Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Friday, November 13, 2009

Review - Billington: Victorian Executioner by Alison Bruce


The History Press, 2009. ISBN 978 0 7509 4774 9. 224 pages.

James Billington was fascinated with executions. At age 11, in an activity that today would have frightened the neighbors and seen him investigated and possibly incarcerated, he built a replica of a gallows in his backyard and practiced hanging dummies. In 1884, when he was 37, his fascination became reality when he performed his first hanging. He had not previously assisted in an execution which is a testament to his self-preparation. He then convinced the authorities to employ him as the official executioner for Yorkshire. In 1891, he became England's principle executioner. Between executions he was a barber. At the time of his death in 1901, he had hanged 151 men and women.

His sons Thomas, William, and John were also involved in executions though only William and John acted as executioners. Thomas assisted with the preparation of the condemned. With William officiating at 70 hangings and John at 14, the family total is 235. The last execution by a Billington was in 1905.

If you've read much Victorian literature, particularly crime fiction, you know of the threat of the gallows. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, Sherlock Holmes said that he had handled over 500 cases of capital importance meaning that an execution that resulted from many of those cases could have been carried out by a Billington.

The author chose to present a cross-section of the executions handled by the Billingtons rather than feature only high profile cases. Fueled by alcohol, rage, desperation, and desire, women and children were too often the victims in the crimes. But there are also cases of incredibly callous taking of a life. There are the baby farmers Amelia Elizabeth Dyer, Amelia Sach, and Annie Walters, for example. A baby farmer took advantage of economic hardship in families by adopting children for payment. It seems more like what we call foster care today. They were to care for the child or place it with another family. Instead, some pocketed the money and murdered the babies.

James Billington handled the high-profile execution of Dr. Thomas Cream, who poisoned prostitutes in England and Canada. We think of Victorian England as stuffy and prudish but prostitution was widespread and Bruce describes just how widespread it was and how pathetic the lives of the prostitutes. The profile of Cream is fascinating, a sociopath and serial killer who couldn't help drawing attention to himself. There has been speculation that Cream might have been Jack the Ripper. Indeed, just as he was dropped he is reported to have said 'I'm Jack the ...'. Billington wanted to be known as "The Man who Hanged Jack the Ripper" and probably embellished the story in reports to further his reputation.

Alison's book is satisfying in several ways. Historically, she presents a side of Victorian England that might be unfamiliar to many of us. Putting the events into the context of the times, post-industrial revolution Britain, makes it more than a catalog of executions. Where Bruce goes into detail, we also see some of police procedures of the time. Investigations were better handled than I thought.

Perhaps more important to readers of crime fiction, Alison's shows the reader what happened after the trial. Unlike the present, there was no long delay between sentencing. The execution could not, by law, exceed one calendar month but the condemned was only guaranteed three clear Sundays. The Home Office - at the time responsible for the prison system - was very concerned that executions be properly handled, quickly and efficiently. And, by no means morbidly, Alison gives the reader a description of the procedures followed in conducting an execution.

Supplementing the test are illustrations (including trial sketches), appendices describing execution ropes, a newspaper account of the school for hangmen, and an index of executions. The author was also able to interview Nigel Preston, James Billington's great, great, grandson and William Billington's great grandson. His present day reflections on his notorious relatives nicely rounds out the book.

I highly recommend Alison's book to anyone interested in the history of capital punishment, history of Victorian England, and Victorian crime fiction.