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Capital Punishment - Hanging in Liverpool

Hanging in Liverpool

Walton was Liverpool's second major prison and was built between 1850 and 1854 on the then fashionable Panopticon (radial) principle. It was designed by Messrs. Charles Peirce and J. Weightman and constructed in Hornby Road, Liverpool with an initial capacity for 1,000 inmates. It took both male and female prisoners, who had been sentenced at the Liverpool Assizes, and was one of the largest and most modern prisons in England in its day.

The gallows at Walton.
Strangely for a few years, both Walton and Kirkdale prisons had execution sheds and it would seem shared the same gallows which was transported between them. After the failure of the trapdoors to open at the hanging of John Lee at Exeter in 1885, the Home Office commissioned Lieutenant Colonel Alton Beamish to design a standard gallows for use throughout the country. This consisted of two uprights with a cross beam in 8 inch section oak. The beam was long enough to execute three prisoners side by side and was set over a 12 foot long by 4 foot wide two leaf trap set level with the surrounding floor. The trapdoors were made from three inch thick oak and were released by a metal lever set into the floor of the execution chamber. This was a great improvement over some of the older designs and considerably speeded up the execution process. The first person to die on the new style "step free" gallows was Matthew William Chadwick on the 15th of April 1890 at Kirkdale. It is widely reported that 26 year old American born Florence Maybrick, who had been condemned for poisoning her husband, heard the gallows being erected and tested at Walton in 1889 and was greatly distressed by the sounds. However, she never got to see it as she was reprieved four days before her execution date. From 1892, the gallows remained at Walton and later a standard execution facility was constructed within I wing, containing the condemned cell and the gallows, which was to remain in use until 1964.

Hangmen at Walton

James Berry carried out the first execution here, and was then succeeded by the Billington family who between them accounted for the next 15 executions. Like the Pierrepoints, they were very much a "family firm."  Henry Pierrepoint did the next two and was followed by John Ellis with 14 executions between 1910 and 1923. William Willis carried out the next two before handing over to the Pierrepoints who had by then a near monopoly of the situation, with Thomas and then his nephew Albert carrying out all the rest where the hangman is known, except for the last execution of all which was performed by Robert Leslie Stewart. Hanging was, in the latter part of the past century, England's official method of execution, with the 'long drop' method of hanging having been favoured over the slow hanging, were victims were literally left to hang until dead, not the most pleasant of sights for onlookers. Before the long drop - the condemned would suffer all manner of inhumane torture, with women traditionally suffering being burnt to death. Sometimes the executioner would strangle them with rope as the flames were lit, if he could get close enough that is. On the 13th of August 1964, Walton Jail saw what was to be the last execution there.

Peter Anthony Allen
On the fateful day of the 13th of August of 1964, 21 year old Peter Anthony Allen was biding his time in Walton's condemned cell where he had been since the 7th of July 1964 following his conviction at Manchester before Justice Ashworth. He would have had time to do a lot of thinking, Peter, and a companion, had robbed and killed John West in Workington in April of 1964. Both Peter Anthony Allen and his 24 year old accomplice, Gwynne Owen Evans, had robbed the unfortunate John West in his home, were he was brutally battered about the head and body and stabbed to death by the intruders.

Luckily for the police, and most unluckily for Gwynne Owen Evans, there was a coat found at the scene of the crime in the house. The name tag on the coat spelt out - 'G.O Evans'. Back then, coats were often easy to identify as people would often put a name tag on what was often there only coat, nowadays there are rarely name tags, but DNA can now spell out your name scientifically. Also found was a paper identifying the address of a Liverpool woman who in turn led police to G.O Evans, and in turn to his partner in the crime. 1964 was an age when England was seeing great changes and the abolition of the death penalty was being spoken about openly. 'The Times', as Bob Dylan sang in his hit record 'are a changing'. However, for Peter Anthony Allen, times were not changing fast enough. Time was not on his side, and at 8.00am on the 13th of August 1964, with the noose around his neck, his hands tied, and the hood over his head, both him and his accomplice in murder and robbery were to pay the ultimate price for there crimes.

England could still give out the death penalty up until 1998, though this was only possible using military law. The Government had introduced a late amendment to the Human Rights Bill in October 1998 that removed the death penalty as a possible punishment for military offences under the Armed Forces Acts. The last execution under military law was in 1942.

