James Billington (executioner)
Billington was born in Preston, Lancashire, the son of James, a labourer from Preston, and Mary Haslam of Bolton. In 1859 he moved with his family to Farnworth, northwest of Manchester. After leaving school he worked in a cotton mill for a time, but by the early 1880s he had become a Sunday school teacher and was running a barbershop in Market Street, Farnworth. Billington had a "lifelong fascination" with hanging, and made replica gallows in his back yard on which he practised with weights and dummies and, it was rumoured locally, stray dogs and cats.
Following the death of William Marwood in 1883, a vacancy arose for the post of Executioner for the City of London and Middlesex. Of the more than 100 applicants, Billington was one of three short-listed to be interviewed, but the job was offered to Bartholomew Binns. Undaunted, Billington wrote to other English prison authorities offering his services as a hangman, an offer that was eventually taken up by the authorities in Yorkshire.
Billington died at home from bronchitis in the early hours of 13 December 1901, one month after having executed Patrick McKenna, a man he knew well.
Career as a hangman, 1884–1901
Billington's first engagement was the execution of Joseph Laycock at Armley Gaol in Leeds, on 26 August 1884. Laycock, a hawker from Sheffield, had been convicted of the murder of his wife and four children. In 1891, Billington succeeded James Berry as chief executioner of Great Britain and Ireland.
The 1896 execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge was immortalised by Oscar Wilde in his The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wooldridge, known as "C.T.W" in the poem, was a trooper serving with the Royal Horse Guards in Windsor who had killed his wife Laura with a cut-throat razor during a fit of jealous rage. Wilde recounts that the condemned man seemed resigned to his fate on the gallows, and Wooldridge even petitioned the Home Secretary requesting that he not be reprieved, despite a plea for clemency submitted by the jury at his trial and various petitions organised by the residents of Berkshire. He told the prison chaplain that he wanted to die in payment for his crime, and he was allowed to carry his regimental colours to the gallows. Given a longer drop than usual, the force of his fall when the trapdoor was released stretched his neck by "an almost incredible eleven inches".
Billington executed serial poisoner Thomas Neill Cream on 15 November 1892. Billington claimed that Cream's last words as he fell were "I am Jack ...", and that this was a confession to having been Jack the Ripper. Cream had, however, been confined in Chicago's Joliet State Penitentiary at the time of the Ripper murders.
Billington's final execution was of a man he knew well, Patrick McKenna. The pair knew each other because McKenna was a regular at the Derby Arms public house in Bolton, at that time Billington's home. McKenna killed his wife after she refused to give him money to buy beer, and Billington was one of a number of men who happened to be near the scene of the crime and succeeded in detaining McKenna until the arrival of the police. McKenna was sentenced to be hanged at Strangeways Prison on 13 November 1901. Although Billington was suffering badly from bronchitis he managed to carry out the execution, but as soon as it was over he returned home to his sick bed and died a month later at the age of 54.
All three of Billington's sons – Thomas, William, and John – followed in their father's footsteps and became hangmen. Thomas died within a month of his father, but William and John carried on their profession until 1905. William was removed from the list of official executioners after he was sentenced to serve one month in Wakefield Gaol for failing to maintain his wife and their two children, who had been admitted to a workhouse in Bolton. His brother John died of pleurisy in October 1905, brought on by injuries he had sustained two months earlier at Leeds Gaol when he fell through the open trapdoor of the gallows.
- Fielding (2008), p. 41
- Stokes & Dalrymple (2007), p. 54
- Fielding (2008), pp. 19–20
- Fielding (2008), p. 20
- Fielding (2008), pp. 20–21
- Fielding (2008), pp. 22–23
- Stokes & Dalrymple (2007), pp. 74–75
- Laurence (1932), p. 125
- Norder, Vanderlinden & Evans (2005), p. 58
- Fielding (2008), p. 25
- Fielding (2008), pp. 40–41
- Fielding (2008), pp. 50–51
- Fielding, Steve (2008), The Executioner's Bible: The Story of Every British Hangman of the Twentieth Century, John Blake Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84454-648-0
- Laurence, John (1932), A history of capital punishment: with special reference to capital punishment in Great Britain, S. Low, Marston & Co
- Norder, Dan; Vanderlinden, Wolf; Evans, Stewart P. (2005), Ripper Notes: Suspects & Witnesses, Ripper notes 23, Inklings Press, ISBN 0-9759129-4-1
- Stokes, Anthony; Dalrymple, Theodore (2007), Pit of Shame: The Real Ballad of Reading Gaol, Waterside Press, ISBN 978-1-904380-21-4