The true history that inspired 'Hangmen' on Broadway
Historical figures and true crime cases inspired Martin McDonagh's dark comedy.
If you hang around the Theatre District regularly, you’ve probably noticed the (appropriately) bright yellow marquee on the Golden Theatre advertising Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen. The dark comedy play centers on the former hangman Harry Wade, who becomes a local pub owner after hanging gets abolished in England. Amid the pub regulars and cub reporters that show up to hear his reaction to the news and rub elbows with a once-semi-famous hangman, there’s a troublemaking London stranger (played by Game of Thrones star Alfie Allen) who arrives with an entirely different motive.
Capital punishment doesn’t seem like a natural subject for comedy, but McDonagh proved he knows the ropes of humorous playwriting. Hangmen won the Best Play Olivier Award for its 2016 London premiere and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Foreign Play for its Off-Broadway premiere in 2018, among other accolades.
Harry’s story is almost totally fictional, but McDonagh did draw on real historical events and people to write Hangmen. Learn more about the history behind Hangmen below — and while you’re hanging out here, you might as well grab your Broadway tickets.
The history of hanging in Britain
Hanging was in effect in Britain since ancient times up until its 20th-century abolition. For a long time, it was basically the only punishment in place for criminals, even for small offenses. In the 18th and 19th centuries, an estimated 220 crimes were punishable by death, ranging from murder to being seen with classes of people that the upper-class government saw as undesirable.
Most times, hangings weren’t actually carried out for small offenses: pardons were issued regularly, and pregnant people, veterans, and clergymen often got special exemptions. It’s estimated, for example, that 7,000 of the 35,000 death sentences handed down between 1770 and 1830 actually led to an execution. But the threat hung over everyone’s heads for centuries, and hangings were nonetheless common for more serious crimes.
The abolition of hanging
The abolition of hanging is just one part of the abolition of capital punishment at large. But it was a long, drawn-out process, which McDonagh doesn’t spend time talking about in Hangmen. Lots of reforms took place before the practice was abolished for good: Hanging (and other means of capital punishment) was removed as a punishment for small offenses in 1808, and in 1823 an act was passed that allowed judges to issue non-capital punishment for any crime except treason and murder.
In 1864 public executions were abolished, and in the early-to-mid-1900s, minors were exempted from capital punishment. In 1957, Britain passed the Homicide Act which specified six types of murder that were punishable by death.
Queen Elizabeth II had just taken the throne a year earlier and Harold Wilson was Prime Minister when hangings stopped in England in 1965. But contrary to Hangmen, hanging wasn’t actually abolished in England that year, just “suspended” for five years, and only for murder. Hanging got officially abolished for murder in 1969, and it wasn’t until 1998 when it was abolished altogether. In the 20 years in between, it was still a legal punishment for treason, but no one was actually sentenced to it after 1965.
The movement to abolish hanging kicked into high gear in the mid-1900s, after multiple instances of people supposedly getting wrongly hanged. A couple of those cases are described below, and the question of the morality of hanging plays a major part in Hangmen.
The hangman Harry Allen
Harry Wade wasn’t a real hangman, but Harry Allen was, and the two share more than just a first name. Allen was a British hangman from 1941 to 1964, when hanging was outlawed. For 14 of those years, he was the assistant executioner to Albert Pierrepoint — whose Hangmen counterpart is the best executioner in England that Harry always comes second to. That’s not entirely the same as being an assistant, but the parallel is there.
He finally got a promotion to chief executioner in 1955 and ended up performing one of the last two executions in England in 1964 (of Gwynne Owen Evans, one of two convicted murderers of van driver John Alan West), but his career had its share of controversial moments in between. One of these was in 1953, when he assisted in the hanging of Derek Bentley, an accomplice to burglar Christopher Craig’s murder of a policeman during a robbery.
The jury found Bentley guilty because he supposedly told Craig to commit the murder, but they didn’t think he should have been hanged. He was hanged anyway thanks to an unforgiving interpretation of the 1823 Judgment of Death Act, which said that among the 200 offenses that could result in the death penalty, treason or murder must.
The case was so controversial even after the hanging that people campaigned to get him a posthumous pardon for 45 years, until it was finally granted in 1993. Even today, Bentley’s case is remembered as a miscarriage of justice and a catalyst for the movement to abolish hanging altogether.
Harry has a similar controversy at the beginning of Hangmen. The play opens in a prison cell where Harry shows up to escort the supposed assaulter/murderer Hennessy to the gallows. (Hennessy’s crime is similar to that of James Hanratty, another man Allen executed.) He insists upon his innocence until the end.
McDonagh’s play appears to mash up the details of the Bentley and Hanratty cases. Hanratty’s case was considered a miscarriage of justice in its time, but he was definitively proven guilty decades later with DNA testing. But Hangmen leaves Hennessy’s innocence a question, and Harry’s left to reckon with whether he was responsible for a miscarriage of justice, which reflects the Bentley case.
The hangman Albert Pierrepoint
Hanging was a family affair for the Pierrepoints: Albert Pierrepoint’s father and uncle were hangmen before Pierrepoint took the job. His first hanging as a lead executioner was in October 1941, and between then and his retirement in 1956, he hanged between 435 and 600 people, including many notorious serial killers and German and Austrian war criminals from World War II. He was, and is, such a major figure that he’s been featured in many works of fiction, including the 2005 movie Pierrepoint and, of course, Hangmen.
His lasting reputation and high body count probably inspired McDonagh’s to characterize him in Hangmen as Britain’s best executioner. In the play, he’s known for hanging Nazis, a clear reference to his real-life track record. Most of what we hear about Pierrepoint is from Harry’s perspective, though, and because he’s bitter about being second-best, we learn little more than how he’s arrogant and smelly. Harry exaggerates that Pierrepoint hanged “all” the Nazis, but not as praise — he’s griping that there were none left for him to execute and reap the glory.
Interestingly, though, a couple major elements of the real Pierrepoint’s life actually get attributed to Harry in Hangmen. Harry’s post-hangman gig is being a pub owner, but in real life, it was actually Pierrepoint that owned a pub. It was his side gig of sorts; he ran a Lancashire joint from the mid-1940s until the 1960s. In addition, a man named Syd Dernley was Pierrepoint’s assistant executioner for five years before Harry Allen got the job. In Hangmen, the character of Syd is Harry’s assistant in the opening hanging.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus