The hands tied nooses and then, as eternity neared, pulled the lever. There, at the high scaffold, those hands collected the debts of hundreds of criminals.
Here, in the School of Law‘s Tarlton Law Library, the hands and faces of two English hangmen are preserved in plaster molds and on display for visitors and studying students to see.
The life masks are two of the more macabre artifacts in the Hyder Collection, which includes over 1,000 pieces of legal history. Elton M. Hyder, Jr., LL.B. ’43, together with his wife, Martha Rowan Hyder, created the collection of art and artifacts to represent the historical development of law and the growth of the rule of law throughout the world. Their goal was to create for the law library an environment reminiscent of a fine gentleman’s library. The collection was donated to the Law School Foundation in 2011 for permanent display in the law school.
The first of the two hangmen, Albert Pierrepoint, decided he wanted to enter the family business of executions when he was only 11 years old. By the time he reached 38, he was “the U.K.’s unchallenged ‘Number One,’ the unofficial title of the most senior executioner.” After WWII, he hanged 200 war criminals in four years.
The second hangman, Syd Dernley, learned the ropes from Pierrepoint. Dernley took the lives of about 20 people between 1949 and 1954, and he “remained a fierce advocate for the death penalty, and hanging in particular, until his death.”
Each of the collection’s pieces comes with an intriguing backstory and glimpse into the past. When discussing the many items, Hyder’s wife, Martha Rowan Hyder, once said, “I like to think that the ghosts of all these people are walking around the library.”
The University of Texas at Austin is a vast place, with more than 40 acres of campus containing untold collections, artifacts and treasures. Our #HiddenUT series shines a spotlight onto UT’s unheralded gems.
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