John Ellis (executioner)

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John Ellis
Born 4 October 1874
Rochdale, Lancashire, England
Died 20 September 1932 (aged 57)
Castleton, Lancashire, England
Cause of death
Suicide
Citizenship British
Occupation Executioner
Years active 1901–1924
Parents Joseph Ellis

John Ellis (4 October 1874 – 20 September 1932) was a Rochdale hairdresser and newsagent who served as one of the United Kingdom's executioners for 23 years, from 1901 to 1924.

Born in the Balderstone district of Rochdale on 4 October 1874, he first worked in a series of jobs as a casual labourer in and around Manchester before getting a job at a spinning mill in Bury. After another stint in a factory he decided to follow his father's trade by becoming a barber and hairdresser in Rochdale, where he subsequently also opened a newsagent's shop, which he ran with his wife and children.

At the age of 22 he applied to the Home Office to become a hangman and was invited to attend training at Newgate Prison. He first participated in an execution in Newcastle in December 1901, as assistant to Chief Executioner James Billington, who also lived in Rochdale at that time.

Ellis served as Chief Executioner from 1907 and was involved in a total of 203 executions. Among the executions he performed were those of Hawley Harvey Crippen (known as Dr. Crippen) in 1910, Frederick Seddon in 1912, Sir Roger Casement in 1916, Herbert Rowse Armstrong (known as Dr. Armstrong) in 1922, and of Edith Thompson in 1923. He took the responsibility of his position very seriously and hoped to "despatch" the condemned person with as little fuss and pain to the individual concerned as possible.

Insight into his behaviour, way of thinking and the methods he employed can be read in the book Diary of a Hangman in which he describes his methods and recalls the final moments of some of those he executed.

The ordeal of executing Edith Thompson in 1923 had a profound effect on Ellis. Thompson had collapsed in terror at the prospect of her hanging and, unconscious, had to be supported on the gallows by four prison warders.[1] Various accounts report, "that guards had to tie her to a small wooden chair before drawing the noose around her neck", and that "she was hanged in a bosun's chair".[2]

When the gallows trapdoor opened and Thompson fell, the sudden impact of the noose caused her to suffer a massive vaginal haemorrhage. The large amount of blood spilled, combined with the fact that Thompson had gained weight during her imprisonment even while resisting food, led to conjecture that she might have been pregnant, although no post-mortem examination was made. All women hanged in Britain after Thompson were required to wear special knickers made of canvas to prevent a recurrence of the massive bleeding suffered by Thompson.[3]

Traumatised by the Thompson execution, Ellis took to drinking heavily, and attempted suicide the following year by shooting himself in the jaw. Suicide was at that time a criminal offence, and Ellis was charged and bound over for 12 months at Rochdale Magistrates Court. Eight years later, in September 1932, after another bout of heavy drinking, Ellis succeeded in his suicide attempt, cutting his throat with a razor.[4]

In 2013, 'Hangman', a new play written by Maggie Clune and based on the case and subsequent events, previewed at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London, starring Russell Floyd as John Ellis and Samantha Bolter as Edith Thompson.[citation needed]

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Notes

  1. ^ Rene Weis (2001). Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson. Penguin Books Ltd. 
  2. ^ McGilligan, Patrick. "Two - 1913-1921". Alfred Hitchcock: A Life in Darkness and Light - London: The Enjoyment of Fear. p. 49. 
  3. ^ Rene Weis (2001). Criminal Justice: The True Story of Edith Thompson. Penguin Books Ltd. 
  4. ^ Fielding 2008, pp. 87–91

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