"I had the unpleasant task of taking life by law."
Between 1901 and 1924, John Ellis was the UK's Chief Executioner.
He oversaw the hanging of more than 200 prisoners;
including Dr Crippen, Frederick Seddon and Roger Casement.
In this extract of his only known communication,
Ellis describes some of his prominent cases,
his feelings on the death penalty,
the power that journalism holds over public opinion
and how his work impacted on his life.
Read a short biography on John Ellis at the bottom of this page.
Note: This enhanced recording is over fifty years old and is not to modern standards.
The sound of nearby building contractors can also be heard on the recording.
Read the full transcript below as you listen...
Present: Leslie Flint and Betty Greene
Communicators: John Ellis, Mickey
…in my being able to manage to communicate with people on your side of life, the friends who asked me to come, felt that my particular message, would have some interest for people on your side...
As a matter of fact, there’s an old saying that 'the past is the past' and it’s dead and buried, but we on this side know only too well that nothing is further from the truth - because the past is ever present - and indeed if it weren’t for the past, there couldn’t be any present and there couldn’t be any future. And in a sense, the past is like a mirror in which we can see a reflection of ourselves. Without it I have no doubt, there couldn’t even be.
So many people are inclined to think, when a thing is dead and finished with, that’s the end of it. Memories may remain, but they themselves with time, become dim and sometimes obscure and gradually assume an un-importance.
But I want to talk to you about something which I think is very vital and very important. Because it affects every human being, either directly or indirectly and that is this: that you cannot escape from ourselves and we cannot escape from our responsibilities. Not only to others, but the responsibilities that we have in regard to our own individual self.
In the past, everything that has happened in regard to human beings is important. I look back on my life and I am only too conscious of the fact, that if I had known, what I now know, I would have done very, very differently. Very differently indeed.
I had the unpleasant task of taking life by law. Now there may be excuses, indeed there are very good excuses for taking life under certain circumstances and conditions. Although I realise that taking life under any circumstance is morally wrong. And yet there alleviating circumstances at times, when a person does something, when they’ve lost all control and their passions have been aroused and they are in themselves completely and absolutely out of control of their senses - they do things for which they invariably regret. And in a sense, one may pity them and they feel desperately sorry when the time comes for them to pay the ‘bill’ to society. And of course there are others who do organise and arrange premeditated murder. That is of course, in an entirely different category.
But even so, after great reflection, after great argument and discussion, within my innermost self - and of course with many souls over here - some indeed who were sent here by the law and by, in some instances, my hand.
I have come back particularly, to appeal to humanity to refrain from taking life. A case which springs to mind very strongly, at this moment as I speak to you, is the case of Edith Thompson. Perhaps it was a long time ago and you may have completely forgotten all about it. Whether you have or whether you have not, whether society has forgotten, as it often does - sometimes even conveniently to such an extent, nothing can wipe away from my memory the terrible tragedy, where a woman, foolish woman, an enamoured woman, allowed herself to be caught in the web of circumstance. If ever a woman was innocent, she was.
And yet her life was taken, because society, and to a great extent, the public demanded it. The public wanted it. The public - and strange as it may seem - although I will assure you I have no personal animosity or ill will or feeling towards anyone, whatever their sex. The women of the country at that time, if my memory serves me right, were very much inclined to feel that she had misled a younger man and she was, to a great extent, responsible for the tragedy and felt that it was justified that she should be hung.
You know, human beings are very strange and there’s nothing worse - and I can assure you this is so - there’s nothing worse than a form of mob hysteria. And often when the newspapers whip up public opinion, whip up and sensationalise, as they certainly did in the case of the Thompson and Bywaters case. You know, there’s no doubt about it, the woman herself had no knowledge whatsoever that murder was going to take place that night. She was as innocent as a newborn babe of the fact, that her lover was going to commit murder, either on that night or any other night for that matter. She was a very weak and a very foolish woman in many ways.
And yet, as indeed many others have suffered for their foolishness, it alters not the fact, that many who go to the gallows are innocent of the crimes which are put at their door.
My name was Ellis and I can assure you, that it is not in a sense now, a name that I’m proud of. There was a time in the early li - earlier years, that I was quite proud to be a public hangman. I saw no wrong in it at all. I thought it was everyone’s duty to support the law and when murder had taken place...well, the retribution should follow. I believed, as so many people evidently still do believe, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth - the old law of Moses. But how strange it seems in a Christian country that the old law of Moses should be the one to be taken as the ‘gospel’, rather than the teachings of the Christ.
