25 November 1954

Hangman’s last laugh

Maurice Welby, Britain’s most famous executioner, performed his final hanging on this day in 1954 at HMP Winson Green. Known as the ‘Laughing Hangman’ owing to his fondness for practical jokes, he soon became a national celebrity. The article below, from the Observer Magazine in 1998, shows the full extent of his fame…

Welby (out of picture) celebrates the appointment of his friend Harry Allen (centre) as chief executioner

MY PRIZE POSSESSION

Novelty squirting flower belonging to Geoffrey Woods, proprietor of Laugh-a-Minute

I own a joke shop, so it will come as no surprise that my prize possession is a practical joke.  But my reason for choosing it might raise a few eyebrows.

The joke is the ‘squirting flower’. You wear it your buttonhole and invite people to sniff it, whereupon a jet of water hits them in the face. It’s a corny classic.

This one is unusual, though, because it belonged to Maurice Welby, better known as ‘The Laughing Hangman’. He was a public executioner in the forties and fifties, and conducted dozens of hangings, including some of the most celebrated murderers of the time.

The popular stereotype of a hangman is a rather grim figure. The truth is the trade was actually full of larger-than-life characters, and none more so than Maurice himself. ‘Laughter is a great healer,’ he used to say, and he applied this philosophy to everything he did, including executions. He lived for the moment, and encouraged others to do the same, even if it was their last moment on Earth.

For Maurice, an execution was a send-off. ‘Give ’em a good send off,’ he would say. His avowed intent was to make the experience as stress-free as possible for the condemned man. ‘It’s just another day for me,’ he reasoned, ‘so why shouldn’t it be the same for him?’

Maurice always aimed to put the other chap at ease, and if possible, raise a smile into the bargain. An execution didn’t take long (Albert Pierrepoint’s record was seven seconds) and so time was of the essence. To overcome this problem, Maurice developed a slick routine that relied upon quick physical gags.

First he would shake hands with the prisoner. This would administer a jolt from the novelty ‘buzzer’ in his right palm. Then he would follow up with the squirting flower. As the fellow rubbed his eyes, the hood would go on and his hands would be secured. Seconds later he would be through the trapdoor in the adjoining room with the sound of laughter still ringing in his ears.

The only time Maurice showed emotion was after he had hanged Thomas Clarke, the so-called ‘library book killer’. Clarke was a prominent campaigner against the death penalty, and Maurice admired his principled stand. For this particular ‘send-off’, he eschewed his usual hemp and used silken rope, a privilege traditionally reserved for nobles convicted of murder and poachers who killed the King’s deer. He set a personal record of 8.5 seconds that day, and tendered his resignation the following morning.

Freed of the restrictions that applied to serving hangmen, Maurice found himself in great demand. He soon became a national celebrity and made regular public appearances at seaside resorts, music halls, fetes and parades. He was never short of after-dinner speaking engagements, and the noose would invariably come out at some stage in the evening, to loud applause.

Maurice was a sensation on the televised parlour game What’s My Line? His arrival as a mystery guest was greeted by laughter from the audience, and he was identified by the panel in record time. His autobiography, The Laughing Hangman, was a bestseller. He wanted to call it Money for Old Rope, but the publishers thought it might seem disrespectful. There was a book of jokes too, inevitably entitled Gallows Humour.

It all seems a bit odd in this day and age, but you can’t really judge him by today’s standards. You have to remember that he was only paid a few guineas for his troubles, so it was more like a hobby, really. When you remember all the good things he did, you can hardly blame him for trying to make a bob or two.

Letter:

Geoffrey Evans (‘My Prize Possession,’ 22 September) brought the memories flooding back. I knew Maurice Welby well, having first met him when he ran our local Wolf Cub pack.

He was a brilliant leader, and as you would expect, he was an expert at knots. His speciality was to construct a noose and suspend it from the ‘apparatus’ in the school gym where we met. Boys who finished last in competitions were ‘hanged’ as a punishment. It was all in fun of course, and the drop was carefully calculated to avoid any danger. If parents expressed alarm, he’d tell them, ‘We haven’t lost one yet.’

Geoffrey is quite right – he was a real celebrity. I still have a Maurice Welby cigarette card from the Hangmen of Britain series, with his signature on the back. Maurice being Maurice, he couldn’t resist adding a little message: ‘Stay out of trouble!’

He liked nothing better than a practical joke. He used to have a toy electric chair connected to a small battery, and his trick was to put a budgerigar in it. ‘Don’t worry,’ he’d say with a wink, ‘it only gives ’em a tickle!’

Unfortunately the RSPCA didn’t agree. Maurice loved his budgies, and was heartbroken when he was banned from keeping them.

Chris Deakin, Worcester

Compiled with the assistance of the Barrett-Jameson Archive Picture: PA

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