James Berry, Celebrity Executioner


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James Berry

From “Hanging: From a Business Point of View,” a chapter in James Berry’s My Experiences as an Executioner (1892). Berry was a renowned hangman in England from 1884 to 1891; he refined the “long drop” method pioneered by William Marwood, and once famously failed to execute John Babbacombe Lee, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang,” when the scaffold’s trap door repeatedly stuck.

I am not ashamed of my calling, because I consider that if it is right for men to be executed (which I believe it is, in murder cases) it is right that the office of executioner should be held respectable. Therefore, I look at hanging from a business point of view.

When I first took up the work … I made application on a regular printed form, which gave the terms and left no opening for mistake or misunderstanding … I still use this circular when a sheriff from whom I have had no previous commission writes for terms. The travelling expenses are understood to include second-class railway fare from Bradford to the place of execution and back, and cab fare from railway station to gaol. If I am not lodged in the gaol, hotel expenses are also allowed.


There are, on an average, some twenty executions annually, so that the reader can calculate pretty nearly what is my remuneration for a work which carries with it a great deal of popular odium, which is in many ways disagreeable, and which may be accompanied, as it has been in my own experience, by serious danger, resulting in permanent bodily injury …

I always try to remain unknown while travelling, but there is a certain class of people who will always crowd round as if an executioner were a peep-show … I got into a carriage with a benevolent-looking old gentleman. A little crowd collected round the door, and just as we were starting a porter stuck his head into the window, pointed to my fellow-passenger, and with a silly attempt at jocularity said:—“I hope you’ll give him the right tightener.” The old gentleman seemed much mystified, and of course I was quite unable to imagine what it meant. At Darlington there was another little crowd, which collected for a short time about our carriage. Fortunately none of the people knew me, so that when the old gentleman asked them what was the matter they could only tell him that Berry was travelling by that train and that they wanted to have a look at him. The old gentleman seemed anxious to see such an awful man as the executioner, and asked me if I should know him if I saw him. I pointed out a low-looking character as being possibly the man, and my fellow-traveller said, “Yes! very much like him.” I suppose he had seen a so-called portrait of me in one of the newspapers. We got quite friendly, and when we reached Durham, where I was getting out, he asked for my card. The reader can imagine his surprise when I handed it to him.