Pierrepoint, a film about the most prolific British hangman of the last century, opened this month.
It contains by all accounts a remarkable portrayal by Timothy Spall of the man who executed an average of 18 people a year between 1932 and 1956.
Albert Pierrepoint saw himself as part of the state machinery. His role, he believed flatly, was to dispatch the convicted man or woman as “humanely” as possible.
In this way – reckoning he was “chosen by a higher power for the task” – he ended the lives of an estimated 433 men and 17 women.
By isolating his ‘contribution’ to the justice system from the investigation, prosecution and judgement, he was able to shut his mind to any campaigns for clemency and even to the matter of whether the condemned for whom he was calculating the length of the drop was guilty or innocent.
He said: “A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter…The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death.”
He ended the lives of Rhyl-born Ruth Ellis (whom it is claimed should only have faced manslaughter charges and should not have hanged) and Timothy Evans, of Merthyr Vale, who was executed after a travesty of justice during which the real killer, John Christie, actually gave evidence against him.
Evans was hanged in 1950 but received a posthumous pardon 16 years later. The then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: “This case has no precedent and will, I hope, have no successor.”
A sweeping statement if ever there was one. There is, of course, no way of knowing how many of the previous victims of the scaffold were innocent.
But there was one case already in the system which would dash Jenkins’ hopes that Evans would have “no successor”.
And this too involved Albert Pierrepoint, the dispassionate dispatcher.
For some reason – in fact, for no good reason I can discover – the executioner of Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan appears to have gone publicly unrecorded, even by exhaustive websites such as MurderFile.net.
But I discovered it was Pierrepoint after making a Freedom of Information Act request to the Home Office.
And the Cardiff prison files it sent me make sobering reading, consisting as they do of contemporaneous notes by people, who no doubt like Pierrepoint, saw themselves as only cogs in the state machinery.
A letter from the governor asks whether it will be necessary to recall the chaplain from his annual leave to attend Mr Mattan’s execution, particularly as the prisoner is a “Mohammedan”. If so, asks the governor, will the chaplain have his travel expenses from Paignton reimbursed?
The police contact the prison on behalf of a pawnbroker who does not want Mr Mattan hanged in a suit which they have loaned him.
And a document stamped on the day of Mr Mattan’s death details the governor’s “honour” of recording the “judicial hanging”.
One printed question reads: “Has he (Pierrepoint) performed his duty satisfactorily?” The governor’s response is handwritten: “Yes.”
Pierrepoint admitted after he had retired: “I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”
An honest assessment of hanging then from someone who knew what he was talking about.
Mr Mattan was executed on September 3, 1952, the last person hanged in Cardiff jail. In 1998 his conviction was overturned. He was entirely innocent, victim of an appallingly racist trial.
1952, parents and grandparents will point out, is not all that long ago. It’s the year of I Love Lucy and Singin’ In The Rain, of Freddie Trueman, Nat Lofthouse, the Lynmouth floods, the year – forgive me for telling you this – David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams were born.
Today, Mr Mattan would be in his early eighties.
The documents from his cell are a warning from our recent history.
And a reminder that we should be grateful that Pierrepoint and the other gallows bureaucrats are consigned to the past.
First published in the Big Issue