A Shadowed Livery begins on the day in September 1938 when Prime Minister Neville Chamberlaine returns from Munich declaring ‘a peace for our time’ and Inspector James Given witnesses the hanging of a thug who kicked a Jewish shopkeeper to death in Birmingham. Shortly afterwards James is asked by his Superintendent to follow up on a horrific murder and double suicide at a country house in Warwickshire. Something tells him that all is not what it seems.
At precisely twelve o’clock on Thursday, 29th September 1938, Peter Bishop fell five feet ten inches to his carefully calculated demise, his neck snapping. Beneath the hood, his blood vessels burst as the rope choked the murderous life out of him.
There had been six of us in the small observation room. I’d arrested the man and was trying push out of my mind the horror carved on his concealed face. The prison governor was scrutinising the hangman’s preparations, the chaplain leafing through his Bible and the newspaperman just staring fixedly at Bishop, probably wondering how he might write this up for the late edition. Alongside us was the doctor, fidgeting all the while, repeatedly pulling his watch from his pocket and coming across as if he was late for the theatre. Our final companion was a young warder who had been given the job of recording the events for posterity. He stood apart from the rest and made copious notes on a pad. His scribbling and the doctor’s shuffling feet were the only sounds to be heard above the ticking of the clock.
Bishop’s knees had failed him briefly when the noose had been put in place but his composure soon returned after Mr Markham made the final adjustments and whispered a few concluding words in his ear. I was imagining the killer was being told he wouldn’t feel anything. The executioner knew Bishop’s weight to the last ounce and the exact length of drop it would take to kill him with minimal time and suffering. But it wouldn’t be painless.
One minute before noon, Mr Markham had placed his hands on Bishop’s shoulders a final time, stepped clear of the trapdoor and took hold of the metal lever which rose from the floor beside it. The condemned man stiffened. Governor Jackson lifted a telephone receiver, spoke a few short words then nodded to his colleague on the other side of the glass. In the remaining seconds as the clock moved to the appointed hour, I envisioned the same scene a hundred miles further north at Strangeways Prison, where the murderer’s accomplice, Harold Stack, was facing an identical fate.
It might be ten minutes before Bishop’s heart would stop beating, even though the life had already gone from him. This allowed sufficient time for the doctor, Governor Jackson, the note-taker and the hangman to descend to the silent chamber where Bishop’s still-warm body now waited alone.
The prison chaplain, the editor of the ‘Birmingham Post’ and I tried to share a few words but we were all affected by what we’d witnessed. I believed the man had been treated justly, much more so than the poor shopkeeper he and his mate had kicked to death on the street. Even so, I couldn’t help feeling compassion for the loss of a fellow human being in such a cruel way. I’d seen death many times and in many forms over the years and I’d never get used to it. Perhaps I was in the wrong job.