James Berry, as pictured in the Shipley Times & Express, 24 October 1913

It was on this day in 1896 that the Illustrated Police news covered a story that showed what new careers former hangmen could embark on, once they had finished playing with rope.

James Berry, one such former executioner, had started a lucrative series of speaking engagements after leaving his job in 1891, the Victorian public having an appetite for stories of crime and death.

In 1896, he had been engaged by Harry Hart, the proprietor of the Marylebone Music Hall in London, to deliver lectures entitled ‘Criminals I have met’. Berry would receive six guineas a week in return for telling enthralled audiences about ‘experiences of different executions of notorious murderers’ in which – the press coyly described it ‘ ‘he had taken part’.

The initial lectures went well – the audiences, more used to other types of Victorian novelty acts as well as song and dance, being much pleased with the subject matter. However, Mr Hart suddenly dismissed his famous speaker.

Mr Hart argued that he had had to sack Berry, after he had turned up at the music hall one night in such an ‘excited’ condition (drunk) that he had been unable to give his lecture. Berry promptly brought an action against Hart to get the salary he argued was due him.

The first person to be called to give evidence was theatrical agent Mr Beesley, but instead, his wife turned up. She said that she had written the letter of engagement between Hart and Berry on Hart’s behalf, despite apparently having no authority to do so.

She said she was in Hart’s employ, but when asked if she had been in partnership with her husband as agents, she was horrified: “No! There ain’t no female agents!”, her response provoking laughter in court. She then winked at the prosecuting solicitor, and was told off.

Mrs Beesley was clearly slightly squeamish about Berry and his former occupation, referring to him as “that man – the hangman – Berry, the hangman”.

The issue of the Illustrated Police News containing details of Berry’s case against Harry Hart

Now, Harry Hart was called, and was sworn in ‘in the Christian fashion’, before the judge remembered that he was Jewish, and demanded that he be re-sworn on the Old Testament, with his hat on.

Once this was done, Hart stated that he would never have agreed to pay Berry six guineas a week – ‘his was a very small house, and the usual run of salaries was £1 a week.’ He had not, despite Berry’s allegations, paid the ex-hangman £5 at the end of his first week, but £3, and he had sacked him after Berry had turned up drunk and threatened to shoot Hart.

Berry then alleged that Mrs Beesley was lying on oath, saying that she had been engaged to perform herself at the Marylebone Music Hall, under the name of Miss Wood. She had turned to Berry and said, “I’m not going to lose my living. I’d swear anything against you.”

Another exchange then took place in court, again attracting laughter:

Judge Bacon: What was his entertainment?

Mr Hart: A lecture on his hangings.

Judge Bacon: Who is he?

Mr Hart: The late public executioner.

Judge Bacon: Was it an attractive entertainment:

Mr Hart: [shrugs shoulders]

Berry, cross-examined, denied that he was ‘speechless drunk’ on the night in question – he argued that Hart had refused to let him speak in order to avoid paying with him, this being ‘a favourite trick of his with his artists’. The defence solicitor, however, then asked, “Is it not notorious that you used to drink when public executioner?”, but Berry denied this.

The defence then asked, “Were you not dismissed by the Under-Sheriff for drunkenness?” – to which Berry responded, “Certainly not. I left honourably.”

The attempts to smear the former executioner – which included Hart’s assertion that he was not friends with Berry, because ‘he is not my class’ – failed. Two constables who Hart had called on to eject Berry from the music hall gave evidence that he had been perfectly sober, and the Judge said that despite Hart’s denials, he believed that Berry HAD been engaged for the larger sum per week, and that ‘the allegation of drunkenness had been most effectually disproved’.

Berry’s obituary in the Illustrated Police News, 30 October 1913

Berry continued to make a living sharing his experiences of life as a hangman, publishing The Hangman’s Thoughts Above the Gallows in 1905 – his second memoir, having published his first, My Experiences as an Executioner, four years before he was engaged by Hart.

It’s clear that he relied on his memoirs, and associated talks, after retiring as public executioner, and Hart’s allegations of drunkenness could have impacted both on the money he could earn, and the trust the public placed in him. He needed both his salary and his reputation, and this court case ensured that he retained both.