The Executioner’s Rope of the 1700 and 1800s

The executioner’s rope of the 1700 and 1800s was one the hangman’s most important tools as no hanging could be accomplished without it. All executioners relied on a good rope, chief among them was William Marwood. He was known for having developed the hanging technique known as the “long drop.” It ensured a prisoner’s neck was broken instantly so that the prisoner died of asphyxia while unconscious rather than dying from strangulation using the “short drop” method.

The hangman’s knot. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Marwood, who was a cobbler by trade, got the job of hangman because he persuaded the governor of Lincoln Castle Gaol to allow him to conduct an execution. His execution method provide so efficient in hanging William Frederick Horry on 1 April 1872 that two years later Marwood was appointed hangman by the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex. He then served as hangman for the British government for nine years, between 1872 and 1873.

William Marwood. Author’s collection.

Marwood also influenced James Berry, a retired police officer and friend to take up the role of hangman. Berry improved upon Marwood’s technique of the long drop and served as executioner from 1884 to 1891. During his tenure, he carried out a total of 130 hangings, which included 5 women. He detailed his experiences in his memoirs titled, My Experiences as an Executioner. As to the rope he used, he once reported:

“Instead of using a manilla hemp rope of varying thickness as Marwood did, I use one made of Italian silk, a little over five-eights of an inch in diameter, while the ring on any rope I use is but half the size of that used by Marwood. Another idea of mine, and one which prevents all chance of the rope catching in the culprit’s arm, is tying with thread the slack of the rope in a coil just under the beam. It also has a swivel attached to the rope, which takes any twists out of it that may occur, and allows the body when it descends to remain quite stationary.”[1]

James Berry. Author’s collection.

Marwood, Berry, and all the other executioners were responsible to purchase the rope they used in their hangings. However, this was not necessarily common knowledge as noted by a story that occurred in 1709 when a convicted thief named Dick Hughes was traveling by cart to his execution. At St. Giles his wife spied him, approached the cart, and asked him if she or the sheriff needed to buy the rope to hang him.

“Her husband replied, ‘The Sheriff, for whose else is obliged to find him the tools to do his work?’ Replied his wife, ‘Ah! I wish I had known so much before, ‘twould have saved me tuppence, for I have been and bought one already.’ ‘Well, well,’ said Dick, ‘Perhaps it mayn’t be lost, for it may serve for a second husband!’ Quoth his wife, ‘Yes, with my usual luck in husbands, so it may!’”[2]

The rope used by hangmen in their executions was carried by them from execution to execution in a small black bag. One newspaper reporter noted that was not the only thing carried by the hangman and noted what else was contained in Marwood’s bag when he executed Horry in 1872:

“The bag contained the following requisites: — Item: A rope of best hemp, soft as silk, supple as a snake. Item: A belt of black leather, about four inches broad, with small black leather straps, to secure the culprit’s hands to his sides. Item: A cap of white merino, very elastic, which all hangmen would like to use in preference to the linen one usually provided at the gaol. Item: A box of grease to grease the bolt and the hinges of the cellar-flap on the scaffold, popularly described as the ‘drop.’”[3]

Hangings were not always successful and sometimes didn’t turn out as expected. In fact, there are several stories about some accidents that occurred even though executioners tried to ensure things would go smoothly. Berry reported that he usually tested the rope and examined the apparatus and connections very carefully the day before an execution, but still he experienced several unfortunate incidents, with three well-known ones happening in 1885.

The first hanging that didn’t go as planned for Berry was his attempt at hanging John Lee, who had been convicted for having brutally murdered his employer, Emma Keyse, on 15 November 1884 at her home in Babbacombe Bay near Torquay. Lee’s execution was set to be carried out on 23 February 1885 at Exeter Prison. He was readied to die and taken to the scaffold. The rope would have worked, but the trapdoor failed to open on the first try. Two more attempts to hang him also failed even though Berry tested the trapdoor beforehand. After the third attempt, the proceedings were stopped, and, as result, the Home Secretary commuted Lee’s sentence to life in prison. Later, when an investigation was conducted investigators discovered that when the gallows were moved from the old infirmary to the coach house, one of the draw bars became slightly misaligned, thereby preventing the trapdoor from opening. Because of this technical problem, Lee’s life was saved, and he became known thereafter as “The Man They Couldn’t Hang.”

