Have I got noose for you: Could you work as an executioner?!

You have to be a strange breed to consider working as an executioner, says Trevor Laffan
Have I got noose for you: Could you work as an executioner?!

MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH: Timothy Spall as British executioner Albert Pierrepoint in a 2006 film about his life

SUPPOSE you lived in a country that permitted capital punishment and one of your kids came home from school one day and said, “Hi mom, dad, I know what I want to be when I leave school. I want to become the official state executioner.”

I don’t know about you, but I would probably head straight for the whiskey.

Killing people isn’t exactly the profession I would want for one of my kids and if they insisted on pursuing that particular occupation, I wouldn’t want to know about it. They could lie to me and keep the tools of their trade out of sight.

That would work for me, as long as they kept me in the dark. Secrecy is good sometimes.

I came across an obituary in The Washington Post recently, written by Harrison Smith, and the subject was a guy called Jerry Givens. He was 67 years old and died last April at a hospital in Virginia from complications associated with Covid-19.

The name didn’t mean anything to me, and it probably won’t mean much to a lot of other people either because for many years he kept a low profile. He was so secretive about his work that even his own family didn’t know he was Virginia’s chief executioner.

Givens had been working as a prison guard and assisted with the occasional execution, but in 1982 he fell into the official position when the previous incumbent retired. One of the conditions of employment was that he keep his role a secret.

Givens had witnessed violence as a teenager and saw a young woman shot dead randomly at a party in his neighbourhood, just as he was planning to ask her to dance.

For years, he believed that her killer deserved nothing less than the death penalty and each time he carried out an execution, he thought back to that killing.

He took it all in his stride initially. As far as he was concerned, it was justice and he believed killers deserved to be killed. He got a day or two off each time he ended a life to get over it and that was that.

He held the position of executioner for 17 years and, during that time, he put more than 60 people to death, until circumstances led him to become a prominent activist against capital punishment.

In 1985, Givens was scheduled to execute Earl Washington Jr., who had confessed to raping and killing a 19-year-old mother of three.

Washington had been diagnosed with severe learning difficulties, and just nine days before his planned execution, his lawyers secured a stay.

In 1993, DNA testing revealed that he was innocent, but he wasn’t pardoned until 2000 and ultimately became the first person on Virginia’s death row to be exonerated because of DNA testing.

That sowed doubts in Givens’ mind about the justice system.

He left the service but was convicted of perjury and money laundering soon after. In 1999, prosecutors said he bought a car with a friend using money that Givens knew came from drug dealing. He maintained his innocence but spent four years in prison, reading the Bible and thinking about Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness. He decided the death penalty was unethical.

After his release from prison, he supported himself by driving trucks for a firm that installed and repaired highway guardrails. “I’m no longer taking lives,” he said. “I’m putting up equipment that will save lives. See? This is how God works.”

Closer to home, Albert Pierrepoint was another executioner. He operated in the UK between 1932 and 1956 and what William DeLong wrote about him would lead one to believe that, unlike Givens, Pierrepoint had no qualms about performing his duty.

On July 15, 1953, notorious British serial killer John Christie was about to be executed at London’s Pentonville Prison. Immediately before he was to be hanged, Christie, his hands tied behind his back, complained that his nose itched. The executioner then leaned in and told him: “It won’t bother you for long.”

During his career, it is estimated that he executed around 435 prisoners, but he once claimed himself that the real number was closer to 550.

Pierrepoint was born on March 30, 1905 in Yorkshire and at the age of just 11, he wrote in an essay: “When I leave school, I should like to be the Official Executioner.”

His father and uncle were both executioners and he wanted to continue in the family business. His father died in 1922, and Albert inherited the notes, diaries, and journals he’d kept on how to hang people.

In 1932, he attended his first execution in Dublin when he assisted his uncle, Thomas Pierrepoint, and got to observe and assist in other executions after that. He eventually earned a reputation for being extremely quick, calm, and efficient during his executions.

At the end of World War II, his workload increased immensely. Britain’s most famous executioner made a name for himself by hanging 200 war criminals.

Between 1945 and 1949, Pierrepoint travelled to Germany and Austria many times to execute some of the most disturbing Nazis to have committed atrocities during the war.

After that, Pierrepoint became famous as a sort of quasi-war hero and made enough money to buy a pub named The Poor Struggler and people flocked to it to be served a pint by Britain’s Nazi executioner.

But in 1950, one of his pub’s regulars was sentenced to death for the brutal murder of his girlfriend. He got drunk at Pierrepoint’s pub, and even sang a song with Pierrepoint, before heading home to commit his crime. He was sentenced to death and Pierrepoint performed the execution, the only time that he regretted doing his job.

Albert Pierrepoint died of natural causes in 1992, aged 87.

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