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Last 11 seconds of a murderer's miserable life

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Tim Carey, author of 'Hanged For Murder', a book on the people executed in Mountjoy Prison. Photo: Garret White

Tim Carey, author of 'Hanged For Murder', a book on the people executed in Mountjoy Prison. Photo: Garret White

Tim Carey, author of 'Hanged For Murder', a book on the people executed in Mountjoy Prison. Photo: Garret White

'IT was the most terrifying 11 seconds imaginable, beginning with a five-second walk from the condemned man's cell to the hang house, being stood on the trapdoors and a rope being put around a neck, and the lever being pulled," says Tim Carey, author of Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions.

The 10 x 8 feet hang house in Mountjoy Prison was the scene of 29 executions – 28 men and one woman – between 1923 and 1954.

It would have been eight in the morning when condemned prisoners, all found guilty of murder, walked in. Some asked their favourite prison officers to take the final walk with them, having spent three weeks after being condemned in Mountjoy Prison being watched over so they wouldn't commit suicide before the executioner arrived.

"Prison officers would have been with them 24 hours in the run-up to their execution. They would either have been talking to them or eating with them or playing cards," says Tim, who is heritage officer with Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

STRANGULATION

"Their families were permitted to visit, but not on the morning of the execution, and in some cases up to 300 people gathered outside the prison gates when an execution was taking place."

Seconds before the walk to the scaffold and a certain death by either a broken vertebra or strangulation, the hangman – in most cases British executioner Albert Pierrepoint – would have presented himself in the condemned cell.

"Yes, they would have seen his face," says Tim. "In the news reports of the time, the prisoner either went calmly or showed a little nervousness. Who knows, though, as we don't have the condemned prisoner's version of how they behaved.

"We do know that prison officers stood on two planks over the trapdoors and held up the condemned prisoner until it opened."

The night before the hanging, the executioner would have been told the weight and height of the condemned prisoner, so he could calculate the length of rope he needed.

"The aim was a rope which would pull under the chin and swiftly dislocate the neck," says Tim. "This was usually done by breaking the third or fourth vertebra.

"If the rope was too long, the prisoner could be decapitated; too short and they would have died a slow death by strangulation.

"Everything was taken into the equation – for example, whether or not a prisoner had a thick neck."

There's a story about Pierrepoint being so proficient a hangman that he could take a drag on his cigar, leave it in the prison cell before walking the prisoner to the scaffold, perform a hanging and get back to the cell before any ash had fallen on to the floor.

ILLICIT

So what kinds of people had their last glimpse of this world in the hang house in Mountjoy, with its whitewashed stone walls, wooden floor, trapdoors weighing half- a-ton each and a plain cross on the wall?

"What's interesting is that one-third of criminals condemned to death were involved in illicit relationships, and while the judge would have informed the jury not to take this into account, you might wonder how much bearing it had on verdicts because of the times the executions were carried out in," says Tim, a Trinity graduate and history buff who has previously written Mountjoy – The Story of a Prison, and Croke Park: A History.

What we do know is that Drumcondra man John Fleming, who worked in a draper's in North Earl Street, was executed on January 5, 1934 for the murder of his wife, Ellen. He had begun seeing Rita Murtagh, who he'd met in the Central Cafe in D'Olier Street where she was a waitress.

On August 5, 1925, Annie Walsh, of Fedamore, Co Limerick, became the first woman to be executed in Ireland for more than 20 years when she was hanged for the murder of her husband, Edward Walsh (Edward's nephew, Michael Talbot, was hanged too).

It was alleged that Annie's motive was to seek compensation for her husband's death.

A 56-year-old gardener named Henry McCabe was executed on December 9, 1926 for the murder of six members of the family he worked for, the McDonnells of Malahide.

Trials took place in Green Street Courthouse in Smithfield, and after juries returned their guilty verdicts the presiding judges donned their black caps – square pieces of black silk – and read out the death sentences.

The Mountjoy Prison bell tolled and a brief note was pinned to the prison gate announcing to whoever was waiting outside that the death sentence had been carried out.

"I report the facts of what happened in my new book, and I don't ask whether these executions should or shouldn't have happened," says Tim.

"They did and I look at how and why."

Hanged For Murder: Irish State Executions, by Tim Carey, published by The Collins Press, price €14.99.


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