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Strange Days: Ghostwatch


Thereby Hangs a Tale...

Ghosts and the gallows

Gallows ghosts - Ruth Ellis

Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain, is said to haunt a pub and churchyard in Penn, Buckinghamshire.
Getty Images/Hulton Archive


The alleged shades of royals, nobles and more common felons put to death in centuries past have long been an established part of the British ghostly scene. Executed queens (particularly Anne Boleyn) and celebrated criminals such as Dick Turpin, who paid the ultimate price for their villainy, reputedly appear at numerous sites around the UK. A great number are said to walk at Christmas time, but it may surprise the reader that in many cases the evidence for these hauntings is at best shaky, and quite often non-existent. However, as GK Chesterton wrote in his Autobiography in 1936: “…it is the woodcutter with no axe to grind, except for woodcutting, who will say he saw a man hang on the gallows and afterwards hang around it as a ghost. It is all very well to say we ought not to believe in the ghost on an ignorant man’s evidence. But we should hang the man on the gallows on the same man’s evidence.”

While capital punishment remained hugely controversial before and after its abolition in 1965, few ghost stories seem to have arisen from 20th-century executions. The official practice from 1868 onwards of only hanging criminals behind prison walls, away from popular gaze, undoubtedly reduced the stimuli provided for macabre fantasising by the spectacles of public executions and bodies left dangling from gibbets for years on end. (An obscure 19th-century work entitled ‘Gyb Ghosts’ is apparently devoted to such phenomena. See Ghost Parade, 1944, by Stuart Martin, also author of The Hangman’s Guests). Nonetheless, as the 20th century’s most active hangman, Albert Pierrepoint commented in his autobiography Executioner Pierrepoint (1974), a hanged man or woman “is a uniquely broken body”. So it would not be surprising if some modern executions have left ghostly echoes. Perhaps inevitably, these include some of the more infamous cases, including several examples where Mr Pierrepoint applied his skills.

The willingness to make links between seemingly otherwise anonymous manifest­ations and a sensational murder case has recently been demonstrated with the suggest­ion that Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged for murder in Britain, is haunting a pub and churchyard in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Ellis was executed in 1956 after shooting dead her lover David Blakely on Easter Sunday 1955, outside The Magdala pub in Hampstead, London.

The idea that there might be a connection with apparitions at Penn has been raised by the local Bucks Free Press, following an interview with ghost-hunter Eddie Brazil, who together with Paul Adams and Peter Underwood are authors of the Borley Rectory Companion (2009). The trio are now at work on a book about haunted churches, evocatively entitled Shadows in the Nave. Eddie Brazil has been investigating reports from the 1980s of the figure of a woman in white seen leaving Penn churchyard by the east gate, and walking down the narrow lane of Paul’s Hill which runs by it. Across the road stands The Crown public house, which also has stories of being haunted by a woman in white.

Two associations between the area and Ruth Ellis have been found. Firstly, her victim David Blakely is buried in Penn churchyard, and enquiries revealed that in life the couple had often met and drunk together in The Crown pub. Personally, Eddie is cautious about any such connection between Ellis and the phantom lady, stating in an email to me: “What I was trying to point out to the chap from the paper was that, in many hauntings, if a site has a resident ghost who cannot be identified then local folklore will sometimes provide the identity. Because of Ruth’s connection with Penn, people will readily associate her, or any other famous or infam­ous person, with the spectre.”

Although there is no evidence to prove it is the ghost of Ellis, the Bucks Free Press nonetheless ran the headline: “Last hanged woman’s ghost haunts Penn, author says”.

As Eddie Brazil recognises, many reasons can be put forward for rejecting such a connection, not least that graveyards seldom seem haunted, certainly by anyone with a clear identity. Ruth Ellis herself lies buried at Amersham Churchyard, having originally been interred within Holloway Prison. However, if there is any validity in Carl Jung’s idea that ghosts of women in white are archetypal personifications of outraged feminine feelings, then an identification with Ellis would be plausible in some quarters.

In contrast, her executioner Albert Pierrepoint did not share the view of Ellis as a woman uniquely wronged, seeing prejudice and double standards in the hysteria surrounding her death. He considered that the press and public were only concerned because Ellis was young and pretty, noting no outburst of popular concern occurred 10 months earlier when he hanged Styllou Christofi, a Cypriot grandmother who spoke no English. Coincidentally, Christofi, executed in December 1954, lived at South Hill Park in Hampstead, just a few doors from The Magdala, where David Blakely was shot four months later. Bucks Free Press, 9 July 2010; Eddie Brazil pers. comm., 1 Nov 2010.

Another female felon dispatched by Pierrepoint who has also been largely forgotten – though not by those who have seen her spectre – is Mrs Louisa Merrifield, “the Blackpool poisoner”. She was hanged at Strangeways Prison, Manchester, on 18 September 1953 for the murder of a 79-year-old widow. Her ghost returns to the cell where she spent her last night on Earth in human form. The website of a Lancashire research group carries the interesting account of a former prison officer, Mr G Sutton, who states that he “like many others” has seen her. He described a shadowy figure in dark clothing no more than 5ft in height that drifted past him. It was visible for about five seconds, “creating a noticeable drop in temperature”. The form moved to a cell door and vanished. The young prisoner inside the cell also apparently saw the figure and was terrified, asking Mr Sutton: “Who’s that woman, boss? She just walked in before you pointed at me and vanished.” Mr Sutton states the ghost was known as “old Mrs Merrifield” and sightings peaked during the 1980s. theghostwhisperers.co.uk.

