The family name was synonymous with Death. It was notorious across Britain. Everyone knew the hangmen, the country’s official executioners, were called Pierrepoint.
And 75 years ago this weekend, it was a Pierrepoint who was summoned to Germany, to mete out justice to 13 of the most evil and depraved Nazis to be captured at the end of WWII— concentration camp commandant Josef Kramer, the Beast of Belsen, and his psychopathic cadre of guards.
This was perhaps the most macabre meeting of the war . . . between a cigar-smoking grocer’s book-keeper from Manchester and part-time Angel of Death, and a fanatical SS officer with an insatiable appetite for murder.
Albert Pierrepoint (pictured) was the third in the dynasty to take up the lethal profession. His father Henry was a Northamptonshire butcher who, as a young man, used to practise the best way to tie a noose
Albert Pierrepoint was accustomed to working in the shadows. On his very first job as an assistant hangman, aged 27, he accompanied his uncle Thomas to Dublin, to hang a murderer at Mountjoy Prison, in 1932. His uncle emphasised the importance of travelling incognito, especially in the Irish Republic where the British were widely despised.
All his equipment was carried in the capacious pockets of his coat and jacket, to avoid becoming conspicuous by taking a bag through the prison gates. Also in Thomas Pierrepoint’s pocket was a loaded revolver. He insisted ‘Our Albert’ must carry one, too.
Their appointment made national news. On the last leg of the journey from Dun Laoghaire, a man reading a newspaper leapt to his feet and shouted, ‘Pierrepoint is on this train!’ Uncle and son sat quietly, ignoring the commotion, as a tipsy sailor lurched to the door: ‘I know Pierrepoint very well,’ he declared. ‘I’ll have a look.’
A few minutes later, the man staggered drunkenly back. ‘Pierrepoint is not on this train,’ he announced. After that, Albert said, he understood why his uncle always carried a gun.
Albert Pierrepoint was the third in the dynasty to take up the lethal profession. His father Henry was a Northamptonshire butcher who, as a young man, used to practise the best way to tie a noose. He and his brother, Thomas, experimented with dead weights using sacks of corn in a stables, until Henry was appointed as a hangman in 1901.
A heavy drinker, Henry was relieved of his duties in 1910 after an argument with an assistant at a hanging turned into a fist-fight.
The reckoning: Nazi murderers Josef Kramer and Irma Grese, pictured, were hanged at Hameln, Germany, by Albert Pierrepoint. They were two of 13 Belsen guards, put to death on December 13, 1945
Albert always claimed that his uncle had taught him not to drink before a hanging: ‘If you can’t do the job without whisky, don’t do it at all.’ But by the outbreak of WWII, Thomas had a reputation for arriving at hangings smelling strongly of alcohol and unsteady on his feet, and he too was sent into retirement.
By then, Albert himself was the country’s chief hangman. An accountant, he never discussed his ‘other’ job, which paid no retainer but came with a fee of about £1,250 in today’s money for each execution. His full-time employer, a wholesale grocer, gave him time off to carry out his duties and asked no questions.
Neither did his wife, Anne, who was managing the tobacconist’s two doors up from his office in Newton Heath, Manchester, when he met her. Even when he proposed in 1937, after years of courtship, he did not give any hint — he assumed that, like everyone else in the close-knit streets, she knew what it meant to be a Pierrepoint.
When he was called to carry out a hanging, he would simply say to her, ‘I shan’t be seeing you for a couple of days.’
But that December day in 1945 was unlike any other. In Britain, disgust at the war crimes uncovered in Germany’s extermination camps was feverish. Radio and newspaper reports of the horrors at Belsen in particular stoked public abhorrence.
In Britain, disgust at the war crimes uncovered in Germany’s extermination camps was feverish. Pictured: Defendants at Belsen War Crimes Trial in Luneberg, Germany (Grese is number 9)
Even before Pierrepoint flew out to Buckeburg in West Germany, reporters and photographers were besieging his doorstep. He described the Press pack that pursued him to his waiting plane at RAF Northolt as ‘about as unwelcome as a lynch mob’.
Throughout his career, he had obeyed the government guidelines for hangmen to the letter: ‘He should avoid attracting public attention. He should clearly understand that his conduct and general behaviour must be respectable and discreet.’
Yet it was impossible for Pierrepoint to go unnoticed this time. For the duration of his duty as the Army’s executioner, he was given the rank of lieutenant-colonel.
At the prison in Hameln where Kramer and his cronies were held, the hangman arrived alone, as was his custom. A German prison officer challenged him and refused to speak English, but a translator arrived and introduced himself as Regimental Sergeant Major O’Neil. ‘I’ve never seen an execution,’ O’Neil confided cheerfully, ‘but I’m going to see one now, because I am to be your assistant.’ A row of cells for the 13 condemned men and women had been hurriedly built by the Royal Engineers.
As Pierrepoint walked down the dark corridor, he heard the sound of shovelling and scraping in the yard outside — ‘a jarring and nerve-racking noise in what would otherwise have been dead silence’.
Graves were being dug in the frozen ground outside. It was heavy work, because the iron-hard earth was full of flint and pebbles.
The cells were the smallest Pierrepoint had ever seen, no broader than the width of the door. The prisoners stood, looking out through the grilles.
At the first door, he recognised the square face of Josef Kramer, with its eyes so deep set that in the dim light its sockets appeared black and empty. Even in the unmitigated evil of the Nazi death camps, 39-year-old Kramer stood out as a demonic killer.
Almost his last act, as chief at Belsen, was to lean out of the camp’s kitchen window with a Schmeisser submachine gun and open fire on a group of prisoners, killing 22. The following day, the British arrived and Belsen was liberated.
