This article is written as a tribute to a very interesting, moral, religious and sometimes troubled man.
Many people have heard of the Bradford Executioners – namely the Pierrepoint family of Clayton but many haven‘t heard of an earlier man called James Berry.
Berry was born in Kay Street, Heckmondwike and was the 13th child out of 18 for Daniel Berry (a wool-stapler) and Mary Ann Kelly. After finishing school, he moved into central Bradford where he met Sarah Ackroyd. He married her on 6th April 1874 whilst he was 22 and they went to live at 58 Thorpe Street in Horton, Bradford. They had two sons, Herbert and Luther.
Berry got his first job as a policeman with the Bradford Police Force, serving eight years and tried himself as a boot salesman. This didn’t earn him enough upkeep for his family so he applied for the much grimmer post of executioner after the death of William Marwood in 1883. Marwood was a Lincolnshire man who invented the long drop technique of execution. He was unsuccessful despite being shortlisted. Bartholomew Binns was awarded the position but didn’t last long after two big mess-ups. It was suspected he was drunk whilst hanging people and at his final hanging in Liverpool, the governor of the Gaol said “Binns had no idea how to do his work satisfactorily.” Berry was awarded the contract in Binns’ place in 1884.
His first execution was the double hanging of Robert Vickers and William Innes in Edinburgh’s Calton prison on 31st March 1884. 44 year old Mary Lefley who had poisoned her husband with arsenic, was his first execution in England.
In his 8 years as Public Executioner, he hung 131 people including 5 women. There were some mishaps along the way including John Babbacombe Lee – “The Man They Couldn’t Hang” on 23rd February 1885 in Exeter. The trap door repeatedly failed to open so his sentence was commuted. At another hanging later that year, the prisoner, Robert Goodale, was given too long a drop that the rope decapitated him, the only recorded instance of this happening in Britain. He also hung William Bury, a man who was suspected by some of being Jack the Ripper.
He had a business card and in the earlier days of his career, whenever a murderer was condemned to death, Berry would offer his services to the county sheriff, enclosing a printed statement of his terms and conditions, leaving no room for misunderstanding. The fee paid to Berry for the job would include second-class return railway fare to and from Bradford and the cab fare from the railway station to the hanging-place as well as hotel expenses should they be required. Once he had a name established for him, he no longer saw it necessary to apply for work in England and the sheriffs would approach him. If he was to apply for an execution in Ireland, which he did do on a few occasions, he would send a business card.
He worked all over England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland but never worked in Yorkshire where a young man named James Billington got the job. He was paid around £10 for a hanging, £5 if there was a last minute appeal – meaning that on average, he gained around £350 a year.
Some years into the job, Berry wasn’t very happy. He believed that at least six of the criminals he had executed weren’t actually guilty of the crimes they were accused of. He was beginning to get less popular with the Home Office for being emotional at the hangings of his victims and for holding court at local pubs after executions, which had led to questions being asked in Parliament. His career came to an end when he interfered with the judgment of a prison medical officer at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool regarding the appropriate length of the drop. Berry compromised but the condemned man, John Conway, was nearly decapitated, proving that Berry had the better judgement.
In October 1891, the Home Office sent out a memo to all sheriffs telling them that “the employment of Berry as Executioner should no longer be recommended to the High Sheriffs.” His last execution was that of Frederick Storey in Edinburgh on 11th January 1892.
In 1892, he resigned his post, aged 40. In the same year, James became the first British executioner literate and communicative enough to be able to write freely about his work and he published his memoirs and called it ―My Experiences as an Executioner. The book is still very widely available in libraries and is still in print and remains a popular book. It is also rumoured that he had a waxwork at Madame Tussauds.
He never returned to the police force or the executioners. He was haunted by nightmares and became a very short tempered man. He turned to alcohol, touring the local pubs of the country and giving talks about his experiences as executioner.
He moved to 1 Bilton Place, off City Road in Girlington, Bradford but few people wanted to live near him. As an intelligent man, he decided to buy the entire row of houses, occupy one and rent out all the others.
One day in Forster Square Railway Station, he had a complete nervous breakdown and confessed his state of mind to a complete stranger. This led to his conversion to Christianity and in 1894, Berry became an Evangelist preacher at the Bowland Street Mission in Bradford.
Upon his conversion, Smith Wigglesworth gave this sermon about Berry,
“In England they have what is known as the public hangman who has to perform all the executions. This man held that appointment and he told me later that he believed that when he performed the execution of men who had committed murder, that the demon power that was in them would come upon him and that in consequence he was possessed with a legion of demons. His life was so miserable that he purposed to make an end of life. He went down to a certain depot and purchased a ticket. The English trains are much different from the American. In every coach there are a number of small compartments and it is easy for anyone who wants to commit suicide to open the door of his compartment and throw himself out of the train. This man purposed to throw himself out of the train in a certain tunnel just as the train coming from an opposite direction would be about to dash past and he thought this would be a quick end to his life. There was a young man at the depot that night who had been saved the night before. He was all on fire to get others saved and purposed in his heart that every day of his life he would get someone saved. He saw this dejected hangman and began to speak to him about his soul. He brought him down to our mission and there he came under a mighty conviction of sin. For two and a half hours he was literally sweating under conviction and you could see a vapour rising up from him. At the end of two and a half hours he was graciously saved.
Berry was a very restless and inquisitive man and often spoke about moral matters.
He died on 21st October 1913 at Walnut Tree Farm in a quiet country village called Bolton, near York, aged 61.
He was a strong campaigner against capital punishment up until his death in 1913.
There is no grand monument to the executioner in the cemetery. It is sad to say that his grave has been neglected – hidden under a pile of leaves and almost forgotten.
It is a century this October since he died. It would be nice for some lasting memorial in recognition of his achievements, beliefs and fight against capital punishment.
Written by Phil Robinson with assistance from James Slater. If you have any questions or comments, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to assist with our investigation in to James Berry’s life. Alternatively, you can comment on this page if you have an account.