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The executioner's apprentice who left a job for life

In an extract from a book on working for the Irish State, the executioner Albert Pierrepoint recalls being asked to train and assist an Irishman in Mountjoy. The apprentice, Mr Johnstone, had a very short career.

I received a telephone message from the Manchester Police that a Mr Johnstone had turned up to be trained as an executioner for Ireland. I later picked him up at the Manchester Police Headquarters and took him to the gaol for two nights' training. I did not think he had the character to be an executioner. He was old and short and timid. When I first took him into the execution chamber his face went as white as chalk. But I gave him the basic training and he went back to Ireland.

Two months later the Governor of Mountjoy Prison, Dublin, wrote to state that he had a man under sentence of death and he would be obliged if I would act as assistant to Mr Johnstone, though taking the full executioner's fee. I duly crossed to Ireland and on arrival at Mountjoy reported to the Governor, who had known my family for many years and always gave us the greatest kindness. Johnstone was in his office, and I agreed that I should let him undertake the execution while I acted as assistant.

We went across to the execution chamber, which was at the end of one of the wings, and started to prepare for the morrow. I stood back and waited for Johnstone to get things going with my assistance, but he had forgotten all his training and did not really have a clue. I stepped in and put things right, and finally we went back to our room and had a meal and a chat with the officer looking after us. We had a sitting-room and a shared bedroom. Johnstone went to bed before me, and when I came in he seemed to be asleep.

I went to bed and was soon fast asleep, but for a reason I could not fathom I suddenly woke up. I did not move, but opened my eyes, and there I saw Johnstone, out of bed, emptying all his pockets of wallet, letters and money and putting all his possessions under the pillow. I thought, "Well, he can't really think I'm going to pinch the stuff," and went to sleep again.

Next morning, I was awake before Johnstone, but did not get up. I deliberately did not even stir. He rolled over in the dawn light and said, "Are you asleep?" but I did not answer. So he took all his possessions and put them back in his pocket. It occurred to me that it was his letters and papers that he was being most cautious about, and I concluded that they would bear his name, which was not Johnstone but something he was trying to keep secret.

In retrospect, the Governor had seemed anxious not to emphasise his identity and, on the whole, judging by the violence of many Irishmen's condemnation of other people's violence, I did not blame an executioner in the Republic for wanting to keep his identity secret.

After shaving and washing we went back to the execution chamber for the last preliminaries, but again Johnstone had forgotten his part and I had to keep stepping in to help him. The Governor asked if all was satisfactory and I answered that it was as far as I was concerned. He asked Johnstone if he was all right and Johnstone said "Yes". But the Governor came once more and asked if I was satisfied. I said, "Yes, sir, but I should not like to take any responsibility for this execution." The Governor saw that I was not too happy, and he walked away to talk with one of the officers. He came back and said, "Mr Pierrepoint, I think you should take charge." I said, "That's up to you, sir." The Governor looked across to see how Johnstone was reacting, and my own interpretation of his attitude was that he was very pleased.

"Very well, Mr Pierrepoint," said the Governor, "you take over." I agreed, and the execution was carried out to everybody's satisfaction. Immediately afterwards the Chief Officer came round with the usual bottle of whisky and, as usual, I declined. But I noticed that Johnstone was very glad to take a tot.

When we left prison, Johnstone and I walked together down the main road and I asked him where he lived. He mentioned a small town about forty miles from Dublin and said he would catch a train to it. Outside the station we shook hands and he said he hoped he would see me again.

Out of curiosity I let him go ahead, and followed to see what train he would catch. But he took a left fork and bypassed the station and went on into the town.

My guess was that he lived in Dublin, and was keeping his address as secret as his name. And that was the last I saw of him, and the last he saw of the gallows. I was called to Dublin on a member of occasions afterwards and I never once saw Mr Johnstone.

Taken from 'Lord of the Files: Working for the Government, An Anthology', edited by Michael Mulreany and Denis O'Brien and published by the IPA.

Sunday Independent