Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992) was the most prolific executioner in British judicial history, hanging around 433 criminals between 1941 and 1956, including some 200 Nazi war criminals after the end of the Second World War.
Pierrepoint was born in Clayton, a village near Bradford, Yorkshire; his father, Henry Pierrepoint (1878-1922) served as an official executioner between 1901 and 1910, and Henry's brother Thomas Pierrepoint (1870-1954) between 1909 and 1946. The Pierrepoints were not the only hanging dynasty; three members of the Billington family served as executioners in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Albert Pierrepoint went 'on the list' (the list of Home Office) approved executioners in 1931, following a training course at Pentonville Prison in London. However, such was the professional dominance of his Uncle Tom that it was ten years before he received the opportunity to act as 'Number One' - executioner - in the hanging of a London gangster. In the interim he frequently travelled with his uncle acting as his assistant.
Pierrepoint's was the last face to be seen by many famous criminals, including the acid-bath murderer John George Haigh, the murderer Ruth Ellis, the last woman to hang in the UK, John Christie, the Rillington Place killer, and wartime traitors John Amery and William Joyce (Lord Haw-haw). He also hanged two men who later received posthumous pardons: Timothy Evans (hanged for a crime almost certainly committed by John Christie, and whose fate helped those campaigning for abolition of capital punishment) and Derek Bentley, a teenage burglar whose under-age accomplice murdered a police officer when Bentley was already in police custody. Pierrepoint served after the war in Germany as executioner for the British military government, and hanged numerous war criminals including Josef Kramer, the 'Beast of Belsen'. His greatest professional disappointment was that he did not conduct the execution of the top Nazis following the Nuremberg Trials in 1946. Nuremberg was in the American zone of occupation, and in his memoirs Pierrepoint was critical of the bungled and inhumane way in which they were conducted. He took pride in the speed and efficiency with which he conducted a hanging, and claimed that between his entering the condemned cell and the instantaneous death of the convict could be achieved within eight or ten seconds.
Pierrepoint resigned his office in 1956 following a dispute about expenses and refused requests to return. In later life he changed his mind about the death penalty, feeling that it served no useful purpose, but continued to view his own career as that of a professional servant of the state.
A film of his career, Pierrepoint, was released in 2005 starring Timothy Spall in the title role. The title in the USA was The Last Executioner, although in fact hangings were conducted in the United Kingdom until 1964.