Hangman, hangman, hold it a little while,
I think I see my friends coming,
Riding a many mile.
Friends, you get some silver?
Did you get a little gold?
What did you bring me, my dear friends?
To keep me from the Gallows Pole.
Opening lines from the Led Zeppelin song “Gallows Pole”
William Calcraft has the unique distinction of being one of the most prolific hangmen in the history of Great Britain. His career as Chief Executioner for the City of London lasted from 1829 to 1874 and while no official records exist about how many people he executed, estimates claim that somewhere between 430 and 450 people met their demise at his hands.
The Early Years
I don’t know exactly what kind of formal training a person needed to become a hangman but apparently selling meat pies outside Newgate prison was a good way to get started. It was there he met and became friend with one John Foxton who was in charge of the prison. The two hit it off and soon Calcraft found himself in the employ of Foxton. His job was to flog juvenile offenders for which he was paid 10 shillings a week.
I guess that back in the day whipping the shit out of little kids must have looked pretty good on Calcraft’s resume because once Foxton died he was named as his successor. For his services he was paid one guinea (about 20 shillings) a week and a “bonus” guinea for each execution he conducted. He also received a stipend for such tools of the trade as the Cat o' nine tails and birch rods. Apparently that wasn’t enough for Calcraft to maintain his standard of living and in order to supplement his income he sold sections of the rope he used in his hangings as souvenirs to the public. His asking price was usually between five shillings and/or one pound per inch of rope depending on who was hanged and the notoriety of their crime.
Back then, hangings were done in public and attracted large crowds of spectators ( some as large as 30,000) who were probably bored with everyday life and viewed them as a form of entertainment. Calcraft certainly didn’t disappointment them since he favored what was known as the “short drop” method of hanging. This usually wasn’t enough to snap the prisoner’s neck and death by strangulation ensued. This could take up to fifteen minutes and in many instances Calcraft decided to step in and either pull on the prisoners legs or jump on his shoulders in order to speed up the process.
In 1868, public executions were banned in England and Calcraft had to take his act behind closed doors. He finally retired in 1874 and for his services received a pension of twenty five shillings per week until he died in 1879
I know, it was a job and “somebody had to do it” but Jesus Christ, selling off bits and pieces of rope, pulling on prisoners legs and jumping on their shoulders while they were suspended from the noose seems pretty goddamn ghoulish to me.
I wonder how he slept at night?