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Friday Five: 5 Positive Representations of Disability in SF

'On execution and criticism' by James Berry (1892)

James BerryAs is always the case when a man attains any prominence or notoriety, a number of utterly groundless stories have got afloat about my doings and adventures. Others, which were originally founded on fact, have been so modified and altered that I do not recognise them when they come back to me again. Altogether I have been credited with being the hero of so many surprising adventures that I am afraid the few little incidents which have really occurred to me will seem tame by the side of the fictions....

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. On the journey above mentioned, after changing at York, 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.

This little story has been much warped and magnified, and has even been made the subject of a leading article which takes me to task for “glorying in my gruesome calling,” and shocking respectable people by giving them my cards.

Another little anecdote which has been greatly distorted is what I call the toothache story. It happened in 1887, when crossing from Ireland, that there was one of the passengers who was terribly ill with mal de mer and toothache combined. He was rather a bother to several travellers who were not sick, and who wished to enjoy the voyage, and he must have given a lot of trouble to the stewards. I think that one of the latter must have told him that I could cure him, for he came and begged me to tell him what was the best thing for his complaint. I admitted that I was in the habit of giving drops that would instantaneously cure both the toothache and the sea-sickness, but assured him that he would not be willing to take my remedy. Still he persisted, so I handed him a card, and as he was a sensitive man it gave his nerves a shock that was quite sufficient to relieve him of the toothache, and me of his presence for the rest of the voyage. As the card which I then used has often been mentioned in the newspapers, I give a facsimile of it. The wording was in black, with the fern in green, and the border in gold. I now use a perfectly plain card.

A sad little incident in connection with the murder of Warder Webb by John Jackson will always remain in my memory. I had been to Strangeways Gaol once or twice before on duty, and Webb had always been my personal attendant during my residence, so that we were quite friendly. At the execution previous to Jackson’s - that of John Alfred Gell, in May, 1888 - we had two or three long chats, and Webb was most anxious that I should go to Manchester to spend a half-day or a day with him in the city, when he could get leave of absence. He hoped it would be a long time before they should see me there again professionally, but said that they would always be glad to see me if I were in Manchester on other business, and could call. Then, turning to the subject of executions, he began wondering who would be the next that I should have to go there for, and who would be the victim, and shaking his head sadly, he said, “A body never knows who will be next.” The poor fellow little thought that he would be the next victim, and that the very next time I visited Strangeways would be no friendly call, but a visit to avenge his own death.

Of course, my duties take me about the country a great deal, and I have met a great many interesting people in the course of my travels. As a rule, I do not make myself known unless I have some good reason for doing so, because I have no fancy for making myself into a cheap show. On one occasion I travelled from Coventry to Warwick with the reporter of one of the Coventry papers. He knew nothing of my identity, and does not seem to have recognised me at the execution; but while writing out his report the connection between the gentleman in the train and the executioner in the gaol seems to have dawned upon him, and he wrote the following, which amused me greatly when it appeared in his paper:

After writing this report and describing the hangman’s features and dress, it dawned upon the writer for the first time that the description was that of a gentleman with whom he had travelled from Coventry to Warwick on the previous afternoon. On reflecting upon all the circumstances of the journey, he felt quite certain of the fact; and although amused at the thought of having travelled and conversed with an executioner without knowing it, he was a little chagrined that he had not given the conversation a “professional” turn, which he would have done had he been aware who his fellow traveller was. The incident is sufficient to show that persons travelling by rail occasionally get into singular company without having the slightest knowledge of the fact.

In 1887 when I had to go to Dorchester, to hang Henry William Young for the Poole murder, I stayed at Bournemouth, and took a room in a Temperance Hotel. During the evening I got into conversation with the landlady, who was much interested in the subject of executions, and who appeared to like to discuss it. She was decidedly “down on” Berry, “the hangsman,” and expressed herself very freely as to his character and disposition; amongst other pleasant things, saying that he was a man without a soul, and not fit to have intercourse with respectable people. Of course, I smilingly agreed with everything that she had to say, and chuckled quietly to myself about a little surprise that I had in store for her. The surprise came off at bed-time, when she handed me my bedroom candle, and in return I handed her my card. The good lady nearly fainted.

* * *

Of the press-men I must say that they usually seem most kindly disposed, and certainly many of them go to great trouble to extract from me a few statements which they can spin out into an “interview.” As a rule I dislike these interviews, for I know that my employers very strongly object to any more sensationalism than is absolutely necessary being imported into the accounts of executions.

Unfortunately, with many of the papers, sensationalism is the one thing needful, and when I meet with a really energetic reporter attached to such a paper my position is a very difficult one. If I say little or nothing in answer to his questions, he may spin a fearful and wonderful yarn out of his own head, and out of the gossip and rumours which seem to be constantly afloat, started, I imagine, by needy penny-a-liners. On the other hand, if I submit to the interview as the best way of keeping it within bounds, the “touches of colour” which the interviewer generally thinks it necessary to add, are pretty sure to land me in bother and misunderstanding....

From time to time a very great number of incorrect and exaggerated statements have been made in the press with regard to almost every detail of my work, and I suppose that so long as the public have a love for the marvellous, and so long as press-men have treacherous memories or vivid imaginations, it will continue to be so. My enormous income is one of the subjects on which the papers most frequently get astray, and it has often been asserted that my earnings amounted to a thousand a year. I only wish that it might be so, if I could make it from an increase of fee rather than an increase in the number of executions, but the reader has in other places correct statements of what my income really amounts to. I never bear malice against my friends of the press for these little distortions of fact, for I know that they mean no harm, and on the whole they have always used me very well.

