The trouble with hanging as a punishment is always that it’s irreversible when a miscarriage of justice is discovered. In Britain, there is a sad list of real people who paid the ultimate penalty even though they were subsequently found innocent. Derek Bentley, a young mentally handicapped man, was hanged in 1953 for the killing of a policeman during an armed robbery – even though Bentley was under arrest at the time the shooting took place.
Then there was the case of Timothy Evans, hanged in 1950 for killing his wife and daughter. Sixteen years later an official enquiry decided it was Evans’ neighbour John Christie – almost certainly a serial killer of other women – who’d murdered the pair.
That was all too late for Evans, but the furore over his case, which had prompted petitions and books, increased demands for the abolition of the death penalty. I remember the campaigns well. Indeed, the television broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy, who’d written the book 10 Rillington Place – which demonstrated with forensic clarity that Evans couldn’t have murdered his family – later wrote the foreword to one of my own non-fiction books.
The campaign to abolish hanging in England and Wales reached its peak during the 1960s, the decade in which my Crampton of the Chronicle books take place. So I thought I would set Front Page Murder in the period when the prospect of being hanged would concentrate the mind wonderfully, as Samuel Johnson once put it.
It may sound cynical to say it, but hangings always made big stories for newspapers. Until well into the last century, reporters were given a front-row seat in the room where the hanging took place. They’d watch the victim brought in, see the black hood placed over his head, and the noose around his neck.
They’d take notes as the trapdoor sprang open and the victim fell through. They’d hear the crack as his neck was broken. They watch as the doctor pronounced life extinct and they’d hear the prison governor announce the formal death of the victim. Then they’d stagger off, have a couple of strengthening scotches, and write it up for their paper.
By the 1920s, journalists were excluded from hangings to the relief of some but not all of them. Instead, they’d loiter outside the prison gates waiting for the “notice of execution” to be posted. It was all a pointless ritual but provided some macabre copy. Papers loved carrying pictures of the pathetic sheet of paper pinned to the prison gates.
The last hangings in England took place in August 1964. The last English death sentence was passed in 1965 but never carried out. There have been several attempts to bring back hanging but the UK parliament has no appetite to do so.
Like its victims, the death penalty in Britain is dead.