His signature trick was to light a cheroot, and to leave it
In the condemned cell’s ashtray while burning.
He’d then escort the prisoner to the gallows next door:
“Do him quick. Come back to my cigar. Still smoking”.
“Cap, noose, cotter pin, lever and drop . . .
Always had that routine in my head.
Then it’s nip down below to the trap door pit.
The doctor’s stethoscope. ‘Yep. He’s dead’”.
I asked him what happened if anyone ever fainted
Before they’d reached the scaffold’s trap door.
“We’d a flat board the size of a stretcher in the corner.
We’d strap ‘em to it. That’s what that was for”.
“Me? I’d always take my uncle’s advice and have
A boiled sweet inside my mouth.
Barley sugar’s best. A humbug is good”.
He made a moist sucking with his breath.
Barry didn’t react. It was down to me to do the talking
While Barry was overcome, if not rooted to the spot.
I mentioned the case of Ruth Ellis and her crime passionel
For whom Pierrepoint had tied the terminal knot.
“I can tell you about the last woman to hang,” he said,
“All the women were braver than the men.
No idea why, but women go without a murmur.
Men grip their crotches; want their Mam”.
He’d hanged 200 Nazis after the Nuremberg trials:
“One after the other. Never gave it a thought”.
I noticed Barry scrutinizing Pierrepoint’s hands –
Perhaps imagining them pulling a rope tight . . .
“When I carried out post-war executions in Austria
They were so impressed with my technique
That Austrian executioners told the authorities:
‘Adopt Pierrepoint’s methods or we strike’”.
“Up to that time the Austrians had to hang on
To the legs of a strangling prisoner,
Until my showing them the best British method”.
He said with a smugly patriotic fervor.
“I’ve hanged six hundred people,” Pierrepoint went on.
“I’ve wanted to do this since I was eleven.
I’ve kept a detailed log book. You can see it if you want.
My dad and uncle Tom were Home Office hangmen.”
“They succeeded Bartholemew Binns who experimented
By hanging dogs and cats in his own home,
And Bradford’s James Berry, a careless decapitator
Who hung the Lambeth poisoner, Dr. Cream.”
“They taught me how to push the lever slipping the bolt
From its socket beneath the trap-door on the floor,
And how to truss up the prisoner so that he didn’t kick up . . .”
A feral look indicated we’d have to pay to learn more.
“I hanged twenty-seven in one day in Germany.
Never cost me a second’s sleep.
Your priest presses his cross to a pair of white lips
Then it’s the hood for Billy-boy and Lovers’ Leap”.
“When you enter the condemned cell your hood’s folded up
And it’s peeping out of your suit’s breast pocket.
They think it’s your handkerchief until it’s too late –
In seconds you’ve drawn the bolt from its socket”.
“You’ve made your T-mark on the drop’s trap doors
Where you align the prisoner’s toes.
The arches of his feet should be over the crack.
You push the lever hard. Down he goes”.
“The hood’s there to cover all the horrid expressions
That can arise from strangulation,
But always your first choice is to have the spinal cord snap
Then you’re spared any facial contortion”.
Heathcote Williams most recent publication is Royal Babylon: The Case against the Monarchy,
Skyscraper Books, January 2016; his new play Killing Kit, about Christopher Marlowe,
recently had a dramatized reading at the Cockpit Theatre directed by David Erdos; American
Porn, a collection of investigative poems about the US Empire will be published later this year
by The Thin Man Press.