A few days ago Channel 5 screened another episode of Hidden History of Britain. Presented by former politician Michael Portillo, the episode covered Shepton Mallet Prison and the case of Leroy Henry. Shepton Mallet should be familiar to readers of Crimescribe, as should Leroy Henry who I’ve previously covered. You can watch it here.
I was consulted by programme-makers Transparent Television for this one a few months ago, one of the perks of covering crime’s odds and ends being the occasional consult or interview request. Having now watched it myself, it’s well worth looking at. It’s not Portillo’s first foray into crime documentaries, either. The BBC screened ‘How to kill a human being’ a couple of years ago and he’s a very watchable presenter.
Henry’s wasn’t the only curious case of former US Air Force Private George Edward Smith. Smith, convicted of murdering senior British diplomat Sir Eric Teichman at Honingham Hall, was hanged on May 8, 1945 by Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by Herbert Morris. While the rest of the world was going to wake up to the dawning of a new age, Smith was pondering his final hours in Shepton Mallet’s condemned cell.
I covered Smith’s case a couple of years ago, in a guest post for Executed Today, a fascinating site rich in criminal history and thought it was worth remembering. So here it is.
.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).
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.
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).
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 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.
The strange case of Leroy Henry attracts me for two reasons. One is that I like to look at the unusual. Even if posting on a widely-known and common story then I prefer one with a twist. It helps keep things interesting. Leroy Henry’s case was very interesting. Private Henry was one of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who flooded the UK in preparation for Operation Overlord, the liberation of Europe. He arrived in 1943 and was assigned to the 3914 Quartermaster Gas Supply Company delivering fuel to various US Army units. He was also black and so had to endure both the racial segregation in the Army at the time and no small amount of racial prejudice, particularly from his fellow Americans. He was based in Somerset, near Bristol and it was at Somerset’s Shepton Mallet Prison that he nearly, but not quite, kept an unjustified date with the hangman.
The summer of 1944 was, for obvious reasons, a rather busy time for Americans and their British hosts. Few people knew when or where the forthcoming invasion would happen, but it was no secret that sooner or later it would. Private Henry, like most young soldiers abroad, liked to spend his time off relaxing. A few drinks, a dance or a movie and maybe some time with a woman. There’s nothing unusual about that, or about the fact that he was apparently paying for her time. But Leroy Henry was a black man in a segregated US Army from a country with a long-established history of keeping people like him in what many whites thought was their place. In the South lynchings still occurred, a black defendant stood a far higher chance of conviction (especially if the injured party was white) and, if convicted of a capital crime, was much more likely to face execution. Leroy Henry was black, came from Missouri (not the most racist state in the Union, but no sinecure, either) and was on trial for the alleged rape of a 33-year old British woman. A white 33-year old British woman. Rape in the US Army was (and still is) a capital crime under Section 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and defendants at the time would be tried for their lives under the US Army Articles of War of June 4, 1920. A black defendant, an institutionally racist Army and a white alleged victim didn’t look promising for the defence. And it wasn’t.
Henry was court-martialled at a US Army camp near the town of Warminster. Under the Visiting Forces Act, Parliament had agreed that the US Army could handle its own criminal cases unless the Army waived that right and handed the case over to the British police and legal system. They didn’t. The court-martial was presided over by a Colonel, prosecuted by a Captain Cullison and Henry was defended by a Major Drew. The jury consisted eight officers, seven white and one black.
Henry’s alleged victim (who shall remain nameless) alleged that he had appeared at her home in the village of Combe Down late one night lost, asking for directions to the city of Bristol. She also claimed her husband was present and that he had no objections when she offered to go out with Henry and personally direct him to the road for Bristol. Having left the house, she alleged that Henry had assaulted her, threatened her with a knife, thrown her over a wall and then raped her at knife-point. There were, however, some serious doubts about her having made a genuine allegation. Inquiries revealed that she had been, at least, a part-time prostitute, offering sexual favours to soldiers in return for money, food and goods often entirely unavailable to civilians due to strict wartime rationing. That in itself isn’t proof of perjury, not in the slightest, but more doubts were to follow. Chief among them being that, while medical examination did reveal evidence of sexual activity, it didn’t reveal any trace whatsoever of physical injury, signs of a struggle or indeed any evidence of physical mistreatment whatsoever. Inquiries also revealed that Leroy Henry and his alleged victim were known to each other and had been for some time.
