John Ellis lived for 58 years in Rochdale. For much of that time he operated his own hairdressing business, but it was his other, you might say, part-time job that made him a national figure. John Ellis served for 23 years as a public executioner attending a total of 203 hangings before his retirement in 1924.
Ellis was born on the 4th of October at 18 Broad Lane in the Balderstone district of Rochdale. His father Joseph ran a barber shop on Oldham Road close to the "Swan With Two Necks" pub.
John started his working career as a stripper and grinder at the Eagle Mill in Balderstone, but he injured his back at work giving himself a disabling injury which bothered him throughout his life. Looking for less physically demanding work, her moved to Tweedale and Smalley's in Castleton, a manufacturing company making textile machinery. It was at this point when the notion of becoming a public executioner first entered his head.
The work at Tweedale and Smalley proved to be equally difficult on John's back, so he left and set up his own hairdressing business at 451 Oldham Road.
John was married by this time and his wife was less than enthusiastic about his ambition to become an executioner. Despite this, he wrote to R. D. Cruikshank, the Governor of Strangeways Prison in Manchester, applying for a position as an executioner. This led to an interview and subsequently to an invitation to attend one week of training at Newgate Prison. The training obviously went well because on May 8, 1901 his name was added to the list of executioners and assistants, at a rate of £10 plus expenses for the executioner and £2.10.00 for the assistant.
During his career as public executioner, Ellis was involved in a number of high profile cases. He executed the infamous Dr. Crippen, who went down in history as the first murderer to be captured by means of radio telegraphy. After murdering his wife in England, Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American by birth, fled the country and under the name of John P. Robinson booked passage on the cargo ship Montrose sailing from Antwerp for Quebec. Crippen was accompanied by his mistress Ethel le Neve, dressed as a man and purporting to be Mr. Robinson's son. A suspicious captain, connecting the strange couple with the hue and cry for Crippen, telegraphed England. Detectives from Scotland Yard boarded the liner Laurentic out of Liverpool bound for Canada. The much faster Laurentic arrived in Quebec before the Montrose and the detectives arrested Crippen and his companion when the Montrose docked.
Ellis also found himself in the public gaze when in 1916 he executed Roger Casement, the rather charismatic Irishman, who was found guilty of treason.
John Ellis performed his last execution in 1923. John Eastwood was hanged at Armly Goal in Leeds and that was the 14th execution that Ellis attended that year. In March of 1924 he tended his resignation ending a career he had followed since 1901.
Looking back over the 23 years of his work, Ellis found it hard to believe that he had survived it. He was not about to miss the long train journey to and from early morning hangings, whilst trying to run his hairdressing business. He was also glad to get away from the continual stress he suffered throughout his career. To those who saw him in action, he was regarded as having nerves of steel, but in fact he was constantly afraid of making errors. In retirement his health deteriorated and heavy drinking became a serious problem.
After one drinking bout in 1924 he attempted to shoot himself, ending up in Rochdale Magistrates Court charged with attempted suicide. During his trial Ellis made commitments to curb his drinking and assured the magistrate he would not try to kill himself again. In return he was bound over for 12 months and discharged.
In 1927 Ellis was talked into taking part in a dramatic production of "The Life and Adventures of Charles Peace". Peace was executed in 1879 for the murder of a Manchester policeman during the commission of a burglary. Ellis, of course, played the executioner, adding to the appeal of the play, but attracting some controversy since there were some who considered his involvement inappropriate. The play opened in December at Gravesend, but audiences quickly dwindled as the novelty wore off and it closed soon after.
Ellis must have had some financial involvement in the staging of the play because, when it closed, he kept the scaffold and took it home to Rochdale. He used the scaffold as part of a presentation of the execution craft, taking it on tour to fairgrounds and seaside resorts.
The 1930s were as hard in Rochdale as elsewhere and there was little money for food, let alone hair cuts, so Ellis found himself attempting to supplement his income by selling towels in local pubs.
In failing health and once more drinking heavily, the end came for Ellis in 1932. A drinking bout ended with him threatening both his wife and daughter with a razor, but eventually turning it on himself. In a rage he slit his own throat and was pronounced dead on September 20th,