The second of a two-part 1994 interview with a former British executioner
More than thirty years after the abolition of capital punishment in Britain, the clamour for its reintroduction seems to have abated. The cherished goal of the hanging and flogging lobby remains unfulfilled.
In the summer of 1994 I interviewed Britain’s last surviving executioner, Syd Dernley. During the course of the interview, I asked Syd about some of the moral issues surrounding capital punishment. If I expected well-argued and challenging responses to my questions, I was to be disappointed.
What makes someone become a hangman? In his autobiography, The Hangman’s Tale, Syd writes:
“It was not that I wanted to kill people, but it was the story of travel and adventure, of seeing notorious criminals and meeting famous detectives.”
I asked him why he had not simply joined the police force.
“At that particular time, I owned a .22 rifle with a silencer – legally – and a .22 pistol with a silencer, and we only lived 6 miles away from Sherwood Forest, and I liked pheasants and partridges…” he says, with an impish grin.
Syd obviously enjoys a good thrill-kill. I asked him whether he could have stomached other forms of execution – decapitation for example?
“Well, I’ve become immune to the sight of a hanging man, so it’d be an experience!” he exclaims.
Syd thinks about this prospect for a moment, then laughs “chopping bloody ‘eads off! I could certainly do it. My conscience, if I’ve got one, would be still. I was a very good hand with a striking hammer when I worked at the colliery… off with his nut!”
Later, Syd tells me that the last French executioner visited him a couple of years ago, recalling that the headsman had to stand well-back from the guillotine, because the blood would spray several metres from the blade. Syd has a mischievous grin on his face me as he tells this unsavoury fact.
You might have guessed that Syd Dernley is still an ardent supporter of capital punishment. His reasons are fairly simplistic, despite the fact that he obviously knows much about the subject. He trots out the usual well-worn reasons for reinstating the death penalty, often as a totally inappropriate response to a question that he has no valid answer for. Frankly, it’s infuriating.
He’s very clear about one thing, however, and that is the sort of people who most deserve the noose:
“In particular, those people who murder small children. They should still be executed, no matter what the law says, and most people like myself think so.”
So the severity of the punishment should be based on arbitrary criteria, in this case the age of the victim of the crime. Even if such a thing were acceptable, what about the likelihood of miscarriages of justice? With all the wrongful convictions that have been uncovered many years after the sentences were handed down, reintroducing the death penalty would surely be a recipe for disaster.
In his book, Syd states that since the convictions of only a few individuals who were sent to the gallows have been brought into doubt, this justifies its use. A case of the odd innocent man being expendable.
I point out recent cases such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. Syd’s wife, Joyce, intervenes at this point to remind Syd of his stock answer:
“As to the Guildford Four,” he says, “they pleaded guilty, but in my opinion, they pleaded guilty because they knew they wouldn’t be hung, that they’d only get a few years in prison.”
This issue of miscarriages of justice is something that Syd has had direct experience of. In 1950 he assisted at the execution of Timothy Evans, who had been convicted of murdering his wife and baby daughter.
At the time it appeared that Evans’ guilt was absolute, but three years later it was discovered that in the same house in which Evans and his wife had lived – 10 Rillington Place – John Christie had been murdering women for years.
Christie had undoubtedly committed the crimes for which Evans was hanged. Timothy Evans was given a posthumous pardon in 1966 – until recently the only man to receive one. I asked Syd how it felt to have hanged a totally innocent man.
“Well, I’ve got no feelings at all about it. He’d been sentenced to death and we went down to Pentonville to carry out the execution and it was all over very quickly.
“There were only two things I remember about that execution: one is that while I was going on the train into London I saw in Leicestershire the Quorn hunt – a magnificent sight, and then when we went into the condemned cell in Pentonville to strap Timothy John Evans’ arms, he turned and looked at us and I’ve never seen such terrified eyes in all my life.”
Blood sports and hanging in the same breath! Rich pickings for a psychoanalyst, no doubt. Incredibly, Syd still believes that Evans was involved in the murders. Why?