With regard to the public, their curiosity to see me is much greater than my desire to satisfy it. I have no wish to be followed about and stared at by a crowd, as if I were a monstrosity, and in many cases I have had to go to some trouble to baulk them. This I can do to a certain extent by travelling by other trains than the one I am expected by. In some cases where there are two or three railways into a town, one of which is the direct line from Bradford, I take the direct line to some local station, and there change into a train of another line or into some train running on some local branch line, and so arrive unobserved. At Newcastle, after the execution of Judge, there was a big and enthusiastic crowd waiting to see me and my assistant depart. There were one or two men in the crowd who knew me by sight, and they knew the train by which we were to travel, so they made a raid on the station, and in spite of the efforts of the railway officials and police to keep the place clear they burst through the barriers with a howl of exultation and filled the platform. The plan by which we evaded them was very simple. We walked over the river to Gateshead, and booked from there to Newcastle. Arriving by train in the midst of the people who were looking for us, we attracted no attention whatever, because the folks who knew me were near the entrance gates, expecting us to come into the station in the ordinary way. As we had our tickets for Bradford with us, we simply crossed the platform to our own train, and in due time steamed southward, leaving the disappointed crowd under the firm impression that we had not entered the station.

The first time that I went to Swansea there was a large crowd of people waiting to see me, but they were disappointed, for I had made a little arrangement which completely upset their calculations. It happened that I travelled from Shrewsbury to Swansea with a gentleman who is well known in the latter town. In the train we entered into conversation, and I found that his carriage was to meet him at the station. I therefore asked him if he could recommend me to a good hotel, and was delighted when he said that he would drive me to one, which was just what I wanted. He did not know who I was, and the little crowd that was watching never imagined that the executioner would be riding in their townsman’s carriage. Of course, I did not want to stay at the hotel, because I was to lodge in the gaol, but I thanked my friend for the lift, walked into the hotel for a glass of beer while he was driving away, and then walked up to the prison without anyone suspecting my errand.

Whenever I have been in actual contact with crowds in England, their attitude has been friendly. In Ireland such knots of people as may gather are usually the reverse. In England, if there is any sort of demonstration, it is a cheer; in Ireland it is hooting and groaning. But it is seldom, in England, that I meet with any personal demonstration. The crowds that assemble outside the gaols when executions are in progress, are interesting studies. They hail the hoisting of the black flag with a cheer or a groan, that indicates their opinion of the merits of the case. It is curious to notice how the sympathies of this section of the public lean one way or the other, often without any apparent reason. This thought occurred to me very forcibly at the executions of Israel Lipski and William Hunter, who were hanged within a few months of each other.

At Lipski’s execution the crowd was the largest I have ever seen, many of the people remained hanging about for hours. The excitement was intense, but there was no sympathy for the prisoner. There were many Jews in the crowd, and wherever they were noticed they were hustled and kicked about, and insulted in every imaginable manner; for the hatred displayed by the mob was extended from Lipski to his race. When the black flag was hoisted it was received with three ringing cheers. Altogether, the crowd showed the utmost detestation of the murderer. And yet his crime was no worse than the majority of murders, and there were many things connected with it, and with the circumstances of the miserable man’s life, both before and after, which I should have expected to excite some little sympathy; at any rate, amongst people in a similar station of life.

Hunter’s execution was the next but one to Lipski’s, and his crime was one which has always seemed to me about the most heartless I ever heard of. Hunter was a striker in a foundry by trade, but a tramp by choice. He left his wife and two children and went on tramp, eventually striking up a sort of partnership with a Scotch woman who had six illegitimate children. One of these, a little girl between three and four years of age, went tramping with them, and of course, the poor wee mite was utterly unfit for the exposure and the many miles of walking which they made her accomplish daily. Hunter and the woman were both cruel to the child, and carried their cruelty to such an extent that on one occasion at any rate, they were remonstrated with, and eventually turned out of a common lodging-house on account of their conduct. At last, one day after a long tramp, the little mite began to cry from weariness, and Hunter, to stop her crying, beat her with a switch. Later, for the same purpose, he thrashed her with a stick that he picked up in the road. Still later in the day he continued his ill-treatment until he had beaten the life out of the poor little creature. In justice to the man - or brute - it should be said that when he found that the child was insensible (it was really dead), he fetched water to bathe its poor battered head; and when he realised that it was dead he cut his own throat and very nearly killed himself - but these considerations seem very little extenuation for the harsh brutality of his conduct.

One would have thought that the man who had thus heartlessly tortured to death a helpless child would have been execrated by all men; yet the crowd that assembled at Hunter’s execution wore quite a holiday air. There were some 1500 people, most of whom laughed and jested. When the flag was run up there was no demonstration, perhaps the Carlisle people are not demonstrative. However that may be, the contrasted conduct of the crowds at the two executions struck me forcibly; and though it is sad that men should rejoice at the death of a fellow-man, if the cheers had been given at Hunter’s death which greeted the death of Lipski, I think they would have been more natural and more English than light jests and laughter.


Extracted from My Experiences as an Executioner by James Berry (London: Percy Lund and Company, 1892).