The spirit of Derek Bentley, executed in January 1953, reportedly came back to haunt his bedroom in his family home years after his death. Along with the hanging of Ruth Ellis, the execution of Derek Bentley sparked widespread protest and was considered a miscarriage of justice, both at the time and for decades afterwards. It inspired three books devoted to the case and a 1991 film with Bentley played by Christopher Eccleston. Bentley was a retarded 19-year-old with a mental age of 11 who was jointly convicted with his co-accused, 16-year-old Christopher Craig, of the murder of PC Sidney Miles. The policeman was shot dead with a handgun carr­ied by Craig as the youths attempted to rob a Croydon warehouse. Bentley was actually under arrest at the time Craig fired the fatal shot, but Bentley had allegedly shouted, “Let him have it Chris!” before the policeman was killed. In court, these words (which were disputed at the time and since) were held to have been an incitement to Craig. Because of his age, Craig was too young to hang, but Bentley was old enough to be sent to the gallows, despite many petitions to the Home Secretary for clemency. Following the execution, the Bentley family led a long campaign to overturn his conviction. They left his bedroom at their Croydon home untouched, and believed they had heard his footsteps and found bedclothes mysteriously disturbed. Bentley’s pet dog  “howled and seemed to recognise its dead master… years after the youth was hanged” and allegedly Bentley’s ghost was later seen in the house (Sources: Peter Underwood: Haunted London, 1973; Jack Hallam: The Ghosts’ Who’s Who, 1977). Derek Bentley’s murder conviction was finally quashed by the Court of Appeal in 1998, with Lord Bingham, the Lord Chief Justice, commenting that he had been denied “that fair trial which is the birthright of every British citizen”.

Beyond these examples, relatively few people put to death by the state have been claimed as returning to haunt the living. Scotland Yard’s ‘Black Museum’ of relics and exhibits from famous crimes and capital cases (now re-named ‘the Crime Museum’) was reputedly haunted, but I suspect some of the stories were invented by ghost story writer R Thurston Hopkins (1881–1958). 23 November 2010 marked the 100th anniversary of the execution of Hawley Harvey Crippen (often erroneously known as Dr Crippen), and the story circulates that his ghost haunts Pentonville Prison where he was hanged and interred for the murder of his wife. It is claimed a “bespectacled, sorrowful figure has apparently been witnessed standing over his unmarked grave, complete with a bent, crooked neck”.

An improbable tale also had Crippen’s spirit supposedly returning for a few nights after his death to waste ground near his home at Hilldrop Crescent in London, including in the form of a dog. Sunday Mercury (Birmingham), 17 July 2009; Peter Underwood: Haunted London, 1973.

Phantom hangmen have been claimed at a handful of locations. In August 2002, I was told that the former home of a hangman who lived at Royston in Hertfordshire was haunted, but details were sparse. John Ellis, who was hangman between 1901 and 1924, is alleged to haunt B-wing outside the former condemned block at Strangeways Prison. Staff have allegedly seen a mysterious man in a dark suit carrying a small briefcase who vanishes just before reaching the old iron staircase. Ellis is also proposed as the candidate for an invisible presence haunting a florist shop in Rochdale, pushing owner Susan Cotton on the shoulder several times and pinching her bottom. In life, Ellis ran a barber’s shop from the same premises. He committed suicide in 1932, allegedly having never recovered from distressing scenes at the execution of Mrs Edith Thompson in 1923. Rochdale Observer, 8 Jan 2008.

Another hangman with paranormal assoc­iations was James Berry (1851–1913), who served as executioner between 1884 and 1891. He succumbed to alcoholism and on 13 February 1904 set off to kill himself. However, waiting at a railway station, he came across a newspaper report of mysterious lights appearing during a religious revival at Barmouth, Wales. Falling into conversation with a stranger, who turned out to be an evangelical Christian, Berry underwent a convers­ion experience and became a preacher. The lights in the report were the famous and still unexplained Barmouth lights seen near Egryn Chapel between 1904–05. (See Stewart P Evans: Executioner. The Chronicles of James Berry, Victorian Hangman, 2004; Paul Devereux: Earthlights Revelation, 1989.)

Some paranormal connections may be made with abolitionists opposed to capital punishment. Charles Dickens campaigned for restrictions on the use of the death penalty and is reputed to return to sites such as Rochester in Kent and Doughty Street in London. The wealthy eccentric Mrs Violet Van Der Elst, who spent large sums of her money in anti-hanging campaigns, was a spiritualist and held séances at her haunted mansion, Harlaxton Manor, Lincolnshire. Although an opponent of capital punishment, she favoured corporal punishment, according to the late Dennis Bardens (1911–2004, obit. FT201:26), who told me of his extraordinary visit to interview her for the Daily Express in the 1930s. He discovered her engaging in a sado-masochistic relationship with an Anglo-Indian servant who acted as her secretary. Their interview on ghosts and spiritualism was interrupted by angry and excitable outbursts when Mrs Van Der Elst got up to chase and strike her chubby servant with a cane, apparently not to his complete displeasure or personal objection. The late Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) wrote the anti-hanging tract Reflections on Hanging in 1956 and in 1961 published Hanged by the Neck with CH Rolph. In later years, his mind turned to synchronicity and psychic phenomena, and under the terms of his will, he posthumously endowed what in 1985 became the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh University (FT201:32–39; 224:58–59; 226:76; 227:74).

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Gallows ghosts - Louisa Merrifield

Mrs Louisa Merrifield, hanged in 1953.

  Gallows Ghosts - Albert Pierrepoint

Hangman Albert Pierrepoint.
Getty Images/Ian Tyas

  Gallows ghosts - Derek Bentley

Derek Bentley.
Getty Images/ Keystone

Gallows ghosts - James Berry

Suicidal hangman James Berry
Getty Images/Topical Press Agency



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