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Former Hangman Opposes Death Penalty

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Former Hangman Opposes Death Penalty

Post by Karen on Tue 12 Apr 2011 - 3:06


Former Common Hangman of England Has a Scheme of Prison Reform Instead of Capital Punishment - Thinks He Hanged Jack the Ripper - Madness on Scaffold.

The views of an ex-hangman are probably of psychological interest rather than practical value in considering the question of capital punishment. The views of such a man have been expressed for the readers of the New York Sun by James Berry, who was for ten years the common hangman of England.
During that time Berry hanged 197 criminals and assisted at the execution of some 500. His experiences have made him a strong opponent of capital punishment and reduced him, to use his own words, to a mere bundle of nerves, though he is only fifty and a man of powerful build.
How a man comes to take up such a calling as that of public hangman is a natural question to ask. Berry seems to have drifted into it much as men drift into other and more common occupations.
His father was a rug and blanket maker in a comfortable position at Hectheaton. James Berry was the thirteenth of twenty-five children, and before he was out of his teens had tried his hand at several things. He then joined the Bradford police force, and after awhile, when the place of hangman became vacant, he was appointed out of a thousand applicants.
At the moment he thought little of the work he would have to do. But later he began to feel how it affected his relations with the rest of the world, and he tells how it estranged him from his relatives and friends and how keenly he and his wife felt the slights and sneers of even school children toward their own children.
As to his views on capital punishment he declares that his experience brought home to him in an unmistakable manner that hanging has failed to prevent crime punishable by death and he is convinced from personal inquiries both among criminals and those in whose charge such were that the infliction of a less severe punishment - imprisonment under more suitable conditions than obtain - would tend greatly to diminish such crimes.
He quoted the striking decrease of crime usually punishable by death in Belgium, in Holland, in Saxony, in Michigan and elsewhere since capital punishment had been abolished. The statistics available in Holland cover thirty years during which none had been hanged.
He had personally inquired of long time convicts both in the prisons proper and in the prison infirmary which they would prefer if they had their time to start again, execution or a life sentence, and in almost every case they had assured him they preferred death on the scaffold to the living death of the convict establishment.
Berry was very clear upon his point - his strong conviction that a radical change is necessary in the whole conduct of the penal establishments.
"Hanging is a big mistake, so are our methods of dealing with long term men," Berry went on. "You must remember that all the inmates of such institutions are not hardened criminals.
"I have seen some of the most intelligent looking of men die on the scaffold - you must remember that criminals are sometimes made so by their environment. Many become such from other causes.
"We all have something of the brute in us, but all are not equally capable of repressing vicious tendencies, and in some natures it only takes some slight trouble or departure from sobriety to excite to that state of insanity which makes a murderer of a man."
Berry then gave a glimpse into his own state of mind when conducting an execution.
"Murder is always due to insanity," he said. "Call it temporary insanity, if you please."
"Why, although I have often wept sorely before carrying out an execution and seldom performed my horrible duties at one without feeling overcome by their terrible nature, there have been occasions when I positively gloated over them, when I have almost foamed at the mouth with the excitement, madness, of the process. I in fact, look upon any public execution as, for the time being at any rate, insane."
Berry in fact seemed to feel that the insanity of the criminal murderer and of the hangman or "legalized murderer," for as such the ex-hangman regards an executioner, are of much the same description.
Talking of the chief cause of murder, Berry declared that it was drink that fed the gallows. Among the nearly 500 whom he had hanged or helped to hang there had not been one teetotaller. Again he drew a curious parallel between the murderer and the hangman.
"If it were not for liquor," he said, "there would be precious few to be hanged, and certainly if it were not for spirits few officials inside our prisons could carry out what is required of them at the execution. That need cause no surprise, for I always had to get brandy inside my stomach at an execution."
His prescription for the treatment of a murderer is: "Give him time to repent in a prison, but under different conditions from those which obtain now. One convict who had been reprieved and who had served twelve years of his term of imprisonment in the prison infirmary, where he was certainly better off than other convicts, I asked which he would choose if he had his time over again, knowing what he knew, death on the scaffold or a life sentence, and he fiercely replied "Hanging, that is one punishment only, but penal servitude is thousands upon thousands."
"I would have each convict," Berry went on, "put to some suitable and useful employment, amid humane surroundings, so that he could earn his own living and be able to contribute toward the support of those upon whom his act had brought shame. Surely work could be found for a man inside a prison which would cover the cost of his own maintenance and that of his dependents.
"Watch him, of course, encourage his better nature, give him something to engage his thoughts, something withal which makes him feel he is doing something which will enable him to restart life at the end of his imprisonment with a few pounds and know he is assisting to keep those of his kith and kin who need his help outside the prison during his term, and instead of turning out callous criminals and broken men you will find many thoroughly and lastingly reformed characters.
"Then when released help such along the path of right and goodness. That would enable a man to bear his degradation with fortitude, to feel he was doing what he could to live down the past, and in fact go far to prevent the hardened criminal the present system makes of men of certain temperaments."
The question was asked, How many innocent victims perish on the scaffold?
"Many," was Berry's reply, and he mentioned cases in which he was convinced he was executing innocent persons.
In one case, he declared, there was not an authority in the prison who was not sure that an innocent victim of the law had been sent to eternity, and events had proved this opinion to be correct.
One of the most notorious criminals of modern times, a man who has given a name to an odious kind of murder, Jack the Ripper, Berry declares he hanged, and at the moment he was talking he was wearing the cuff links that he took from the man's cuffs when he pinioned his hands. According to Berry this man, of whose identity there have been so many stories, was John Henry Burey, keeper of a cat's meat shop in the East End of London.
"Behind this shop," said Berry, "were rooms which he used to let to women of the streets. During his absence some one, of these degraded women he fully believed, broke into his room and stole some of his savings.
"This made the man so mad that he swore an oath that if he could not find out who it was he would murder every woman who had used his house. This threat he proceeded to carry out.
"Eventually his wife threatened, during a quarrel, to inform the authorities, whereupon he killed her and tried to dispose of the body, which he cut up. For this he was condemned.
When in the cell and about to pinion him I said to him:
"Well, Jack the Ripper, have you anything to say? If so say it now, as you will have no chance later."
"No," was the reply. "If any one stole anything from me I'd kill the lot to find the right one. I'm not going to give you any big lines, go on with your work, Berry, I'll not say anything."
"Nor did he."

Karen Trenouth
Author of: "Epiphany of the Whitechapel Murders"
Author of: "Jack the Ripper: The Satanic Team"

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