Leroy Henry, not surprisingly gave a different version of events. He admitted sleeping with the alleged victim, but claimed he had agreed to pay her for doing so. According to Henry he had been prepared to pay her £1 (worth far more then that today) but that she had demanded twice that. According to Henry, he told her he didn’t have £2 and was prepared to pay half that, at which point she flew into a rage and threatened to report him to the Army for raping her.
So, the jury had two different stories. One came from a black defendant without any supporting eyewitnesses who may or may not have been lying to save himself. The other came from a white woman whose character would have been considered dubious by the standards of the time and who claimed to have been victim of a violent attack while having suffered no physical injuries. The jury chose to believe the alleged victim. Private Leroy Henry was found guilty and condemned to death by hanging, sentence to be carried out at Shepton Mallet Prison, using a standard British gallows operated by British executioners. Henry was shipped to Shepton Mallet, a British civilian prison loaned to the US Army by the British authorities for the duration of the war, with an armed escort and under sentence of death.
147 US servicemen were executed for crimes committed during the Second World War, 70 of whom died in Europe. All were convicted of rape and/or murder. All were either hanged or shot, shooting being the preferred choice for purely military offences such as desertion or mutiny, with the exception of the US Army’s sole execution for desertion during World War II, the widely-known case of Private Eddie Slovik.. Having been convicted of a capital crime involving a civilian, Leroy Henry would hang unless a Board of Review rejected the sentence or a General signed a commutation. Under the circumstances, neither a sympathetic Board of Review or equally sympathetic General were especially likely prospects.
Shepton Mallet had become the US Army’s princpal military prison for the ‘European Theater of Operations’ (ETO). It wasn’t the only place in Europe where American soldiers were condemned and executed, but it was one of the more regular spots for eithet a firing squad or a hanging. At Shepton Mallet firing squads were conducted at 8am. There were two prisoners shot at dawn. Sixteen were hanged in the newly-constructed gallows room, built to British specifications and operated by British hangmen. Hangings were usually performed at 1am. Sixteen men were hanged at Shepton Mallet while two more were shot. Of those hanged, nine had been convicted of murder, six of rape and three of both. Six of them were executed standing side-by-side in three double hangings, a British gallows being designed to hang two inmates at once if needed. The average age of those executed was twenty-one years old. No officers were executed, they comprised seventeen Privates and one Corporal. The principal executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint, assisted by his son Albert, Herbert Morris, Steve Wade and Alexander Riley. Albert did perform three himself, but Thomas pulled the lever most often.
Lodged in the specially-built ‘Condemned Cell’ at Shepton Mallet, things looked very bleak indeed for Leroy Henry. At least they did until the intervention of a local tradesman, a local dignitary and 33,000 local people. Jack Allen was the local baker who started the petition. Appalled by the quality of incriminating evidence (more the rather striking lack thereof) he began to collect signatures. This wasn’t unusual in cases involving British condemned inmates and was seldom successful. In Leroy Henry’s case it was, especially when in the nearby spa town of Bath Alderman and local Magistrate Sam Day added his voice and signature to the chorus of disapproval. What resembled a case of ‘Jim Crow Justice’ now became a political and diplomatic football.
Campaigning proceeded quickly and snowballed equally fast. Faced with a petition of 33,000 names, wide local outcry, highly-connected locals like Sam Day and finally the attention of the national press, General (and future President) Dwight D Eisenhower swiftly brought matters to a head. Not only did he refuse to confirm the death sentence, he also threw out the entire case. Private Leroy Henry was now free to return to his unit without a stain on his record. It’s unusual that so high-ranking a figure as ‘Ike’ would personally involve himself in a routine court-martial, or that he would take such decisive and far-reaching action. It’s especially indicative of the pressure placed on him behind the scenes as Henry was condemned only a few days before June 6, 1944 when, for obvious reasons, this was an extra headache on top of the D Day landings that he really didn’t need.
So, justice was served after all, albeit in highly convoluted fashion.with an unexpected guest appearance from General Eisenhower…