By Adrian Mullan
How things have changed. Today many people worship footballers, pop stars, actors, even the occasional real life hero; however, in 19th century Britain and Ireland, there was a ghoulish interest and fame attached to public executioners.
A sort of death cult of the fascinated grew up around many executioners and, whereas it was largely a nineteenth century phenomenon, the fashion continued in some form the UK right up until the 1960s. In Omagh gaol, in Co. Tyrone, there were numerous executions, though there were no local executioners; in fact, for many years, there were none on the island of Ireland and they had to be drafted in from England to do their grisly work here.
One such ghoulish visitor was William Marwood, who was brought to Omagh in 1873, to attend to the hanging of a Thomas Montgomery in the “County Gaol”. Montgomery had been an inspector in the Royal Irish Constabulary, (the forerunner of the RUC).
He befriended the bank manager, a Mr Glass, in the village of Newtownstewart, and, then one evening as the manager was counting and writing up the accounts, Montgomery called at the bank and his friend opened the door and let him in. A short-time thereafter, he killed the bank official and made a substantial unauthorised withdrawal. Ironically, Montgomery initially investigated the murder, and hammed up a scenario before he was rumbled.
The murder shocked and fascinated people all over Ireland and his trial was eagerly awaited. In the event he was found guilty and sentenced to death, at the County Gaol, Omagh.
Though Ireland was never short of people willing to kill other people, there were no hangmen who measured up to the standards demanded by the British Home Office.
However, the Home Office helpfully supplied a list of appropriately qualified individuals who could be trusted to kill. On that list was Mr Marwood, from Lincolnshire, a shoe-maker turned official person killer, considered by the authorities as not very bright but hard working. Though it now seems absurd, Marwood studied the technology of hanging. In scenes that might have been akin to a Blackadder sketch, he boasted of the quality of his “hangmanship”.
It is understood that he was instrumental in determining the length of a “drop” it would take and the size of a knot required to help break a victim’s neck so that death might be more or less instantaneous. He became a celebrated executioner, enjoying something like the 19th century’s equivalency of David Beckham’s popularity, much to the chagrin of writers, philosophers, revolutionaries, poets, and actors. He made a few trips to Omagh, including in 1880, where he executed the last man to be hanged in Omagh Gaol, Peter Conway.
However, his work in Ireland went far beyond Omagh and he hanged five of the gang responsible for the Phoenix Park Murders. A gang of men calling themselves ‘The Invincibles’ and pursuing a republican ideology, attacked and killed Thomas Henry Burke, Under-Secretary for Ireland, and Lord Fredrick Cavendish, Chief Secretary of State for Ireland, in Phoenix Park.
The gang numbered over twenty, but three members turned state’s evidence and were spared, and five were sent to face the hangman. In his twelve years as executioner, he had accounted for some two hundred condemned people, and at the time of his death, in 1883, he had an assistant whom he was ‘training-up’ to take over from him. That assistant was Bartholemew Binns who, in his turn, became a ‘beloved’ public executioner (who also paid a visit to Omagh.) The last of the semi-official hangman in the UK was Albert Pierrpoint, who was still killing for the state until 1956, when he resigned in a row over his fee.
Amongst his victims were a number of Nazi war criminals, including the propagandist William Joyce, (known as Lord Haw Haw), who spent his childhood summer holidays in Gortnagarn (outside Omagh). He also executed Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, in July 1955, for killing her lover.