Thursday, 25 September 2014

Bartholomew Binns - Bungling Hangman

Hanging was long a tradition of execution in this country, but for more than 150 years, it was basically a case of the hangmen doing everything their way. There were no set procedures for drops, condemned men and women simply strangled to death very slowly.  At times, people would pull on their feet to speed up the death.  William Calcraft was the most notorious exponent of the short drop not being enough to kill quickly.  It was his successor that started the process.  This was William Marwood, who introduced the longer drop, although he was not without bungled executions himself.  His last job was bungled because he was very drunk.  He died days later.  His most famous client was killer Charlie Peace, whom he hanged at Armley Prison in Leeds.

    There were numerous applications for the vacant post of hangman, and the post was to be handed to a former Bradford Policeman, James Berry.  But members of his family objected, so the job was offered to a foreman of the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Company, Bartholomew Binns, a plate layer from Dewsbury. (All the qualifications you need to hang people!)  But Binns` reign would stretch from November 1883 to March 1884, and he would become notorious for bungled executions.  Binns was born around 1840 in West Yorkshire and worked on the railways.  His introduction to the post of public executioner started when he was elected as an assistant to William Marwood, but obviously working with Marwood did not give him proper insight into the tasks he was to do.  When given the job in November 1883, his first client was Henry Powell, dispatched at Wandsworth Prison on November 6th.  At this time, there was no set table of determining length of the drop, taking into consideration the weight of the condemned.  It was the execution of Henry Dutton on December 3rd 1883 at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool, that questions about his competence were raised.  Dutton was condemned for murdering his grandmother at her home in Athol Street in Liverpool.  Dutton was a very light man at just 128 pounds.  Binns gave a drop of 7" 6`, but the rope was too thick, and the eyelet, through which the noose ran, was placed at the back of the neck.  The most suitable spot was behind the left ear.  Dutton did not die instantly but slowly strangled to death, a most unpleasant experience witnessed by the prison doctor, James Barr.  He suspected Binns had been drinking.

    The most infamous of Binns` eleven clients were the Liverpool sisters, 55 year old Catherine Flanagan and 41 year old Margaret Higgins.  They poisoned their own children and anybody else in their household for insurance money.  Eventually, the luck for these two serial killers ran out and they faced the horror of being hanged by Binns at Kirkdale Gaol.  It seemed that on this day, Binns may have got it right.  But it was his last job, again, at Kirkdale, that saw him dismissed.  It was the execution of 18 year old Michael McLean on March 10th 1884.  The prison governor, Major Leggett, questioned whether Binns knew anything about doing this very grim task, and he claimed that when Binns arrived at the gaol, he was drunk.  Very unhappy about this situation, he sent for a local man named Sam Heath, to assist.  However, Binns would have none of it and told Heath not to interfere.  He got everything wrong, and McLean dangled for 13 minutes, strangling, before his heart gave out.  Major Leggett complained to authorities, and days later, Binns was dismissed.  Questions over his competence were raised in the House of Commons.  The new hangman was James Berry.

    After being dismissed, Binns was back in the headlines in November 1884, when he accused his mother-in-law of stealing a watch belonging to him.  But it was what his daughter told the court, that grabbed the attention of the newspapers.  She said that he experimented at home by hanging cats and dogs.  He did work at the turn of the 20th century in executions, but it was as an assistant to Tom Scott, carrying out jobs in Ireland, with the last one Binns assisted at being John Toole, on March 7th 1901.  Binns died in 1911.