The Execution of Lorraine Lax - Armley January 1926

The Aftermath - 2

From the accounts available Lorraine was resigned to his fate and went quietly to the scaffold. The executioner was Thomas Pierrepoint and the assistant was William Willis. Both were experienced practitioners who had officiated at many executions but 1926 was to prove the last year for Willis. He was sacked after he was seen to be drunk and aggressive at the hanging of Johannes Mommers at Pentonville Prison on the 27th of July 1926. But what may have added extra tension to the proceedings is an event that happened a couple of days earlier at Birmingham. John Fisher who was sentenced to death for the murder of his partner and whose appeal failed at the same time as Lorraine's was executed. The chief executioner was William Wills and the events of that day have, according to Steve Fielding in his excellent book "The Executioner's Bible" gone down in prison folklore. Such was John's condition he had to be escorted to the scaffold by two warders, one on either side. As they supported him on the gallows, and positioned him over the trap door, Wills pulled out the white hood and attempted to place over the head and then tighten the noose around the neck. He was just about to pull the lever to release the trap-door when he realised that they were just about to hang a prison warder. Such was Wills haste to carry out the task in hand (UK executioners at the time used to pride themselves on a quick and efficient dispatch) he had mistaken the prison warder for the prisoner. He quickly realised his error and removed the hood and noose from the warder, placed it around the prisoner and then pulled the lever. Wills had come within seconds of hanging a prison warder.

And there is the aftermath of a judicial execution. The judge at the trial when passing sentence used the following sentence

"The sentence of the court upon you is, that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead; and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall be confined before your execution. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul. Amen".

After the execution Lorraine would have been left for one hour. This was to ensure total death but was in effect a legacy that was passed down from the days of public hanging when the body was left to provide both a spectacle and a deterrent.   At the end of the hour the pinioning straps were removed and a rope was placed around the personís body, under the arms and they were drawn up to enable the removal of the noose and hood.  The body was then undressed, washed if necessary and lowered onto a stretcher or trolley for an inquest. The Capital Punishment (Amendment) Act of 1868 required the prison doctor to certify death and the sheriff and the governor to sign a form stating that the execution had been carried out, a copy of which was displayed outside the prison gates.

The bodies of executed murderers were not returned to their relatives for burial.  Successive governments considered murder to be a specially heinous crime and so they ensured that they did not receive a full funeral, be buried in consecrated ground or "lay in state". But I suspect the real reason for the with-holding of the body is that they did not want families to know what had really happened to their loved ones, once executions became private.

Lorraine was buried in an unmarked grave in the prison yard at Armley Gaol. The family were denied access of course. Many years later when the family attempted to re-claim the body for a proper burial they were told that it was not possible to locate the body in the prison yard. A final insult! 

This is family photo of Lorraine - it is the only one his great grandson has seen. There is no date on it but the family seem to think that it was taken after the war, possibly around the time of his marriage to Lizzie .Until I obtained his WW1 service record they did not know about the injuries received whilst serving on the Western Front. . On page 4 it refers to a "GSW to eyebrow & head" GSW is an acronym for gunshot wound and so if you look at the photo you van see a degree of disfigurement to his left eye and eyebrow. Of course they just may have been an element of neurological trauma when he was wounded and one cannot help wondering whether or not this was a material factor in his later behaviour and more to the point his actions that led to his execution. We will just never know. As an aside it is worth noting that with exception of insanity, physical and mental disabilities were not taken into account by the courts when passing sentence. Neither did they feature in the deliberations of the Home Secretary. John Fisher who had his appeal turned down by the Court of Appeal and the Home Secretary at the same time as Lorraine had a history of epilepsy but it was not considered at all.  

The photo shows Lorraine and Lizzie's children - Frank top left, George, the second oldest to his right and Lorraine, the oldest, bottom left. - and the house on Ripon Street where the murder took place. It was demolished many years ago

Of course by hanging Lorraine, the government orphaned three young boys. From the information I received from a descendent of Lorraine the brothers were brought up by family and friends. They were separated throughout the rest of their childhood, and although they kept in touch with one another over the years, they were not particularly close.

The family Lorraine left behind had to deal with the consequences of the murder for many years. Even today, 85 years later, the family still find it a raw and sensitive subject. When I was first contacted I was told that the little boy who was on the bed when the attack took place, and was covered in blood, was still living at the age of 85. He and his son found it difficult to talk about the events that lead to his father's execution. Sadly I was informed a couple of years later that Frank had passed away on Boxing day 2010 aged 87.

Lorraine's son Frank on his wedding day in the summer of 1942. His bride was Edna D Wells known to all as "Dolly"

The family admit that Lorraine was no saint - he did bet and he did drink but so did millions of other men. But they are certain on one matter, he was NOT a member of the Sheffield gangs. Did he neglect his family by spending money on drinking and gambling? According to his sister-in-law he did, but given the uncertain and erratic nature of his employment a far more likely cause of the family's hardship was the frequent loss of wages due to the non-availability of work. The photos of their three sons do not show any noticeable sign of neglect and the photos of Lorraine and Elizabeth shown earlier in the article seem to indicate likewise. For the working class, Sheffield in the mid 1920's was a difficult place to live and make a living. Many people experienced poverty and hardship and the Lax family were no different from thousands of others. 

There is no doubt that the frequent quarrels were the result of persistent money difficulties, but what caused the argument that led to Lizzie's death. The last words Lizzie uttered that we know of was "you are at your games again" after which Lizzie produced the razor. I was not sure what this meant but the family seem to think that it refers to an outing he went on the previous night with his brother to break into a factory. The intention was to steal money for Xmas, and when Lizzie found out what they had been doing, she threatened "to turn them in". This does seem plausible because at the trial when he mentioned that he had saved something for Xmas, he started crying and so the judge halted proceedings and allowed Lorraine a seat. It is conjecture but I wonder if these savings had gone and Lorraine resorted to breaking and entering to stave off the financial crisis that faced the family, and replace the Xmas money. The Ancliffe's had given the family notice to quit, and Lizzie was convinced that she and her children were heading for the workhouse. In fact that is what she told her mother the night before the murder. I find this rather strange that this would be the case as both her parents and sister and brother in law lived close-by, and would surely have intervened to prevent this.

There is no doubt that Lorraine killed Lizzie but reading the newspaper reports you get the impression that there was  a marked degree of sympathy for Lorraine's predicament. But as the law stood there was very little hope of getting the charge of murder reduced. Nowadays it was be treated very much as a "domestic" murder, and whilst still carrying a mandatory life sentence, there would be a strong possibility that a successful defence barrister would get the charge reduced to manslaughter, or even acquittal if he could prove self defence. Modern day forensic techniques would show exactly what did happen that morning in Ripon Street, and go some way to showing that this was not a pre-meditated act of murder but a flash of anger that resulted in three young brothers being orphaned.


The Executioner's Bible - Steve Fielding

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