World War II

Leroy Henry, Shepton Mallet and the curious case of George Edward Smith.

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.

Bye for now.

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…

John ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill

 "Yes, I'm Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?"

“Yes, I’m Lieutenant Colonel Churchill. Looking for excitement, are you..?”

Lieutenant Colonel John Malcolm Thorpe Fleming Churchill. Known to his friends as ‘Jack.’ Known to his fellow Commandos as ‘Mad Jack’ and/or ‘Fighting Jack.’ Probably known to the German Army as ‘Oh no, it’s him again’, He started life in the leafy, peaceful English county of Surrey. It was about the last conventional time and place Jack would inhabit for, oh, the next couple of decades. He had a public school education, went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and was posted to Burma as a 2nd Lieutenant in the well-respected Manchester Regiment. In Burma he began his love affair with all things Scottish, despite not having a drop of Scottish blood in him. He studied the bagpipes and acquired a fondness for the Scottish Claybeg, a basket-hilted broadsword that he used in battle because:

“An officer who goes into battle without his sword is improperly dressed.”

Churchill archery

Army life soon began to bore him. Jack was an unconventional man in an extremely conventional world and the British Army was about as conventional as it gets. After ten years in the service he’d had enough of living with strict rules for absolutely everything and he quit, taking a job as a newspaper editor and taking up the sport of archery. The dreaded English longbow was another medieval weapon Jack would take into battle as, after the 1939 World Championship in Norway, the clouds of impending war were darkening the skies of Europe. Jack decided the time had come to rejoin the Army and put himself in harm’s way once again.

 Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase 'cold steel.'

Jack had an individual interpretation of the military phrase ‘cold steel.’

Jack’s first taste of action was around Dunkirk in 1940. His regiment were headed for the port and (hopefully) passage home when a German infantry unit suddenly barred their way. Jack, being Jack, solved this little problem unconventionally by killing the enemy commander with his longbow (becoming the last soldier in military history to kill with a bow and arrows). He then led his unit in a desperate charge through the enemy ranks. Shortly after returning to England Jack heard about a new type of British soldier, the Commandos. Despite the fact that he had little idea what Commandos actually did. He signed up because their work was highly dangerous so obviously it would be a lot of fun. Jack proved a natural Commando. He had the aggression of a lion, the coolness of an experienced soldier and was unconventional even by Commando standards. The man and the job fit together perfectly and Jack was already building his legend.

 Why not have a little music between firefights?

Why not have a little music between firefights?

Jack was also keen on motorcycles. Very keen. So keen, in fact, that during one Commando raid he strapped his broadsword to his hip, his bow and arrows on his back and his mighty bagpipes over one shoulder and entered the fray by riding a 500cc monster off a landing craft and straight into the heart of the fighting while bellowing his personal battle cry of ‘COMMAND-OOOOOOOOO!’ Which left his own side astounded and the enemy staring in understandably open-mouthed disbelief. The legend of ‘Mad Jack’ Churchill was growing and now even other Commandos considered him entirely well named. 

By July, 1943 our fearless fighter was a full-blown legend and there was no stopping him. He led Number Two Commando in a raid on the Sicilian town of La Molina, hoping to silence an enemy lookout post. Jack went to reconnoitre the enemy positions with a Corporal as back-up and once again returned having added once more to his legend. He’d brought back some souvenirs of his recon in the form of 42 German prisoners whom he’d collected and marched back to the Commando positions while waving his sword at them ad threatening summary beheading for anyone trying to escape. For some reason his prisoners thought, seeing as they outnumbered him 42 to 1 and he still didn’t seem worried, that ‘Mad Jack’ was just mad enough to make his threat a reality. Can’t imagine why…


 "Improperly dressed? Never!"

“Improperly dressed? Never!”

Jack’s impressive run of luck finally ended in 1944. His team were wiped out and he was wounded and then captured while on a mission in Yugoslavia. Despite Hitler’s ‘Commando Order’ stating that all captured Commandos were to be shot, Jack was spared because he told them he was related to a certain other Mr. Churchill, Winston. Jack was no more related to Winston than I am but, as huge a lie as it was, it worked. Jack was sent instead to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, from which he promptly escaped, was recaptured, escaped again and made an epic 150-mile march to meet advancing American troops, surviving on rainwater he drank from roadside puddles and a can of onions he’d managed to steal somewhere along the way.

nuke blast

Jack still hadn’t had enough. Within weeks of returning to England he’d managed to arrange a posting to the Far East (where war was still raging) but, sadly for Jack (though probably nobody else involved) the war ended while he was aboard a troopship. He expressed his feelings about the end of the war by blaming the Americans for intruding in European affairs (thus depriving him of further chances to get himself killed) by saying, very angrily:

“Damn those Yanks! If they’d stayed out of it we could have been fighting for another ten years!”


The Strange Case Of Leroy Henry

 Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn't need.

Leroy Henry was condemned only days before the Normandy landings began. His case was a headache Eisenhower didn’t need.

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. 

 The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

The then-new gallows chamber at Shepton Mallet Prison. Leroy Henry was lucky to avoid his date with the hangman.