Were you the one that, er…
(all talking at once)
…may I please continue. I am sorry, I do not want to appear rude, but it’s very difficult for me to concentrate and…but I - I was telling you that I’d been asked to come, by various souls on this side, who were themselves connected in one way or another with the law and the meting out of justice, as we saw it.
But you must remember and I think this is probably the most important thing to remember - that there would be no place or would have been no place for people like myself, if it were not for the public and the public opinion. Of course, since my day, people have changed a great deal in their attitude towards these important matters. There is now a greater realisation, than at possibly any other time, that it is not the solution to the problem. Murder is a very terrible crime and I wouldn’t have you consider or think for one moment, that I’m necessarily in sympathy for the person who commits a murder. I am anxious, as indeed are all right-thinking people, to see justice done. But I can assure you that the taking of a life doesn’t solve the problem. Indeed I would go as far as to say it augments the problem, it makes it worse. It leads to other crimes, often by people who are possessed, not only by the thoughts that have been so emanated over a particular murder, and the tremendous publicity that is given to a murder case, especially one such as the Thomson and Bywaters case. Not only does that in itself, have a tremendous effect on the mass mind, but here and there upon individuals.
People are inclined you know, sometimes and in some instances, especially weak people, are inclined to be like sheep. How often this has been proved to be correct, that you had, what I suppose you could term carbon-copy murders. A murder is committed, great publicity is given to it, it’s read - the case is read by untold thousands of people and within a very short time you have, several perhaps, even a series of murders that are almost identical. I realise that, of course, these cases must be given publicity. I’m not suggesting you should in any way endeavour to suppress the work of the press or the spreading of news. I’m not against the press, but I am suggesting, and this is an important thing, that where you do get, often an appalling murder, you get repetition, you get copies - carbon-copies of the identical murder. And also, another important factor is, that quite often the person who has been hanged, will cling to the Earth for a very long time - seeking revenge on society.
I took my own life. I realise now that it was the wrong thing to have done, but I was in a terrible, terrible state of depression. I witnessed something which had so changed me, it changed my outlook and my opinions. Overnight, I was a changed man and I couldn’t face the future and I couldn’t face something, which a lot of people in your world seem to have no knowledge of - I couldn’t face seeing the things that I saw. I couldn’t sleep and I couldn’t concentrate and I could find no peace. I was haunted by the things that I’d witnessed and the things that I’d done and above all, by the people to whom I had the unfortunate task of putting into another world. A world which I myself now inhabit and which, thank God, I can say I am now happy.
But only a person like myself can tell you, of the untold misery that takes place on this side, especially in the early stages of coming here, for those who are sent to the gallows and to those whose task it is to commit, what the law justifies as, just retribution.
Crime and punishment, crime and punishment. I suppose there are many forms of crime and there are many types of punishment meted out, but very seldom does the punishment meet the crime. You cannot bring back a life that has been taken, and I would suggest that those who have committed the crime of taking another life, of murder, that each case - and I understand today it is much more taken on its merits or de-merits - each case must be considered.
And even when it is proved to be a premeditated murder, no good is ever to be found in hanging that person. I would suggest that they be put to some useful work in some capacity, separated from the rest of society and given a chance to work out, to some extent, their salvation. And in a sense this is a more terrible punishment, but it is a sane, a sensible one and it does give the individual time to reflect, to change and to some extent, make good for that one moment of madness.
Marshall Hall, Birkenhead and other great souls connected with the law, all are of the same opinion and it is because they have requested that I particularly, should come, that I want you to bear with me and realise, that if in the work you are endeavouring to do, you can bring about - or help to bring about, these changes that are so long overdue. Some few years ago the law was changed, since then of course, it’s been changed again, so that for certain types of murder, hanging still takes place. But what I think one should remember, in the worst cases of murder, that is, premeditated and planned murder, you have here a cold, callous, wilful type of individual, who will stop at nothing to achieve his aims, this is a person who obviously has progressed not at all. This is a person who is on the lowest strata of human life, the person who most needs to develop, to expand in his knowledge and to become a better person in consequence.
To send such a person here, although to all outward appearances on the material side of life, that person is no longer ‘in being’, that person is dead. Nothing is further from the truth, that person is very much alive and being on such an occasion…(unintelligible)…are Earthbound in consequence and he invariably seeks his revenge on society, by picking up some soul in your world, possibly highly sensitised being, very weak perhaps - but nevertheless, not necessarily a bad person - and if he can he will lead that simple, unsophisticated individual into the ways of darkness.