It took less than a second, about a quarter second or third of a second, for the length of rope to be fully extended, and the weight of the victims rapidly falling body to exert the massive force which causes death. A brass eyelet was positioned on the noose in such a position that caused the body to jerk back-wards; this dislocated the cervical vertebrae and cause severe damage of the spinal cord. The rope used was always hemp, which you may be surprised to learn is actually made from the fibers of the cannabis plant. The hemp rope was often woven with other materials; Italian silk is one such material used and produces a smoother finish. A protective cover was put around the noose itself, the State ever concerned that as little marking or evidence of any ugly death was left, this was a remarkable turn around from the days when the State wanted death by execution to be seen as pretty gruesome and often hung up the remains for people to see. This hemp rope was stretched the night before the execution by using a weight of approximately the same weight as the intended victim. This is to prevent slack in the rope from exerting less than the required force. The victim actually died by suffocation, but if the hanging is carried out correctly, the victim is thought to be deeply unconscious from the moment the 'neck' snaps.

Once dropped, there are no known cases of survival by the long drop with a secure noose. In Islamic Counties, there have been cases were victims have been pulled off the noose alive after several minutes, they use the old fashioned strangulation method there but under Sharia law (Islamic religious law) the murdered victims family can ask that the execution be stopped at any time, there was no such chance once the trap doors opened in the old 'long drop' hanging. Brain death occurred  within a matter of minutes, and because UK hangings had doctors and officials in attendance to confirm death, plus a quick autopsy, there is much documented and verifiable evidence which shows 'total death' to occur anywhere between 3 minutes to 25 minutes or so at the extreme. Not 'instant' death really, but the procedure was a lot quicker than the main USA method of State executions today which is now by lethal injection and is a pretty long winded way to actually kill someone. Do you think it is particularly easy to lie strapped on a gurney whilst several needles are inserted and fixed? Reports of the executed just 'slipping away' by this method are not quite the whole truth. Bear in mind that one of the poisons injected actually stops your muscles working; this means that the executee could well be unable to indicate any pain and discomfort. Albert Pierpoint (one of England's better known hangmen) would have got the job done with considerably more speed.

Street killer who was hanged twice
Story, Liverpool Echo,1873

Few people are unlucky enough to see the hangman’s noose - fewer still see it twice.
But former boxer James O’Connor was one of the unluckiest. What started out as an evening of Monday music would end in the 29-year-old facing the gallows.

On August 11, 1873, O’Connor, a well-known fighter on the local circuit, left the old Cambridge Music Hall in Mill Street. He was one of a large group spilling out on the streets at the end of the performance. But among the crowds, a beautiful woman struck O’Connor as he left. A young woman named Mary Fortune was the object of his affection and he pursued her through the crowd until they were alone in the Toxteth street. O’Connor took hold of the young lady’s hand and asked if she would accompany him to a local watering hole for a drink and a chat. But when Miss Fortune spurned his advances, the boxer’s anger rose. His mood changed and he snapped, accusing the woman of stealing money from him. He struck out, sending her spinning to the floor and was about to continue his assault when two passers-by intervened.
One, James Gaffney, ran across the road to confront him, but he was floored by a blow to the body. But it was no punch from the boxer. Mr Gaffney had been sent to the pavement by the unseen blade in O’Connor’s hand. O’Connor turned on the man’s friend, a man by the name of Mr Metcalf, and stabbed him as well. Mr Gaffney was fatally injured in the attack. Both Mr Metcalf and Miss Fortune gave accounts to the police and it was not long before justice caught up with O’Connor. Before Judge Brett at the Assizes at St George’s Hall, O’Connor was found guilty of murder and attempted murder. As he was sentenced to hang, he showed no emotion. When he was led to the Kirkdale gallows, his face broke into a smile, and as the rope was lowered around his neck, he seemed content to accept his destiny. But then fate took a nasty turn. As the trapdoor opened beneath him, the rope snapped from around O’Connor’s neck. Being blinded by the white hood over his head, he thought for a moment he had died. And it was only when the priest, Father Bronte, and a local reporter jumped into the pit that the terrible reality sunk in. With the hood removed and tears in his eyes, O’Connor looked up to the skies. “You’ll let me go now, won’t you?”, he asked to no-one in particular. Those who stood around, unaware of what was going on inside the pit, could only hear the condemned man hysterically bawling before he broke down sobbing. The law was specific: “. . . to be hanged by the neck until you are dead” and O’Connor would have to face the noose for a second time. When calm was restored some minutes later, O’Connor was so resigned to his plight he adjusted the noose himself and pulled the white cap over his own face. But his second hanging was just as traumatic. As his body fell through the trapdoor, the rope held. But it was too long. He swung for a full eight minutes before he died. The double blunder was of such magnitude that the hangman, an experienced man by the name of Calcraft, never set foot in Kirkdale prison again.


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By Robert F Edwards
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