E is for John Ellis

I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for Round 21 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if there are repeats of previous posts.

John EllisOf 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.’

Diary of a HangmanEllis next tried his luck as a hairdresser, like his father, but his shop became a magnet for ghoulish visitors from as far away as Bombay who sought his advice on how to become a public executioner.

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.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

11 comments… Add yours
  • ABC-Wednesday 9th August 2017

    one would not want to meet him in his work 😉

    Every time I come to visit here and read your post about someone I always feel a little sad that I can not plugin my mind to save the info you share about those persons.. I often wish I had a photographic memory 😉

    Have a ♥-warming AbC-day / -week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (ABC-team)

  • Betty 9th August 2017

    Very interesting. I can’t imagine doing that kind of work. I hope the pay was good because he really seemed to suffer afterwards. A very strange way to earn a living.

  • Trevor Rowley 10th August 2017

    I think that should be Hornets, Mr P, and not Harriers.

    John Ellis featured in a TV documentary about the history of British executioners, which gets repeated from time to time. His grave, in a Rochdale cemetery, was shown and I believe he still has family in the town.

    Some of those executioners were revealed to be somewhat uncaring and at times incompetent, often bungling the hangings. Others, like Albert Pierrepoint, were professional and swift. He took over as the state executioner from his father and uncle and went on to “dispatch” about two hundred Nazis convicted of war crimes. Seemingly, a complete gentleman when behind the bar of his public house.

    • Yorkshire Pudding 10th August 2017

      Uncle Trevor is right about the rugby league team’s name. Rochdale Harriers is the name of a running and athletic club formed in 1894. Before the name Rochdale Hornets was adopted for the town’s premier rugby league team, those involved considered Rochdale Wasps, Rochdale Grasshoppers and Rochdale Butterflies. Not too far away, a few years later, the men who formed Manchester United rejected the following suggested names – Manchester Weasels, Manchester Fungi and Manchester Smallpox.

  • Yorkshire Pudding 10th August 2017

    That’s interesting.

    By the way, Charles Peace killed a man called Dyson just one hundred yards from this laptop close to “The Banner Cross” pub which you drove past several times when your daughter was at university in Sheffield.

  • Trevor Rowley 10th August 2017

    If memory serves me correctly, Charles Peace became known as “The Devil Man” and was viewed as almost uncatchable because of his stealth as a cat burglar. He has a link with Manchester as he killed a policeman there (Withington, Didsbury or thereabouts).

    • Mr Parrot 14th August 2017

      Thanks, Trevor. According to Wikipedia, the murder took place in Whalley Range.

      • Trevor Rowley 14th August 2017

        I have an old edition of “The Fifty Most Famous Crimes of the Last One Hundred Years” tucked away in the attic. It had been in the family since about the mid-1930s. The career of Charles Peace is covered in the book as is Dr Crippen. Do you recall the case of George Harry Storrs, Mr P? The story is contained in the same book. A wealthy Stalybridge millowner is murdered in his own home, Gorse Hall – set high up on an isolated hillside above the town. Two men (one of them a cousin) are arrested quite separately for the crime and each is acquitted. The crime remains unsolved to this day.

        • Mr Parrot 14th August 2017

          I do indeed recall the Gorse Hall Murder case, in fact, I wrote about it some years ago. It has always intrigued me, not least because Gorse Hall was a place I played regularly when I was a youngster.

          • Trevor Rowley 14th August 2017

            When I was a boy, the Old Gorse Hall was already in ruins and New Gorse Hall had been demolished about a year after the murder, on the instructions of Mr Storr’s widow. That hillside was largely empty and was just fields although the building called Hunters Tower was still standing and, I recall, a family were living there as “recently” as the late 1950s/early 1960s. My late father told me how tragedy struck in 1928, when a light aircraft crashed near to Hunters Tower, killing a boy and injuring several other people. Crowds had gathered there to see the aircraft arriving and it had been delivering canisters of film to the New Prince’s cinema in Stalybridge as part of a publicity stunt. The New Prince’s cinema was demolished in 1979. It stood on the corner of High Street and Caroline Street and was directly opposite the driveway entrance to Gorse Hall – the original stone gateposts are still standing but the original gates are long gone.

            Incidentally, although the Gorse Hall murder is always described as having occurred in Stalybridge, technically the building stood in the municipal area of Dukinfield (although the entrance gate stood in Stalybridge). When George Harry Storrs had a warning bell installed on top of his house, it was agreed that any response would be made by the police from Stalybridge – a much quicker route up the main drive rather than by their chums from Dukinfield, another one and a half miles away (who probably couldn’t hear the bell anyway).

  • Roger O Green 10th August 2017

    NOT gonna be MY line of work!



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