Albert followed his father and Uncle into the exclusive club of British hangmen. There were few executions in Britain in 1932, and the first execution Pierrepoint attended was in Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, on 29 December 1932, when his uncle Thomas was chief executioner at the hanging of Patrick McDermott, a young Irish farmer.
He engaged his nephew as assistant executioner even though Pierrepoint had not yet observed a hanging in England and thus, despite being on the Home Office list of approved Assistant Executioners, was not allowed to officiate in England. Pierrepoint’s first execution as “number one” was that of nightclub owner and gangster Antonio “Babe” Mancini at Pentonville prison, London, on 17 October 1941; Mancini said “Cheerio!” before the trapdoor was sprung.
Karel Richter (centre) shows MI5 officers where he hid documents after he had parachuted into England.
On 10 December 1941, Pierrepoint executed German spy Karel Richter at Wandsworth Prison. Writing about the execution in his memoirs, in which he changed Richter’s name to “Otto Schmidt”, Pierrepoint called it a “terrible mess”.
When Pierrepoint entered the condemned man’s cell that morning he saw that something was wrong. Richter should have been sitting at the table with his back to the door.
Pierrepoint could then easily approach the man as he stood up and pinion his wrists behind him. Instead, Richter was seated at the table facing the door. As Pierrepoint entered, Richter glowered and clenched his fists.
He stood up, threw aside one of the guards and charged headfirst at the stone wall. Stunned momentarily, Richter rose and shook his head. Two guards threw themselves on him.
After a struggle, Pierrepoint managed to get the leather strap around Richter’s wrists. As the guards pulled Richter to his feet, Pierrepoint was called back, for Richter had burst the leather strap from eye-hole to eye-hole and was free again.
After another struggle, the strap was wrapped tightly around Richter’s wrists. He was brought to the scaffold where a strap was wrapped around his ankles, followed by a cap and noose.
Just as Pierrepoint pulled the lever, Richter jumped up with bound feet. As he plummeted through the trap door, Pierrepoint could see that the noose was slipping but it became stuck under Richter’s nose. The prison medical officer determined, however, that it was an instantaneous, clean death.
On 29 August 1943, Pierrepoint married Annie Fletcher, who had run a sweet shop and tobacconist two doors from the grocery where he worked. They set up home at East Street, Newton Heath, Manchester.
Following the Second World War, the British occupation authorities conducted a series of trials of Nazi concentration camp staff, and from the initial Belsen Trial 11 death sentences were handed down in November 1945.
It was agreed that Pierrepoint would conduct the executions, and on 11 December he flew to Germany for the first time to execute the 11, plus two other Germans convicted of murdering an RAF pilot in the Netherlands in March 1945.
Over the next four years, he travelled to Germany and Austria 25 times to execute 200 war criminals.
The press discovered his identity and he became a celebrity, hailed as a sort of war hero, meting out justice to the Nazis.
The boost in income provided by the German executions allowed Pierrepoint to leave the grocery business, and he and Anne took over a pub on Manchester Road, Hollinwood, between Oldham and Failsworth.
Pierrepoint resigned in 1956 over a disagreement with the Home Office about his fees.