It was not unusual for members of the same family to be executioners and the Billingtons from Bolton in Yorkshire were one example. James Billington was a barber who developed a keen interest in executions from an early age. Following the death of Marwood he was another of the 1400 hopefuls who applied to replace him but he was beaten to the post by Binns. Billington kept applying for the opportunity to prove himself and his patience eventually paid off when on the 26th August 1884 he was engaged to hang a condemned prisoner at Armley Gaol in Leeds. The professionalism displayed by him on this occasion secured future work in the prisons at Leeds and York. When James Berry resigned in 1892 Billington was appointed as the senior hangman in Britain. While carrying out executions he dressed in black suits and wore a black skullcap.
Billington knew tradegy in his own private life with three of his children dying in infancy and his wife also dying. He left his trade as a barber and became licensee of a bar in Bolton. He was known to be a troublesome sleeper and on occasions was seen walking around Bolton in the middle of the night.
He visited Ireland often as an executioner. On the 11th of January 1901 while Scott was hanging a man named Woods in Belfast, he executed Timothy Cadogan at Cork. He landed himself in trouble when he left the prison before the inquest was held. A warrant was issued for his return and when he failed to do so, the inquest was adjourned indefinitely.
By the turn of the century Billington had trained three of his sons as assistants. James Billingtons last execution was that of Patrick McKenna at Strangeways on the 3rd of December 1901. Billingthon knewMcKenna personally before he hanged him and on the day of the hanging Billington was ill. He told his assistant, Henry Pierrepoint that he felt so ill he wished he had never come. He died two weeks later on Friday the 13th of December at the age of fifty-four. During his term as hangman he had executed one hundred and forty seven fellow human beings.
Then on the 10th of January the eldest son, assistant hangman Thomas died of pneumonia. William Billington then carried on with the family tradition and he would use his younger brother John and a man named Henry Pierrepoint as his assistants. In Ireland he hanged:
· January 1903 Joseph Taylor in Kilkenny for the murder of John Daly. Then in the following week he hanged Daley’s wife who had been having an affair with the executed Taylor
· 5th January 1904 he hanged Joseph Moran in Londonderry for the murder of Rose McGann.
John Billington later became the senior hangman when William retired after his last execution at Leeds on the 17th of August 1904. On the same day John hanged a murderess at Birmingham. John died at the age of twenty-five and left behind a widow and a young child. William Billington survived until his sixties, dying in March 1934.
John Ellis was a mill worker from Rochdale. He was born on the 4th October 1874, the son of a barber who was a much respected figure in the community. At the age of twenty, the barber’s son married a girl who had worked with him in the same mill. Once while visiting friends he read an article on an execution and he found himself becoming interested in executions and sensational murder crimes. Ellis’s interest manifested into an ambition and when a vacancy became available on the list of approved executioners; he applied for the post. The Home Office was impressed with his references
Executioner John Ellis.
and he was one of the last assistants to be trained at Newgate prison, before it was demolished in 1901. Ellis’s family did not share in his jubilation at the new hangman’s appointment. His father attempted to force him to change his mind and after he failed to succeed he cut him off from the family.
After the training course, Ellis’s first appointment was in 1901 at Newcastle when he assisted William Billington at a double execution. Seven years later he was to become the principal executioner. In 1910 he executed the infamous Dr Hawley Crippen, an American citizen who was convicted of murdering his wife. Crippen was executed at Pentonville on the 23rd of November.
During his term in office, the nation of Ireland offered him many opportunities to advance his career. Sir Roger Casement was knighted in 1911 while working for the Foreign Office. He was held in high regard by the peoples of Ireland and Great Britain after he exposed atrocities in Central America. However, during the Great War he changed allegiance to the Germans and attempted to raise an Irish Brigade from prisoners of war. In return they promised to supply guns for a rebellion in Ireland. While landing on the shores of Ireland from a U-boat he was spotted by police and quickly arrested. At the time of his arrest he was found in possession of a Mauser pistol which is currently on display in the museum of the PSNI. On the 3rd August 1916 the 51 year-old Casement walked to the gallows with dignity. It was the first execution for treason in over a century. Later Ellis commented that Casement had died like a soldier and he had been the bravest man that he had executed.
John Ellis visited Ireland on a number of occasions in the years of the rebellion and partition. He later claimed that he was responsible for the execution of all the Sinn Feiners in those troubled times. On the 1st of November he executed 18 year-old Kevin Barry in Mountjoy Gaol. Then in Dublin on the morning of the 14th March 1921 he hanged six Sinn Fein prisoners. To accomplish this he hanged two at six o’clock, two at seven o’clock and two at eight o’clock. They were Thomas Bryan, Patrick Doyle, Frank Flood, Benard Ryan, Patrick Moran and Thomas Whelan. On 25th of April 1921 he hanged Thomas Traynor in Dublin. Two months later on 7th June he was back at Mountjoy to perform the triple execution of Edmund Foly, Patrick Maher and William Mitchell. Ellis visited Belfast once in his official capacity to execute the child killer, Simon McGeown.
The hangman’s career lasted for over 25 years and during that time he hanged 203 condemned prisoners. At the time of his resignation in 1924 he was in poor health and having sleepless nights. In his retirement he published his memoirs in a local newspaper. On Sunday the 24th of August the ex hangman shot himself with a revolver. He survived this suicide attempt to be bound over for twelve months. In the following years he gave lectures and demonstrations of executions over the country. This caused the Home Office some anxiety and they introduced rules for future behaviour of executioners. On the 20th September 1932 Ellis was sitting at home in his parlour when suddenly he ran into his kitchen, picked up a razor and cut his throat twice before falling to die on the floor. The coroner expressed that he had taken his own life in a sudden frenzy of madness.