MISSION TO ALL
James Berry was born on the 8th February 1852 in The village of Heckmondwike in West Yorkshire. He was baptised 7 weeks later at the Wesleyan reformed chapel on the 28th March. He was the thirteenth child of eighteen. He began his working life in the mills becoming a wool stapler but did not stay there; at one point he was a shoe salesman, he pursued many careers as a young man, he even embarked on a ship bound for Australia, and changed his mind at the last minute. In 1874, aged 22, he met his wife "Sarah Ackroyd" and moved to Bradford. They were married on the 6th April 1874 at Richmond Terrace Chapel, Bradford, which was incidentally around the corner from Sarah's home, now the university area. Shortly after their wedding day James applied for a position with the West Yorkshire Police and was successful. He had eight years with the Bradford Police Force but the job didn't earn him enough for the upkeep of his family and towards the end of that time he struck up a friendship with a William Marwood, a cobbler and part time hangman. From this friendship grew an idea to apply for the post of executioner. Carrying out a death warrant meant that at £10.00 a time he could make at least £250.00 a year, and maybe as much as £350.00. He applied, but was unsuccessful at first.
In early 1883, undeterred, he offered his services to the magistrates in Edinburgh who required the death sentence to be carried out on two miners who had murdered two gamekeepers. Berry travelled north and was put through a third degree interrogation by the Prison Governor who wanted to establish Berry's knowledge. When satisfied that Berry would carry out the executions in a humane manner he agreed that Berry should do the job. Berry resigned from the police.
In 1884 James Berry applied for the Post of the nations hangman again and this time got the position. He was the Public Executioner from 1885 to 1892 and was the first British hangman literate and communicative enough to be able to write freely about his work. He carried out 131 hangings in his seven years in office, including those of five women. After only eight years in office, and after sending more than 130 men and women to their deaths, in 1891 he became the first executioner to resign.
For the next few years James toured America and Britain doing a series of lectures on his work as an executioner, and championing the abolition of the death penalty. He gave lectures against capital punishment all over the states. Then he toured Great Britain where he had great success. While all this was going on James Berry was in turmoil. On the outside he was successful but on the inside he was a wreck. He was so full of guilt because of the people he had executed that he had no peace in his soul, ever. He had only remorse for the people whose lives he had terminated. Capital punishment, in his opinion was wrong. He felt that to terminate a persons life was wrong, he preferred a life sentence to execution. One of the reasons he gave was that the person who actually pulled the lever was so mentally affected by the act and became so depressed that their lives were never the same. Some eventually became outcasts in society. Outside they were people of note, but on the inside and especially at night they were a mess, having nightmares. Flashes of the gross images burnt indelibly on the screen of their minds turned them to alcohol, illegal substances or anything that would fill the empty void. Other executioners have testified to terrifying nightmares as a result of this trade but in general they are silent about the personal effects of their profession. His house was full of pictures of his 'victims' and they were a constant reminder to him. He was was haunted by nightmares for years. He had no rest, no peace of mind. Once he had been a teatotaller but by the end of 1890 he was drinking a great deal. He was no longer a genial person and had become very short tempered, especially with the press. He was known as the worst man in the town. He was so vile, and his language was so horrible, that even wicked men couldn't stand it.
He was a shadow of his former self and hated his life. He felt that he was a failure as a husband, a failure as a father and a failure as a human being.
One day he decided to commit suicide by throwing himself under a moving train. On an evening in 1902, at 49 years of age, he left his wife and children and walked from his home near Cliffe Road the short distance of 1 mile to the Midland Railway Station, now Forster Square station. James Berry sat on a station bench dejected, full of regret and sorrow, heartbroken, his life over. He could see no way out, only death under a train. His wife and two young sons would be better off without him.
A young man who had given his life to God the night before at the mission on Bowland street was passing by, he saw James Berry and sat on the seat alongside him. He began to speak to him, and eventually James told the young man what he was going to do. The teenager told him about the Lord Jesus; he invited Berry to go with him to the Mission, James Berry did not refuse him, he was a wreck of a man, unclear in his thoughts, not knowing what to do, he agreed and they began the 15 minute walk up into Manningham; turning left into Bowland Street they entered the building. Smith Wigglesworth was preaching; on entering the mission the young man and James Berry sat down among the people, and there he came under a mighty conviction of sin. For two and a half hours he was literally sweating under conviction and you could see a vapour rising up from him.
He said later that every time he executed a person he felt the demons leave their bodies and enter him. At the end of two and a half hours the demons were gone and he was graciously saved. Smith asked " Lord, tell me what to do.” The Lord said, “Don’t leave him, go home with him.” So he went with James to his house on the corner of Bolton road and Cliffe road. When James saw his wife he said, “God has saved me.” The wife broke down and she too was graciously saved. There was such a difference in that home. Even the cat knew the difference. There were two sons in that house and one of them said to his mother, “Mother, what is up in our house? It was never like this before. It is so peaceful. What is it?” She told him, “Father has been saved.” The other son was struck with the same thing. Smith took this man to many special services and the power of God was on him for many days. Over the following weeks he accompanied Smith Wigglesworth to a number of revivalist meetings.
James Berry became a successful evangelist touring Britain and the United States seeing thousands of souls saved in his ministry. He would give his testimony and as he grew in grace he desired to preach the gospel and thousands were brought to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ through his ministry.
" The grace of God is sufficient for the vilest and He can take the most wicked of men and make them monuments of his grace. He did this with Saul of Tarsus at the very time he was breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord. He did it with James Berry the hangman. He will do it for hundreds more in response to our cries. " Smith Wigglesworth.
James Berry continued his evangelistic work until his death.
He died at Walnut Tree Farm, 36 Bolton Road, Bradford, on 21 October 1913.
Today Napoleons casino on Bolton road, stands on the site of Walnut Tree Farm.
Timeline of events:
Born:8th February 1852
Early years: mill worker, shoe salesman etc.
40 yrs of age: resigned Executioner post
49 yrs of age: working as a salesman (commission agent) 1901 -
50 yrs of age: Born again in Bowland Street Mission under Smith Wigglesworth 1902