Of all the occupations one might choose to follow, perhaps the strangest is that of executioner. What is it that might set you on that career path? Perhaps too many games of hangman as a child.
But when you look at the characteristics of the people who have become the state’s executioners, what is striking is their otherwise everyday ordinariness and one such was John Ellis.
The son of a hairdresser, Ellis was born in the northern town of Rochdale in 1874 and lived a typically northern life of the time in that he worked in the Eagle cotton mill, kept whippets and enjoyed watching the Rochdale Harriers play rugby league football.
There was nothing in his background to suggest why he should have applied for the post of one of England’s hangmen in 1901, but the town’s chief constable vouched that he was ‘a man of good character’ and he was appointed assistant hangman in 1902.
As previously mentioned, there was little to distinguish Ellis, one newspaper saying that he ‘never looked like what he was’ without explaining what it was they thought an executioner should look like.
Ellis was slightly built, with pale blue eyes and a pale complexion, was balding and sported a bushy moustache, and it seemed he was content to travel the country carrying out the capital act efficiently, but without any outward sign that he took any enjoyment from his work. Indeed he sometimes found it quite distressing if his ‘client’ was a woman.
In 1923 he became embroiled in a celebrated murder case when he was asked to officiate at the execution of Edith Thompson who had been convicted of conspiring with her lover in the murder of her husband, Percy Thompson.
The case has been the subject of plays and books and it seems likely that Edith was innocent of the crime and that her conviction has more to do with her adultery, In any event, it is likely that Ellis was aware of this and he considered the matter for a day before accepting the commission. Or perhaps it was the expectation of his £10 fee, plus expenses.
The execution of Edith Thompson did not go well. As Ellis waited he could hear her moans and cries and when she appeared she was carried by two warders, her head on her chest. Clearly she had been doped with brandy and was unaware of events and in the end, she had to be held upright before Ellis could pull the lever.
When the gallows trapdoor opened and Edith fell, the sudden impact of the noose caused her to suffer a massive haemorrhage, and the scene traumatised all who witnessed it, especially Ellis. He described the experience as one of the most nerve-wracking he had ever endured and his health began to suffer.
He had been afflicted by neuritis for some time and this began to get worse. He also suffered from sleepless nights and in March 1924 he finally resigned from his post.
Retirement wasn’t easy for Ellis who was, after all, a celebrity of sorts having been the executioner of Dr Crippen amongst many others. He took to drinking heavily and attempted suicide the following year by shooting himself in the jaw. Suicide was a criminal offence, and he was charged and bound over for twelve months at Rochdale Magistrates Court.
He opened a pub, the unfortunately named Jolly Butcher, but the venture was not a success. ‘Conversation ceases when I’m about,’ he complained, ‘Socially it’s a bad business being a hangman.’
In 1927 he even trod the stage, playing the part of the hangman in The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace, a melodrama produced appropriately in Gravesend, but it seems his appearance offended more people than it pleased.
After another bout of heavy drinking, Ellis finally succeeded in taking his own life in 1932, cutting his throat with a razor, leaving behind his thoughts on his strange existence in his memoirs, Diary of a Hangman.