James Berry (hangman)

James Berry (8 February 1852 – 21 October 1913) was an English executioner from 1884 until 1891. Berry was born at Heckmondwike in Yorkshire.

His most important contribution to the science of hanging was the amendment and the refinement of the Hanging#Long drop method developed by William Marwood whom Berry knew quite well. His improvements were intended to diminish mental and physical suffering and some of them remained standard practice until the abolition of capital punishment for murder.

An insight into Berry's behaviour and methods can be read in the book "My Experiences as an Executioner" in which he describes his methods and recalls the final moments of some of the people he executed.

Early life

He served eight years with the Bradford Police Force, then tried himself as a boot salesman. Since he did not earn enough for the upkeep of his family, he applied for the post of executioner after William Marwood's death (1883) but did not get the job, even after being shortlisted, until the short period of Bartholomew Binns in office was over.

Berry was the first British hangman literate and communicative enough to be able to write freely about his work. He considered that the hangman was the last link in what he called the "chain of legal retribution".

Career incidents

He was the hangman who famously failed to hang John Babbacombe Lee - "The Man They Couldn't Hang" - in 1884. The trap door repeatly failed to open and Lee's sentence was commuted.

The execution of Robert Goodale on 30 November 1885 at Norwich. The prisoner was given too long a drop so that the rope decapitated him.

Berry's time in office came to an end following interference in his judgement by the prison medical officer at Kirkdale regarding the appropriate length of drop; Berry compromised but the condemned man John Conway was nearly decapitated. In March 1892 Berry wrote his letter of resignation, probably without knowing that in October of the previous year the Home Office had already decided that "the employment of Berry as Executioner should no longer be recommended to the High Sheriffs".

Berry carried out 131 hangings in his seven years in office, including those of 5 women. James Berry also hanged William Bury, a man suspected by some of being Jack the Ripper. In his book "My Experiences as an Executioner" James Berry is convinced he was the one to put a final stop to the Whitechapel murders although there have always been multiple suspects.

Later life

Following his retirement, Berry toured as evangelist and gave lectures on phrenology. In his book "The Hangman's Thoughts Above the Gallows" (1905) he complains that "the law of capital punishment falls with terrible weight upon the hangman and that to allow a man to follow such an occupation is doing him a deadly wrong"

His writing

* "The Hangman's Thoughts Above the Gallows" (1905)
* "My Experiences as an Executioner"


* Evans, Stewart P., Executioner. The Chronicles of James Berry, Victorian Hangman, Sutton Publishing (2004), ISBN 0-7509-3407-7

ee also

* Albert Pierrepoint
* List of executioners
* Hanging
* Capital punishment
* Official Table of Drops

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