Many of these crimes, these repetitive crimes, these crimes that you might call carbon-copies are often committed by people, who under normal circumstances, wouldn’t commit any form of crime. They possibly wouldn’t even ill-treat an animal or to pick the wings off a butterfly. They are often rather weak individuals, highly sensitive and they’re often very psychic and they’re often good subjects upon which these Earthbound souls - these once-upon-a-time murderers - impinge themselves.
I could tell you, if I had the time, innumerable stories - stories which I am sure would interest everyone. And they are truthful stories about crimes committed, about people who paid the penalty and in some cases, they were innocent of any crime and of course in many instances they were criminals, they obviously did commit the crime, but under strange circumstances, for which they were not altogether responsible.
There are some very great classic cases - which have become classic cases in crime history - which are often brought up and discussed. But I understand there has been a great change among certain peoples, in regard to certain crimes committed long ago. Take Dr Crippen. Now Dr Crippen was a man who was completely and absolutely free of any guile. If guile developed in his make up, it developed in the last few months of his life. He was a poor down-trodden little man, well spoken, fairly well educated. He was a man who, quite obviously, wouldn’t have hurt a fly in normal circumstances. But he had a wife who was big, blowsy, overpowering personality that she was, who’d been in the Music Halls, in third rate Music Halls at that, who had no love and affection for her husband. One wonders why she ever bothered to marry him, excepting perhaps she thought it might bring her a certain amount of respectability and give her an opportunity to entertain in a fairly lavish way. But she was always entertaining, always having these ‘loud-voiced people in third-rate Music Hall’ types, who over-ran the house.
And his whole being was so opposite to hers. One wonders why they ever came together in the first place, but they did as one...as people do in human society. Strange things happen, ‘odd-bods’ you might say, come together, for no rhyme nor reason. On the surface it seems, there’s no point that they couldn’t possibly have, to be happy. But he was enamoured of her no doubt, in the early stages. But to cut a long story short, I know the facts of that case. Crippen had no more intention of killing his wife than either you people here have any intention of killing anyone. It’s true, they had rows. Tempers were high-pitched. But he was a puny little man and if he wanted to kill his wife he had every opportunity, because he knew enough about medicines and poisons to have done it in a sensible manner. At least I say sensible - sensible from the point of view, that it might not have been easily discovered. If she’d have been ill, for instance, to all outward appearances and she’d have died and been buried in the normal way, he’d have probably got away with it.
Everything points to the fact that he did not deliberately kill his wife. What actually happened was, one night there was a terrible row between them and he lost complete control of himself - and remember he was only a small man, she was quite a big, hefty wench. But she was tyke*, drunk and she went to hit him, which she'd done many times before, and he picked up - hardly realising what he was doing - a poker and he hit her. And she went flying and she hit her head against the heavy brass fender and she was killed in consequence. The poor man panicked, he didn’t know what to do. He realised or thought, that if he brought in the police that he would be accused of murdering her - which I suppose, in a sense, one could say, he did. On the spur of the moment he lost his temper - the temper of both of them was at fever-pitch and she was as drunk as could possibly be, unsteady on her feet. He picked the poker up and struck her to defend himself. She fell, drunk as she was and struck her head.
Actually, it wasn’t the actual poker that killed her. It was the striking of her head on the heavy fender. He panicked, what did he do ? He buried her and then, he ran away - which was the worst thing he could have done. If he'd have ‘stood his guns’, if he'd have called in the police and explained what had happened, he may have been acquitted or [brought in] as manslaughter. But he was hung for murder.
I only recount this because it’s of interest. Because there’s always been some doubt even with Crippen - as to whether this rather puny little man did do this. It's true he had a mistress, but he went to her for solace, for peace and quiet and happiness which he couldn’t find. One could go on recounting all sorts of instances and cases of various murders - [both] for and against the individual - but what I want to say is, that you two in some measure can help to bring about a different outlook - and eventually I hope, to make it possible for a way to be found, whereby people who fall by the wayside, who do the things which are against all the better instincts of man - where they should be given an opportunity to work out their salvation. Not to be sent here before their time, unprepared, unready. And only often lingering on the Earth to have revenge on society.
I cannot hold on, but I’d like to come and talk to you again some future time. But please...
Thank you so much for coming.
Thank you Mr Ellis.
