knell for Parker and Probert.

It was also the end of media access to a British gallows. Executions would continue until August 13, 1964 when two inmates, Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen died simultaneously at Strangeways and Walton Prisons respectively. Like Parker and Probert thirty years previously, Allen and Evans had committed murder during a robbery. With their deaths the Black Cap, ‘dread sentence’ and the death penalty itself became part of penal history.

 

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…

Ronnie Biggs – Master Criminal..?


Ronald Biggs

Today we’ve got an unusual double anniversary involving a well-known, but curious, character, Ronnie Biggs. Biggs helped carry out the Great Train Robbery on August 8, 1963, 38 years ago today. August 8, 1963 was also his 34th birthday.. A lot of people also persist in thinking that he was some sort of master criminal who set up and led the whole thing. He wasn’t, by a very long shot. He was a very minor figure in the ‘Crime of the Century’ and not in any way a criminal big-shot.

Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the 'Crime of the Century.'

Bruce Reynolds, the real mastermind behind the ‘Crime of the Century.’

It was actually Bruce Reynolds who planned and masterminded the robbery. It was Reynolds who agreed to let Biggs, a small-time thief and robber of no particular notoriety, join the gang because Biggs said he could recruit a retired train driver. He could, it was just that the retired train driver couldn’t actually drive that type of train which meant that Jack Mills (who’d already been coshed with a steel bar) had to be dragged into the driver’s cab and forced to move the train instead.

 Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.


Bridego Bridge just after the robbery.

As far as the robbery itself goes, the rest is history. The gang stole 120 mailbags containing nearly three million pounds (worth around forty-six million in today’s currency) and split the loot at their hideout, Leatherslade Farm. Biggs himself took a share of £147,000 (worth around 1.6 million pounds today). If the accomplice assigned to burn the farm to the ground and destroy any incriminating evidence had actually done so, then the gang would have had a far better chance of not being caught. He didn’t, and they were. Along with many other members including Bruce Reynolds, Biggs received thirty years. He was sent to Wandsworth to disappear into obscurity as just a mugshot and a convict number, but didn’t quite follow the rules. After fifteen months at Wandsworth (known to British inmates as the ‘Hate Factory’) Biggs escaped.

 Not what you'd call hiding from the forces of law and order.


Not what you’d call hiding from the forces of law and order.

 

Between 1965 and 2001 Biggs was a fugitive. First in Australia (reporters found him before the police) and then Brazil by way of Panama (reporters found him in Brazil as well, also before the British police). Once he’d fathered a child in Brazil and as Brazil had no formal extradition treaty with the UK, Biggs was effectively free to taunt the British authorities from afar and taunt them he did. The robbery had made him a little famous, his escape made him very and his repeatedly flaunting himself in the media made him internationally-known, not just to the police. He collaborated on a popular jazz album in 1977. He was barred from working and lived under a curfew under Brazilian law as a known felon, so started entertaining tourist parties with accounts of the robbery at his home. Around that time he also started marketing merchandise, T shirts, coffee mugs, cups and so on, all over his adopted home of Rio de Janeiro. 1978 would see even more outrageous excesses.

In 1978 he collaborated with notorious punk rockers the Sex Pistols, appearing in their film ‘The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ and providing vocals on two song, one being ‘No-one is Innocent’ which had the delightful alternate title of ‘Cosh the Driver’ a crude reference to Jack Mills. He also provided vocals on the equally-delightful ‘Belsen Was A Gas’ and managed to be photographed for the album cover as well. Scotland Yard were unlikely to forget him and he seems determined to ensure that they couldn’t even if they’d wanted to. Especially when ‘No-One is Innocent’ reached Number Seven in the UK Singles Chart in July, 1978. For a man on the run he seems to have spent a lot of it standing out very visibly while flicking two fingers at the British authorities and saying ‘Catch me if you can.’ In 1978 a group of British ex-soldiers did. They kidnapped him to try and claim the reward.

They didn’t return him to the UK and they didn’t get their reward, either. Suffering mechanical problems their boat was forced into Barbados. Barbados didn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK and they don’t aid and abet kidnappers either. Biggs was simply returned to Brazil and took full advantage of his latest escape from the law. He gave Independent Television News exclusive acces to him and to cover his return to Brazil (in exchange for a very large fee) and made sure the British authorities knew they hadn’t got their man. It was another two-fingered salute to the system..

In 2001, he’d finally had enough. He wanted to come home to die. He was arrested as soon as he arrived and wasn’t released until 2009 on compassionate grounds (he was dying). He finally died in December 2013 and, on January 3, 2014, he was cremated. But he couldn’t resist one last dig at the authorities he’d confounded and infuriated for so long. His coffin had two flags on it, one British and the other Brazilian. The Brazilian flag largely hid the British one from view, a final dig at British justice for pursuing him so relentlessly and for so long. His coffin had a guard of honour, composed of Hell’s Angels. And, in the rear window of the hearse where it couldn’t be seen by anyone looking on, one last message for British officialdom.

A floral wreath showing two raised fingers.

Biggs was a small-time villain who lucked into a big-time robbery. He didn’t even perform his role in the robbery very well, having recruited an engine driver who couldn’t actually drive the engine.. But one thing he was extraordinarily good at was playing the celebrity villain. He managed to parlay a walk-on part in a major robbery into lasting fame simply by escaping from prison and evading extradition for nearly 40 years. He was, in reality, a small-timer when he was an active criminal, but as a celebrity villain he was immensely successful.