|A Ripperologist Article|
|This article originally appeared in Ripperologist No. 18, August 1998. Ripperologist is the most respected Ripper periodical on the market and has garnered our highest recommendation for serious students of the case. For more information, view our Ripperologist page. Our thanks to the editor of Ripperologist for permission to reprint this article.|
by Coral Kelly
I srael Lipski, Florence Maybrick and William Bury have all in some way been mentioned in connection with Jack the Ripper, but in fact, they all had a more definite link - each one of them had an appointment with death at the hands of James Berry.
James Berry was born in Heckmondwike, Yorkshire, on 18th February 1852 and was the thirteenth child of eighteen. He pursued many careers as a young man, even embarking on a ship with the intention of emigrating to Australia, but because of his impulsive nature changed his mind before setting sail.
In 1874 he joined the West Riding Police force and settled in Bradford with his bride Sarah Ackroyd. During his time as a constable, a mutual friend introduced him to William Marwood, a cobbler and part-time executioner who was famous for hanging Charlie Peace, Dr Lamson and Kate Webster, to name but a few.
Berry had always had an interest in hanging and with his new-found friend would spend many hours discussing the scientific principles. He learned of the new technique of the long drop and also some 'tricks of the trade'. Marwood told Berry that it was essential to give the prisoner confidence and assure him that his end would be swift.
Berry retired from the police in 1882 and, surprisingly, did not become Marwood's assistant. It wasn't until Marwood died in 1883 that Berry considered the possibility of becoming an executioner. He knew that Marwood had taught him a great deal and instilled in him the idea that the executioner's job was in no way degrading or dishonourable. He decided to apply to the City of London for the vacant position. Some 1,400 applications were made and the Sheriffs eventually weeded out the obvious madmen and sadists, and came up with a short list of twenty. Unfortunately for Berry, a certain Bartholomew Binns was appointed.
This in no way disheartened Berry, who perhaps at the time wanted the job mainly for financial reasons. Carrying out a death warrant meant that at £10.00 a time he could make at least £250.00 a year, and maybe as much as £350.00.
Undeterred, he then offered his services to the magistrates in Edinburgh who required the death sentence to be carried out on two miners who had murdered two gamekeepers. Berry travelled north and was put through a third degree interrogation by the Prison Governor who wanted to establish Berry's knowledge. When satisfied that Berry would carry out the executions in a humane manner he agreed that Berry should do the job.
Berry spent the next two days in virtual isolation and during this time he could not sleep and began to have doubts as to whether he had the necessary nerve for carrying out his duty. His dreams at this time were of things going wrong. A feeling of great relief swept over him when he realised that he had made the correct calculation for his first job and that the two men had died instantaneously. He obtained excellent testimonials from the Edinburgh prison so when Binns' reign as executioner ended, Berry's references meant that he succeed without competition.
Berry was the first of a new type of executioner (he was never to refer to himself as a hangman). Hangings were no longer public and, later, the press were also excluded. He was literate and communicative. Officially he was only asked to hang the prisoner until he was dead. It did not matter how long it took or what the cause of death was. But Berry set himself two objectives. First to reduce the preparation time so that the prisoner's ordeal would be over sooner, and secondly to produce instant death by dislocation and not strangulation. To this end Berry became the scientist. He improved on Marwood's rough table of `drops' by practising with bags of cement and he pressed for the standardising of prison gallows and trap doors. However, despite his conscientious efforts, many executions were to go wrong.
Finally Berry was haunted by nightmares. Once he had been teetotal but by the end of his career he was drinking a great deal. He was no longer a genial person and had become very short tempered, especially with the press. So after only eight years in office, and after sending more than 130 men and women to their deaths, in 1891 he became the first executioner to resign. This followed a particular disastrous hanging in Liverpool when Berry had to give way to the prison medical officer regarding the 'official scale drop'. The unfortunate prisoner, John Conway, had his head almost completely severed. On this occasion the press had been witnesses and following all the furore Berry tendered his resignation to Henry Matthews, the Home Secretary, although, in point of fact, he was not employed by the Home Office.
Rather than becoming unemployable, as he had first thought, he was asked to talk in America and strangely his lectures would be against capital punishment. His sojourn to the US was not as successful or as lucrative as he had imagined and so he returned to Bradford.
His failure in America can be attributed to the fact that his lectures were prepared for him and he did not seem convincing, but when he toured Great Britain it was different.
He was then able to talk in his own simple way about his experiences. He even took with him magic lantern slides depicting convicts, pinioned prisoners, views of prisons and methods of executions in other countries.
He still had feelings of guilt. Although he had never commented publicly on whether he thought a prisoner was guilty or innocent, he had personal doubts. His house was full of pictures of his 'victims' and they were a constant reminder to him. One day when feeling very low, a chance meeting at the Midland Railway Station with a young man led James to his pouring out his heart to the man. The listener invited Berry to the Rowland Street Mission and it was here that James's conversion took place. It was announced that "Mr Berry fully surrendered himself, accepted God's precious gift and was at once filled with rest and joy, praising God".
Berry then embarked on a career of revivalist meetings. Although he now believed that capital punishment should be abolished, he was not ashamed of his past work. For instance he did not ask for his waxwork to be removed from the Chamber of Horrors, but on the contrary, would sometimes visit Mr Tussaud and 'look in' on himself.
James Berry continued his evangelistic work until his death in October 1913. It would perhaps have surprised him to know that hanging would continue until 1964. Just before his death he wrote "my experiences have convinced me we shall never be a civilised nation while executions are carried out in prison"
To return to the previously mentioned triumvirate who have connections to the case of Jack the Ripper, the first, Israel Lipski, was sentenced to death in 1887 for the murder of Miriam Angel, and his execution left Berry emotionally exhausted. Lipski was accompanied to the scaffold by a Rabbi reading in Hewbrew and Berry was much impressed by the solemnity of death. Add to this the reaction of the mob outside the prison cheering when the black flag was raised.
Berry vowed to himself that he would never again hang a Jew. This episode was to become one of his worst nightmares.
The next, Florence Maybrick, was, as we know, sentenced to death for the supposed poisoning of her husband James. It would have been Berry's task to send her from this world. Her name was already in his book. When he was asked if he thought her to be innocent to which he replied "it's none of my business. I have made my arrangements and I have no concern with guilt or innocence". The word went round that Berry had refused to carry out the order to hang her, but this was untrue, and possibly was a rumour spread to promote support for her reprieve. Berry knew that if he did not do the deed another executioner would be found. Fortunately Mrs Maybrick won her reprieve and James Berry was able to strike her name through in red.
Finally to William Bury. At the time he was suspected of being Jack the Ripper. On many occasions James Berry had heard last minute confessions from the condemned man. William Bury waited for his death calmly and James Berry went to his cell to question him with hidden detectives listening. But Bury was to admit nothing and replied to his hangman "I suppose you think you are clever to hang me, but you are not going to get anything out of me". Both Berry and the detectives came to the conclusion that he was someone much more 'important' than just an ordinary wife murderer. Berry persisted in this belief, maybe because in later years he was able to tell the tale that he had possibly hung Jack the Ripper.
In all probability, if James Berry had not retired and had remained executioner for life as his predecessors had done, two other 'Ripper' suspects would have face him on the gallows - namely Thomas Neil Cream and George Chapman.