Kramer appeared utterly indifferent to the suffering in the camp as he escorted British officers on a tour. An estimated 13,000 corpses lay unburied.
Typhus and starvation killed as many more after the liberation, with Army medics powerless to save them. The commandant had been a Nazi party member since 1931, and within three years was an SS guard at Dachau. By 1940, he was assistant to Rudolf Hoss at Auschwitz in Poland, where he was put in charge of the gas chambers.
At his trial, he described the first time he used Zyklon-B cyanide ‘salts’ in a mass execution. He ordered 80 women to be stripped and driven into the Auschwitz chamber. ‘When the door closed,’ he said without any apparent emotion, ‘they began to scream’.
‘I put in a small amount of salt through a tube and looked through a peephole to see what happened. The women breathed for about a minute before they fell to the floor. I had no feelings in carrying out these things because I had received an order.’ After inspecting the cells, Pierrepoint calmly ate lunch before arranging to weigh and measure the prisoners.
Scales and a height rod borrowed from the prison hospital were placed at the end of the corridor, and O’Neil ordered all the inspection grilles in the cell doors to be closed. Then Kramer was brought out.
He walked slowly, and seemed reluctant to step on the scales. Pierrepoint reflected later that under Kramer’s brutal rule, any inmate of Belsen who failed to respond instantly to an instruction would be clubbed, whipped or shot to death on the spot.
The next to be weighed was Dr Fritz Klein, a scrawny 55-year-old Romanian who had worked beside Kramer in Auschwitz before joining him at Belsen.
At the Polish camp, Klein had made it his business each morning to inspect the prisoners naked to select women for the SS brothel. Then he would divide the inmates into those who would be forced to work another day and those who were to be gassed to death.
A rabid antisemite, Klein not only claimed to be following orders when he sent thousands to their deaths but cited his duty as a doctor: ‘My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out.’ When the British arrived at the camp, however, he was wearing a Red Cross armband and posing as a charity worker.
Survivors pointed him out to the soldiers, and Klein was forced to dig mass graves. An infamous photograph, taken by a sergeant in the Army film and photographic unit, shows Klein standing amid hundreds of skeletal corpses.
After the ten male prisoners at Hameln jail were weighed, the first of three female camp guards was brought out. Irma Grese was 21 and blonde: Pierrepoint said she was, ‘as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet’. As she stepped on to the scales, she snapped, ‘Schnell,’ meaning, ‘hurry it up’ or ‘quickly’.
In Belsen, Irma Grese carried a whip made from plaited cellophane, with which she would beat female inmates to death. Survivors attested that she appeared to enjoy this intensely.
A burly woman, she kept dogs trained to tear people apart and ensured they were half starved so they would always be vicious. A fellow guard claimed that Grese killed at least 30 people a day.
Juana Bormann also kept dogs, a pack of wolfhounds that she would set on the prisoners. Barely 5ft tall and aged 42, she was trembling as she stood on the scales. ‘I have my feelings,’ she complained, in German.
The third woman was Elisabeth Volkenrath, who was according to survivors ‘the worst-hated woman in the camp’. The 26-year-old had been commandant of the women’s camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. She beat women to death with her fists and with whips and rubber truncheons, and devised a punishment she called ‘making sport’ — forcing inmates to exercise until they collapsed. Pierrepoint spent the rest of the day preparing the nooses for each of the prisoners, measuring the ropes so that each would fall the correct distance to break their necks cleanly. Too short a drop and they might strangle too death — too long, and they could be decapitated.
Every hanging would be clearly audible to the other prisoners in their cells. Uneasy at this thought, the hangman arranged to bring out the women first, so they would suffer less.
This strange chivalry was shared by the British government, which decreed that since women were to be executed, a female observer — the deputy governor of Manchester prison, a Miss Wilson — must be present.
At 6am on Friday, December 13, Pierrepoint woke and set off for Hameln prison. He began with Volkenrath and, because the cells were so small, had to ask her to step out into the corridor before he pinioned her arms to her sides with a leather strap.
She was then led to the gallows, the noose placed round her neck, her legs strapped together and a white hood pulled over her head. Pierrepoint pushed the lever and the trap door opened. Volkenrath’s body was left to hang for the regulation 20 minutes before she was taken down, and the next noose prepared.
Grese was the second to be executed. ‘She walked into the execution chamber,’ the hangman wrote in his autobiography, ‘gazed for a moment at the officials standing round it, then walked on to the centre of the trap where I had made a chalk mark.
‘She stood on this mark very firmly and, as I placed the white cap over her head, she said in her languid voice, “Schnell”.’
After the third woman was hanged, Pierrepoint said, he stopped for a cup of tea. Then it was Kramer’s turn.
With half an hour between each execution, it was dark by the time the last of the 13 bodies was taken down. At this point, the single miscalculation of the day was discovered. The Army had supplied only 12 coffins. The last body was wrapped in hessian sacking before burial — a dignity, Pierrepoint reflected, that was not afforded to any of the victims at Belsen.
Pierrepoint and RSM O’Neil carried out more than 200 executions in the wake of the war trials. In late 1946, the hangman and his wife took over a pub in Hollinwood outside Manchester. Its curious name was Help The Poor Struggler.
With his anonymity gone for ever, the hangman became a macabre tourist attraction. Coachloads would visit the pub to steal glances at the publican.
Though he continued as Britain’s executioner-in-chief for another ten years, he refused ever to discuss the work, and his regulars were fiercely defensive. ‘The guv’nor doesn’t like to talk about it,’ they would warn visitors.
To some people, Albert Pierrepoint was their avenger — the man who meted out justice to monsters. Every Christmas for years after, he received an envelope with a five pound note inside. There was no name or letter with it, just a scrap of paper bearing one word: ‘BELSEN.’