The second incident of a mismanaged execution by Berry involved a guilty man named Moses Shrimpton. He was a 65-year-old poacher and met his fate in May of 1885 after having been convicted and sentenced to be hanged for murdering a 33-year-old policeman named James Davies. The murder happened on 28 February 1885 in a small rural Worcestershire village. To prepare for Shrimpton’s execution Berry allowed a drop of nine feet based on Shrimpton’s weight. That calculation would have normally would have been sufficient, but Berry did not think of Shrimpton’s weakened neck muscles and a disaster happened: “Death was instantaneous, but the head of the deceased was half-severed from the body, and blood was spattered in all directions.”[4]

Moses Shrimpton. Author’s collection.

A third, hanging gone terribly wrong, happened again to Berry a few months after the fiasco with Shrimpton. It occurred on 30 November 1885 and involved a farmer named Robert Goodale. His wife’s body was discovered at the bottom of well and he was convicted of murdering her and sentenced to be executed at Norwich Castle. At five minutes to eight when the great bell of St. Peter’s began its death toll, Goodale was led to the scaffold. There he was placed over the trap door, and Berry adjusted the strap around his ankles, placed the rope around his neck, and drew the white cap over his head and face. As the church bell struck the hour of eight, Berry pulled the lever, the trapdoor fell, and Goodale disappeared. What happened next shocked everyone:

“Those in attendance were at once startled by the rope immediately springing up loose and it was at first thought that it had become unfastened. On running to the pit, the true cause was discovered. The head had been torn from the body, and the headless truck was seen lying at the bottom of the pit, blood rushing from the neck, while the head, with the white cap still upon it, was lying at its feet. Goodale weighed 15 stone, measured 5 ft. 11 in. in height and was allowed a drop of six feet.”[5]

Despite accidents, after a rope had done its job in a hanging, people often thought of it as a talisman. This made the hanging rope a highly sought commodity and resulted in executioner’s cutting it into short pieces to sell. For example, in 1802, Joseph Wall, a British Army officer and Lieutenant Governor of Gorée, was executed in London by the short drop method for the fatal flogging of one of his soldiers. Wall’s notoriety led to the manufacture of memorabilia associated with his crime and the rope used to hang him became highly desirable. The hangman cut it into one-inch pieces and then sold each piece for a shilling. It was similar story when the notorious poisoner William Palmer was executed in 1856. Pieces of his rope likewise sold, but at five shillings per inch.

Murderer, William Palmer. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Gamblers were particularly intrigued by the hangman’s rope and thought of it as a lucky and desirable trinket. One nineteenth century magazine noted that the rope was “a coveted charm of professional gamblers, who suppose it an infallible talisman for securing good luck; probably for the reason that a symbol of especially ill fortune is credited with opposite influences.[6] 

Pieces of a hangman’s rope was also said to offer more than just luck to gamblers. Fashionable women found them appealing and according to the Isle of Wight Observer in 1900:

“Who would imagine, for instance, that several very fashionable women make a practice of carrying about with them a small portion of a rope which has been used by the executioner in the performance of his terrible trade for the purpose of bringing them luck. This is, strange to say, a very common custom among high-born dames. Indeed, one well-known journalist, who makes a speciality of investigation of crime, frequently receives letters from ladies of position, who image that he can use influence with the officials, whenever there is a sensational murder trial, requesting a small piece of the executioner’s rope, for which considerable sums are frequently offered.”[7]

The hangman’s rope also became part of British folk medicine. One story about the luck acquired from a hangman’s rope involved the murderer, Benjamin Ellison. He was executed by the hangman George Mitchell in August 1845. After his execution, a physician was treating a patient’s ulcerous wound and saw that he was wearing a little chintz bag around his neck. When the physician inquired as to what it contained, the patient told him it was a piece of rope from Ellison’s hanging. According to the patient, he had buried another piece of rope in the ulcerous wound, which then rotted and healed the wound, and so now he always carried a piece of the execution rope because he believed it had healing properties.