Would you be able to say your name again ? I didn’t quite catch it.
My name is Ellis.
Ellis. Oh I remember, yes...
I'm so sorry. I would like to have said a lot more but the power's waning. Goodbye.
Goodbye Mr Ellis.
Thank you so much for coming.
Hello Mick. Cheerio.
END OF RECORDING
John Ellis lived for 58 years in Rochdale [Manchester, UK] For much of that time he operated his own hairdressing business, but it was his other, you might say, part-time job that made him a national figure. John Ellis served for 23 years as a public executioner attending a total of 203 hangings before his retirement in 1924.
Ellis was born on the 4th of October at 18 Broad Lane in the Balderstone district of Rochdale. His father Joseph ran a barber shop on Oldham Road close to the "Swan With Two Necks" pub.
John started his working career as a stripper and grinder at the Eagle Mill in Balderstone, but he injured his back at work giving himself a disabling injury which bothered him throughout his life. Looking for less physically demanding work, her moved to Tweedale and Smalley's in Castleton, a manufacturing company making textile machinery. It was at this point when the notion of becoming a public executioner first entered his head.
The work at Tweedale and Smalley proved to be equally difficult on John's back, so he left and set up his own hairdressing business at 451 Oldham Road.
John was married by this time and his wife was less than enthusiastic about his ambition to become an executioner. Despite this, he wrote to R. D. Cruikshank, the Governor of Strangeways Prison in Manchester, applying for a position as an executioner. This led to an interview and subsequently to an invitation to attend one week of training at Newgate Prison. The training obviously went well because on May 8, 1901 his name was added to the list of executioners and assistants, at a rate of £10 plus expenses for the executioner and £2.10.00 for the assistant.
During his career as public executioner, Ellis was involved in a number of high profile cases. He executed the infamous Dr. Crippen, who went down in history as the first murderer to be captured by means of radio telegraphy. After murdering his wife in England, Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American by birth, fled the country and under the name of John P. Robinson booked passage on the cargo ship Montrose sailing from Antwerp for Quebec. Crippen was accompanied by his mistress Ethel le Neve, dressed as a man and purporting to be Mr. Robinson's son. A suspicious captain, connecting the strange couple with the hue and cry for Crippen, telegraphed England. Detectives from Scotland Yard boarded the liner Laurentic out of Liverpool bound for Canada. The much faster Laurentic arrived in Quebec before the Montrose and the detectives arrested Crippen and his companion when the Montrose docked.
Ellis also found himself in the public gaze when in 1916 he executed Roger Casement, the rather charismatic Irishman, who was found guilty of treason.
John Ellis performed his last execution in 1923. John Eastwood was hanged at Armly Goal in Leeds and that was the 14th execution that Ellis attended that year. In March of 1924 he tended his resignation ending a career he had followed since 1901.
Looking back over the 23 years of his work, Ellis found it hard to believe that he had survived it. He was not about to miss the long train journey to and from early morning hangings, whilst trying to run his hairdressing business. He was also glad to get away from the continual stress he suffered throughout his career. To those who saw him in action, he was regarded as having nerves of steel, but in fact he was constantly afraid of making errors. In retirement his health deteriorated and heavy drinking became a serious problem.
After one drinking bout in 1924 he attempted to shoot himself, ending up in Rochdale Magistrates Court charged with attempted suicide. During his trial Ellis made commitments to curb his drinking and assured the magistrate he would not try to kill himself again. In return he was bound over for 12 months and discharged.
In 1927 Ellis was talked into taking part in a dramatic production of "The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace". Peace was executed in 1879 for the murder of a Manchester policeman during the commission of a burglary. Ellis, of course, played the executioner, adding to the appeal of the play, but attracting some controversy since there were some who considered his involvement inappropriate. The play opened in December at Gravesend, but audiences quickly dwindled as the novelty wore off and it closed soon after.
Ellis must have had some financial involvement in the staging of the play because, when it closed, he kept the scaffold and took it home to Rochdale. He used the scaffold as part of a presentation of the execution craft, taking it on tour to fairgrounds and seaside resorts.
The 1930s were as hard in Rochdale as elsewhere and there was little money for food, let alone hair cuts, so Ellis found himself attempting to supplement his income by selling towels in local pubs.
In failing health and once more drinking heavily, the end came for Ellis in 1932. A drinking bout ended with him threatening both his wife and daughter with a razor, but eventually turning it on himself. In a rage he slit his own throat and was pronounced dead on September 20th.