James Berry (8 February 1852 – 21 October 1913) was an English executioner from 1884 until 1891. Berry was born in Heckmondwike in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where his father worked as a wool-stapler. His most important contribution to the science of hanging was his refinement of the long drop method developed by William Marwood, whom Berry knew quite well. His improvements were intended to diminish mental and physical suffering and some of them remained standard practice until the abolition of capital punishment for murder.
An insight into Berry's behaviour and methods can be read in the book My Experiences as an Executioner, in which he describes his methods and recalls the final moments of some of the people he executed.
He served eight years with the Bradford Police Force, then tried himself as a boot salesman. Since he did not earn enough for the upkeep of his family, he applied for the post of executioner after William Marwood died in 1883 but was unsuccessful despite being shortlisted, until the short period of Bartholomew Binns in office was over.
Berry was the first British hangman literate and communicative enough to be able to write freely about his work. He considered that the hangman was the last link in what he called the "chain of legal retribution".
He was the executioner who failed to hang John Babbacombe Lee – "The Man They Couldn't Hang" – in 1885. The trap door repeatedly failed to open and Lee's sentence was commuted.
During the execution of Robert Goodale on 30 November 1885 at Norwich, the prisoner was given too long a drop so that the rope decapitated him.
Berry's time in office came to an end following interference in his judgement by the prison medical officer at Kirkdale Prison regarding the appropriate length of drop; Berry compromised but the condemned man John Conway was nearly decapitated. In March 1892 Berry wrote his letter of resignation, probably without knowing that in October of the previous year the Home Office had already decided that "the employment of Berry as Executioner should no longer be recommended to the High Sheriffs."
Berry carried out 131 hangings in his seven years in office, including those of five women. James Berry also hanged William Bury, a man suspected by some of being Jack the Ripper. In his book My Experiences as an Executioner James Berry makes no mention of the Whitechapel murders for which there have always been multiple suspects. However, his belief that Bury and 'Jack the Ripper' were one and the same was published in his memoirs which appeared in Thomson's Weekly News of 12 February 1927.
Following his retirement, Berry toured as an evangelist and gave lectures on phrenology. In his book The Hangman's Thoughts Above the Gallows (1905) he complains that "the law of capital punishment falls with terrible weight upon the hangman and that to allow a man to follow such an occupation is doing him a deadly wrong".
Smith Wigglesworth, the evangelist and preacher, records his conversion to Christianity, in a sermon which was later published in Faith that Prevails (1938):
In England they have what is known as the public hangman who has to perform all the executions. This man held that appointment and he told me later that he believed that when he performed the execution of men who had committed murder, that the demon power that was in them would come upon him and that in consequence he was possessed with a legion of demons. His life was so miserable that he purposed to make an end of life. He went down to a certain depot and purchased a ticket. The English trains are much different from the American. In every coach there are a number of small compartments and it is easy for anyone who wants to commit suicide to open the door of his compartment and throw himself out of the train. This man purposed to throw himself out of the train in a certain tunnel just as the train coming from an opposite direction would be about to dash past and he thought this would be a quick end to his life.
There was a young man at the depot that night who had been saved the night before. He was all on fire to get others saved and purposed in his heart that every day of his life he would get someone saved. He saw this dejected hangman and began to speak to him about his soul. He brought him down to our mission and there he came under a mighty conviction of sin. For two and a half hours he was literally sweating under conviction and you could see a vapour rising up from him. At the end of two and a half hours he was graciously saved.
Michael Sheridan, ‘The murder at Shandy Hall” 2010