Here’s the really easy one: last woman to be hanged in the UK? Ruth Ellis. Right. Well done. Oh, just out of interest – why do you remember that? The film perhaps? The iconic peroxide hair? Or because an executed woman is more horribly memorable? You probably don’t know the name of the last person with learning difficulties, or the last gay man, or any other particular notable ‘last hanging’. To be fair, I can’t imagine many of these are that well recorded (but happy to stand corrected).
So who was the last man to be hanged in the UK? (…slipping the really hard question in with wide-eyed innocence…) C’mon – it must be the last person as well… No idea? Really? You might have a few guesses at some of the more famous departees via the gallows. Evans? Hanratty? Nope.
Don’t worry, pretty much nobody knows the answer. Certainly not in comparison to the number who can reel off “Ruth Ellis”. It’s a second question – why this is so – that really fascinated me when I first stumbled across it. And what makes it worthy of a look at the story behind the story.
Here’s the answer. To both questions really, starting with the latter. The reason nobody can remember is that nobody knows who was the last man to be hanged. Yep. That’s the answer.
How on earth can this be? Easy: on 13 August 1964 two men (Peter Allen and Gwynne Evans) were hanged at 8am. They’d been involved in the same murder, and were actually hanged 30 miles apart, but this being 1964 and a rather sensitive matter nobody thought to record for posterity the precise second the trapdoor opened, so both share the ghoulish honour. Let’s not even think about the ‘time of death’ issues that arise in these conditions…
So what’s the real reason we don’t remember? The ambiguity? Or just a collective horror at the whole concept of state execution and a haste to move on and forget it as quickly as possible. Unassisted by iconic peroxide hair as a memory cue.