William Brunskill began his career as a hangman, working as an assistant to Edward Dennis. At the time, Dennis, was the principal and official executioner for London and Middlesex. During Dennis’s career — from 1771 to 1786 — one of his busiest days was 2 February 1785. On that day, Dennis was assisted by Brunskill and hanged 20 men. Dennis had an impressive record during his several years, as he was responsible for the death of 201 offenders. However, Brunskill would be responsible for more deaths than Dennis and his career would last nearly 30 years — 1786 to 1815. Moreover, during Brunskill’s appointment as principal and official executioner, he executed an astonishing 537 convicted criminals.
Brunskill assumed the position of principal hangman on 22 November 1786 the day after Dennis died. On that day, Brunskill successfully hanged seven men. However, reports are that Brunskill, while a sober and thoughtful man, was not necessarily the best hangman. He suffered several execution mishaps during his career. One mishap occurred after the British Lieutenant Governor of Gorée Island, named Joseph Wall, was sentenced to die for the fatal flogging of one of his soldiers. Brunskill strung him up, but unfortunately, the noose knot slipped. It took the poor condemned man 15-30 minutes of convulsing and struggling before he entered heaven. Of his execution one paper stated:
“Mr. Wall was very meanly dressed, in an old grey coat, black pantaloons, and white stockings, and appeared much affected with his awful situation … A white handkerchief, forming a bandeau, concealed the upper part of his face from the spectators. — He remained only three or four minutes on the platform before it fell under, and left him suspended. Owing to the rope slipped a little, as was supposed, he was a considerable time in dying, during which he appeared to be much convulsed. The handkerchief that was put into his hand to drop as a signal, he continued to hold till taken from it by the execution half an hour after he was suspended. On being cut down, his body was put into a cart, and given to the surgeons for dissection.”
Fortunately, not all of Brunskill’s hangings were so poorly executed. He successfully hanged the famous traitor Colonel Edward Despard and his co-conspirators who had joined with the United Britons movement and schemed to assassinate George III in 1802. Newspapers again did not mention Brunskill by name, but they did provide these details:
“In about a quarter of an hour the platform fell, and left the bodies suspended; in which state they remained about half an hour, when they were cut down and decapitated with an axes, the operation beginning with that of the Colonel, after which the heads were successively examined by the execution, making the usual proclamation — ‘This is the head of a traitor,’ and designating each by his name. A little after ten the whole of the fatal ceremony was over, the latter part of the sentence being dispersed with, and the bodies were placed in coffins arranged in a row to receive them. It was altogether an awful spectacle, and it is hoped the dreadful necessity will never recur of exhibiting to the eyes of Englishmen such another.”
Brunskill also experienced no problems when he hanged John Bellingham — a man who petitioned the British government for compensation for a wrong he believed was committed by the Russian government — and, when his compensation was refused, in retaliation Bellingham assassinated Britain’s Prime Minister Spencer Perceval in cold blood.
Brunskill, similar to other executioners, also did not just perform hangings. Whatever punishment was ordered — flogging, burning at the stake, etc. — was carried out by Brunskill. In fact, Brunskill’s legacy involves the last woman in England to be officially burned at the stake. Her name was Catherine Murphy, and she and her husband were convicted of counterfeiting and sentenced to death. Her husband was hanged by Brunskill, along with seven other criminals. Afterwards, Murphy was brought out past the men’s dangling bodies and tied to the stake. According to testimony, she was strangled to death before she burnt (a chair beneath her was removed, which caused her death), and, so she was not actually burned alive at the stake.
Brunskill earned his living through commissions and, perhaps, that may have been part of the reason for the numerous executions he oversaw during his career. Similar to other executioners, Brunskill’s was also reviled by the public and frequently suffered public abuse, particularly while in the performance of his duties. Of these times, one twenty-first century writer noted:
“Brunskill’s thirty-eight years of executions were by now telling on him, a strain suffered eventually by most hangmen. He had had to work in all weathers and despite being a hard and honest worker, his job had made him the target of public hostility and odium whenever he appeared on the scaffold. Nor was his pay any consolation. A small retaining wage was meant to be augmented by payment for each execution and whipping, but Brunskill was in office at an unprofitable time for hangmen. War with the French meant that the criminal elements finished up in the ranks of the army rather than on the scaffold.”
Despite the public’s derision, Brunskill continued undaunted in his duties until at the age of 72, in May of 1815, he suffered a seizure and was paralyzed. Unable to continue, his reward for all his nearly 30 years of service, was not much: “a pension of fifteen shillings a week.”
-  “Execution of Governor Wall,” in Bury and Norwich Post, 3 February 1802, p. 4.
-  “Execution of Col. Despard,” in Bury and Norwich Post, 23 February 1803, p. 2.
-  Abbott, Geoffrey, Lords of the Scaffold, 1991, p. 133-134.
-  Potter, John Deane, The Art of Hanging, 1965 p. 146.