To demonstrate how popular a hangman’s rope was the Dundee Courier reported on what they called “Marwood mania.” After Marwood died in 4 September 1883 his effects were auctioned off, and a large crowd attended the auction hoping to purchase items that belonged to him. Of all the items, the rope was the most valuable:

“Everything connected with the hangman seems to have found a purchaser at a price utterly disproportionate to its intrinsic value. Marwood’s spectacles fetched 15s. though it is inconceivable that the purchase intends to turn them to any useful purpose. Two saucers, from which Marwood supped his tea, brought 10s 6d. His Glastone bag realised £3, whilst the rope actually used in his awful trade fetched 90s. What a prize is here, but it may be charitably hoped that the possessor will not in a morbid fit expiate his own limited offences with it. The dirty old carpet bag in which the rope was carried was knocked down to a guinea. … while his dog Nero only realised 30s. … A living dog is obviously worth less than an old piece of rope.”[8]

Coiled rope. Author’s collection.

Exactly why a rope associated with death would possess, luck, curative, or life-giving qualities was described by the nineteenth-century Fraser’s Magazine:

“This ill-omened cord seems to have possessed a great reputation in different times and countries for rare occult and beneficent qualities. The use which it has subserved and which to some persons would seem to desecrate the harmless twisted help, and to invest it with painful and repulsive associations, has had the effect, in the opinion of others, of consecrating it for the benefit of mankind, and charging it with most invaluable attributes. Before the melancholy event it was a mere rope — a halter purchasable for a few pence in the nearest saddler’s shop — after the event it becomes a priceless relic, an invaluable specific, capable of producing effects which other ropes not similarly consecrated could ever accomplish. It would be easy to understand such an association in certain cases where a rope had been employed to strangle some eminently wise or religious man — a Christian martyr, for instance. Then, with the exercise of a certain amount of imagination, one might suppose that the virtues of the hanged saint or philosopher might by some occult process have been transferred to the instrument of his execution. But in the employment now spoken of, the good qualities of the hangman’s rope seem independent of any virtues on the part of those whom it has strangled.”[9]

The idea that a hangman’s rope was lucky, continued to be believed into the 1900s. In fact, in 1912, the Hull Daily Mail reported on a tussle that broke out between a hangman and the public prosecutor.

“A curious dispute about a hangman’s rope, which will have to be settled by the law courts, has arisen between the Hungarian hangman, Bali, and the public prosecutor at Temesvar, in Hungary. A murderer had just been hanged and the hangman untied the rope and began to cut it into small pieces in order to sell these at an impromptu action to the crowd waiting outside a prison as a bit of hangman’s rope being believed … to be the best of all possible charms for bringing good luck. The public prosecutor, however, who has to be present to witness an execution, ordered Bali to hand over the rope to him, because scandalous scenes amounting to a riot had occurred after a recent execution … when the crowd fought among themselves for the grisly mementos. The hangman refused to give up the rope on the ground that it was not only his perquisite but actually his own property, as he has to supply ropes at his own expense. The public prosecutor thereupon ordered a policeman to take it from him by force, which was done. Bali gave notice that he would bring an action for its recovery.”[10]

References:

  • [1] Freeman’s Journal, “The Common Hangman,” January 23, 1885, p. 5.
  • [2] G. Abbott, The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders on the Scaffold (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004), p. 115.
  • [3] Derbyshire Times and Chesterfield Herald, “Hob and Nob with the Hangman,” April 13, 1872, p. 7.
  • [4] Manchester Evening News, “Execution at Worcester This Morning,” May 25, 1885, p. 3.
  • [5] Diss Express, “Execution of the Walsoken Murderer,” December 4, 1885, p. 5.
  • [6] Fraser’s Magazine v. 25 (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1882), p. 769.
  • [7] Isle of Wight Observer, “Society’s Strange Superstitions,” November 24, 1900, p. 7.
  • [8] Dundee Courier, “Our London Letter,” November 7, 1883, p. 3.
  • [9] Fraser’s Magazine v. 25 (London: Longmans, Green, and Company, 1882), p. 768–69.
  • [10] Hull Daily Mail, April 26, 1912, p. 16.

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