“Well, to put it into Nottinghamshire language, he was a bit simple and he’d been persuaded by Christie to do so.”
Is this not just an excuse to alleviate the guilt of killing an innocent man?
“Well, if I helped to kill an innocent man as you seem to be implying, it doesn’t worry me one little bit. I did the job I was trained to do, and I did it well.”
Another problem with judicial executions is the possibility of mistakes being made during the execution itself. Although the hanging process in Britain became highly efficient, bungled executions still occurred.
Syd took part in a terribly botched hanging in 1950 at Norwich Prison. The man, Norman Goldthorpe, was strangled to death when his hood became caught in the eye of the noose. Syd explains:
“I feel that it was a bad job – the man was dying on the rope. It had not broken his neck, but he was dead a couple of minutes afterwards. I know that the man who was in charge, Harry Kirk, never did another one.”
What would Syd have done if the man had still been alive when he went down to examine the ‘body’?
“I don’t know,” was the simple reply. There were no guidelines for this event.
In the USA, where executions are more complicated, the nightmare of a botched job occasionally becomes a reality. With so-called ‘humane’ methods such as lethal injection, people have been known to take up to fifteen minutes to die in the most agonising way, as their vital organs shut down.
In the gas chamber, the condemned prisoner is told to gulp in the cyanide as it enters the chamber. But the involuntary struggle for life can result in a slow and painful death.
Worse still is the electric chair, where faulty connections and conductors have caused people to be literally roasted to death. In 1983, when John Evans was executed in Alabama, flames were seen shooting from Evans’ face mask while he struggled for breath. It took fourteen minutes to kill him, and he suffered severe burns.
Despite (or perhaps because of) these horrors, attempts have been made to show executions on live television in the USA. I asked Syd whether he thought this was a good idea.
“Well, no, although there is still a great deal of interest in it. When Ruth Ellis was under sentence of death, 234 people in one week wrote either to the Home Secretary or the Home Office, saying could they either be the executioner or assistant, or watch the execution.
“I don’t think that the public should be allowed to watch the actual execution, but I really think that it would do good if some executions had been filmed, and let the people watch those.”
Syd thinks that the nation is unequivocally on his side regarding capital punishment:
“I do know that they [the Government] daren’t have a referendum on it, because they know that too many people will be in favour. As the Government have determined that there shall be no more executions and also they’ve scrapped the gallows in every prison, they are determined that it won’t come back. So you watch the papers day by day and watch the murder rate rise.”
Syd seems to forget that the existence of the death penalty in the USA has apparently not helped to control spiralling crime rates. In his book, Syd claims that Britain is getting “wilder and wilder” because the threat of the noose has gone. Does he not believe that social issues are the real problem?
“I won’t attempt to answer that, because I simply do not know,” he says. But naturally he knows that hanging is the answer.
The most prolific hangman in modern times was Albert Pierrepoint. He had hanged nearly 700 people when he retired, only a few years before the abolition of capital punishment. In the final pages of his autobiography, Pierrepoint made a shocking statement: in his opinion, capital punishment served no useful purpose and should not be reintroduced.
Syd Dernley worked with Pierrepoint on several occasions, so I asked him whether he thought that perhaps Pierrepoint was in a better position to comment on this issue than he was.
“Yes, his opinion would be considered far more than mine would,” he agrees.
So why did Pierrepoint turn against the death penalty?
“My idea when I bought his book – and still is – [that] he didn’t really intend to say that. He only said it for the benefit of the people who were putting his words down. I didn’t believe that he said it.”
Conveniently for Syd, Pierrepoint is not alive to comment. Like Syd, Pierrepoint had time to reflect on the validity of executions once he had retired.
When talking to Syd, one gets the feeling that, despite his protestations, he truly revels in having killed men with impunity. He has an air of ghoulish pleasure as he recounts his stories or shows me his mementoes.
Syd picks up my book and takes it into another room. On the first page he writes: “See you on the gallows one day soon”.
Ah, but who will be on the trap, Syd?