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… 

Joachim von Ribbentrop: Cornwall’s Least Favourite Tourist


Joachim von Ribbentrop, Nazi Foreign Minister and Kernowphile.

Joachim von Ribbentrop. Nazi Foreign Minister, Hitler’s personal envoy, social blunderer, temperamental egomaniac, political embarrassment and lover of Cornwall. Although the people of Cornwall were far less in love with him. Hanged at Nuremberg after conviction for crimes against humanity (many might say deservedly so), he was one of the most senior of Hitler’s henchmen.

Von Ribbentrop first visited Cornwall in 1937, largely because his superiors considered his blundering lack of diplomatic etiquette and fiery temper made him a political embarrassment. Their opinion of his tragi-comic attempts at diplomacy (rather like watching Mr. Bean attempt to defuse an atomic weapon while wearing a blindfold) was amply confirmed when he was presented to the King at an important diplomatic engagement. Normally, people meeting Britain’s monarchs are expected to conform to very strictly-defined protocol and etiquette. Von Ribbentrop managed to comprehensively ignore these conventions when, on being introduced to the King. His first action was to raise his right arm in a Nazi salute, loudly declaiming ‘Heil Hitler!’ After this slight faux pas, his superiors not surprisingly preferred to leave the diplomacy to people with some sense thereof. Baron von Blunder would be allowed and quietly encouraged to spend almost as much time as he liked sight-seeing around the English countryside. The further he was kept from London, the better his superiors liked it.

While on his travels he visited Cornwall and fell in love with the place. He was particularly fond of the area around St. Ives and originally planned to make Tregenna Castle his home and headquarters once the British had been crushed under the Nazi jackboot. Tregenna escaped his permanent presence when his beady, acquisitive eye alighted upon St. Michael’s Mount instead. This, von Ribbentrop decided, was truly a home fit for a Nazi grandee. The outbreak of war then halted his attempts to arrange an Anglo-German alliance against the Soviet Union. Now that hostilities had commenced von Ribbentrop decided, after a successful invasion, that Cornwall would become his personal fiefdom and St. Michael’s Mount his stately home and headquarters. Naturally, senior Nazis being senior Nazis, neither the possibility of Nazi defeat or whether the Cornish actually wanted him anywhere near Cornwall were entirely irrelevant. Once the Nazis were in charge it would be time to divide the spoils. Cornwall would become his personal playground.


St. Michael’s Mount, Ribbentrop’s intended home while making Cornwall his personal fiefdom.

He’d been less than discreet about his intentions even before the war. While visiting Cornwall he openly told local dignitaries that St. Michael’s Mount would make a perfect home and Cornwall a perfect fiefdom. Not surprisingly, this didn’t exactly endear him to locals but, Baron von Blunder being the crude, diplomatically-illiterate creature that he was, he almost certainly didn’t even stop to consider whether he’d be welcome. Despite having visited the area and stayed at the Mount with its owners, the Bolitho family, von Ribbentrop was oblivious of the general pitying contempt he inspired in almost everybody he met. Still, as a Nazi grandee he was no doubt well-used to people not voicing disapproval or anything else that wasn’t Nazi-approved. Woe betide anybody in Hitler’s Germany who dared to try.

With the war underway the good folk of Cornwall were spared further visits from this walking disaster area and he was even kind enough to spare the Cornish people from much in the way of air raids as well. At least until he finally became aware of the pitying contempt held for him by almost every Cornish person he’d actually encountered. In the manner typical of temperamental egomaniacs suddenly discovering that they’re regarded as merely a court jester rather than heir to the throne, von Ribbentrop’s thoughts turned to vengeance. Goering’s Luftwaffe would convey his fury to these insolent peasant pasty-munchers in traditional Nazi fashion.

Small practical considerations (like the range and payload of German bombers) fortunately precluded any Cornish town or city suffering the massed carpet-bombing routinely visited on places like Coventry, Plymouth, London and many others. Besides, other ideas not occurring to von Ribbentrop (like the Luftwaffe actually having better things to do than demolish places because he didn’t like their inhabitants) largely prevailed. Falmouth was hit hard more than once but, being the world’s third-largest natural harbour, this probably had more to do with military planning than Baron von Blunder’s bruised ego. Smaller raids hit Truro, Redruth and St. Ives, areas previously off-limits thanks to von Ribbentrop’s whim.

In the end though, Baron von Blunder never conquered his Cornish fiefdom. The Nazis were defeated and von Ribbentrop was captured. As a principal defendant in the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials his fate was assured. The International Military Tribunal, composed of British, American, French and Soviet officers, judges and lawyers, were in no mood to reprieve a would-be despot who’d never shown mercy to others. On October 16, 1946 von Ribbentrop was hanged at Nuremberg Prison. He was the first senior Nazi political figure to hang, Goering having swallowed a concealed cyanide capsule hours before execution.


October 16, 1946: Justice at Nuremberg.

It’s doubtful whether he was especially missed, or mourned, by the people of Cornwall or anywhere else.