Matthew Thurgood, one of our Level 3 undergraduate students, has been conducting research into the life and work of Albert Pierrepont, the British hangman. Here Matthew talks us through the project, including the video he made to share his results.
Congratulations to Matthew from everyone here at the School of English for his SURE award: ‘Best Dissemination (Non-Poster)’.
Last summer, I took part in the Sheffield Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), carrying out an exploration of the cultural impact of – and influences upon – the autobiography of Albert Pierrepoint, one of the most prolific hangmen in British history. My research was completed under the supervision of Dr Katherine Ebury, with an aim to feed into her own investigation into the way that literary representations of capital punishment responded to and shaped public discourse on justice in the period from 1900 until 1950.
However, my own research was also to culminate in two separate outcomes; firstly, a written report to be submitted to the SURE team, and secondly, a visual dissemination of my research to be displayed at the SURE showcase in February. Whilst this generally meant producing an informational poster, I felt that the subject of my research leant itself more naturally to video form.
In reading about Albert Pierrepoint, and about the British execution more generally, I could not escape the notion that capital punishment was concerned with the performance almost as much as it was with the law and with, well, punishment. The hanging may have been moved into an ostensibly private setting in the 1800s, but it was never intended to become invisible. Indeed, again and again, my research uncovered a fixation with vision and observation – from the cast of authorities, technicians and medical professionals in observant attendance at each execution, to the distant public supposedly learning from the mistakes of the condemned in the newspapers, the British hanging was never denied an audience.
The only thing that rivalled the care with which the balance between obscurity and visibility of the hanging was orchestrated was the technical understanding and professionalism of the hangman himself. If capital punishment was a performance, then the hangman was the stage manager, ensuring that each event within the execution was completed without any faults.
To film the dissemination of my research against a mock stage as a form of puppet theatre therefore seemed in keeping with the character of British capital punishment, both in its implicitly performative nature and in the connotations of machinery and workmanlike technicality it carries. Furthermore, whilst operating each prop by hand required a significant (and much appreciated) amount of help from my flatmates, it did provide a particular human quality to the end product – an effect that I felt was incredibly important. After all, as dramatically monolithic as the British system of capital punishment may have seemed, it was, ultimately, entirely dependent upon the work of men like Albert Pierrepoint.