When Arthur B. English accepted an offer of employment from the government of Canada around 1913, he was not engaged as a typical public servant. He was hired to fill the role of official executioner to the Dominion of Canada. Under the professional name “Arthur Ellis” (likely inspired by English hangman John Ellis), English travelled from coast to coast performing hangings wherever criminals were sentenced to meet their end by the noose.
The goal of hanging seems simple: to quickly break the condemned person’s neck so that death is relatively fast and painless. In Ellis’s time, a table of drops prescribed the length of rope according to the weight of the convict. But calculating the exact length of rope needed was complicated by variables like the thickness of a person’s neck, the springiness of the gallows beam and the stretch of the rope.
In 1915, Ellis set a new record for the speed of a hanging when he executed the infamous criminal Dutch Wagner in 47 seconds. Ellis increased this speed several times over the next two decades. One condemned man’s execution took only 15 seconds!
Hangings did not always go smoothly. When Ellis was called upon to hang Antonio Sprecage, the presiding doctor declared that Sprecage’s heart stopped beating after 8 minutes. However, the body continued to twitch and Sprecage was not declared officially dead for 1 hour and 11 minutes.
Despite becoming Canada’s most well-known and experienced hangman over the course of his career, Ellis made calculations that resulted in excruciating strangulation and occasionally, decapitation.