Almost one hundred years ago, fifteen of the leaders of the Easter Rising were executed by firing squad. In the case of six of the men the British hangman was brought over from England to officiate at their deaths. In August 1916 Roger Casement became the sixteenth republican to be executed when he was found guilty of ‘treason’ and hanged in Pentonville Prison, London.
The man present in Dublin and who later killed Casement – and 200 others during his despicable career – was John Ellis from Rochdale, Lancashire. I first came across his name when I was researching Reginald Dunne and Joseph O’Sullivan, the two IRA men who assassinated Field Marshall Sir Henry Wilson in London in 1922, and whom Ellis had also executed.
However, whilst Ellis, in a self-serving book which he dictated to a copytaker, ‘Diary of a Hangman’, writes about the civilians he hanged, he is careful not to make any mention about the political executions of Irish republicans, whether through fear of reprisal or because of the strictures of the Official Secrets Act.
Ellis’s father was a barber, a trade which the son thoroughly disliked. Instead, he worked as a textile machinist and it was during a break in work that he and his mates were discussing an execution which had taken place the previous day.
Ellis, a man of slight physique, who was then 22-years-old, said, “That’s the kind of job I’d like.”
His mates all laughed at him. Ellis admitted that when younger he couldn’t “kill a chicken, and once when I tried to drown a kitten I was so upset for the rest of the day that my mother said I was never to be given a similar job again.”
Five years later, after a factory accident which left him physically weak, he opened his own barber’s shop. He was now married but didn’t tell his wife or parents that he had applied for the job as a hangman until he received a letter from the Home Office inviting him to London to take lessons in hanging.
His wife was stunned and asked, “Why on earth do you want to be an executioner?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. His mother was similarly outraged and totally opposed to the idea.
His training consisted of learning all the intricacies of calculating drops, measuring them off, how to fix a noose and use pinioning (restraining) straps. After being trained he returned home but became despondent when months passed and he hadn’t been sent for. Then, in December 1901, he received a letter stating that he was to act as assistant to a double execution of a man and his nephew convicted of killing an in-law.
He was assistant to the official hangman, James Billington, “a small fat man”, with whom he travelled to Newcastle Prison. They went into a pub near the jail for some lunch but had to finish quickly when they realised that three women crying at a nearby table were relatives of the condemned men.
After five years as an assistant in the executions of 32 people, Ellis was finally given responsibility for pulling the lever himself, on a man condemned to death for killing his lover. He was paid £2. 2s., plus expenses, so clearly was not doing it for the money.
He prided himself on his efficiency. There were two cases throughout his career that troubled him: the hangings of Edith Thompson for being an alleged accomplice in the killing of her husband (the actual killer said she was innocent) and an eighteen-year-old whom he described as a mere boy (there was uncertainty about his intelligence). Nevertheless, Ellis’s struggles with his conscience never lasted more than a few hours. He felt it was ‘his duty’ to ‘help’ these poor wretches through their ordeals “with all the swift humanity that my twenty years’ experience as a public hangman had taught me to how to bestow.”
Minutes before her death Edith Thompson was in a state of collapse and had lost all control of herself. She screamed and sobbed and when she fainted they strapped her up and carried her to the scaffold where Ellis placed a white cap over her head before pulling the lever.
Throughout his career this slight man would work the majority of his time in his barber shop. When the Home Office letter arrived, requiring his service, once, twice or three times a year, off he would go like a small businessman with his suitcase, travelling anonymously by bus and train to the particular jail where he spent the night before the execution.
When he retired in 1924 his shop became a bit of a tourist attraction with people standing outside for hours just to catch a glimpse of him. He had eschewed all requests for newspaper interviews and refused to discuss his work. However, he couldn’t settle, had received no pension from the Home Office, and began drinking heavily. In August 1924 he tried to kill himself but the bullet went through only his jaw. He was arrested and charged with the then criminal offence of attempting to commit suicide. The judge asked for and received an undertaking that he would not attempt suicide again.
“If your aim had been as straight as the ‘drops’ you have given it would have been a bad job for you. Your life has been lengthened and I hope you will make the best use of it – the spare life which has been granted to you.”
Ellis returned to his hairdressers’. He received numerous offers to give lectures but eventually decided to go on stage and act in a play based on the true story of the infamous nineteenth-century cat-burglar and murderer, Charlie Peace. In the final scene, Ellis came on stage dressed in black and hanged him – or at least, the actor, playing him. The play caused uproar in the press for its sheer bad taste and was withdrawn at the end of its first week.
Ellis then put on a road show, touring seaside towns and fairs giving demonstrations on the British method of execution, using a working model. The crowds paid sixpence a time to witness mock hangings.
In 1932 Ellis, who was still drinking heavily, threatened his wife and daughter with a cut-throat razor and screamed, “I’ll cut your heads off!” With 203 executions under his belt they wisely fled the house.
Ellis ran to the front door and drew the razor across his throat making a five-inch gash. He collapsed and died in a pool of blood on the street.
Neither the Home Office nor the Prison Commissioners were represented at his funeral.