Jack Ketch’s Botched Executions

Mar 8, 2023 0 comments

The job of an executioner in medieval England was detestable. Nobody invited them to their homes. They were not allowed to go to the church, and some schools did not even take the children of executioners. Faced with social ostracism, executioners were compelled to associate with individuals who were considered undesirable by society and forced to inhabit the underworld along with prostitutes, lepers, and criminals. It was from such an unsavory background emerged Jack Ketch.

The execution of the Duke of Monmouth by Jack Ketch. Etching by Jan Luyken.

Nothing for certain is known about Ketch’s origin, except for the fact that he spent time in Marshalsea Prison. Like many executioners, it is assumed that Ketch had a troubled past and was associated with criminal activities during his early years. Ketch became an executioner in 1663, succeeding the late Edward Dun, under whom he had  apprenticed. He is first mentioned in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey  in January 1676, where he played a role in the execution of a man who committed murder in Whitechapel and also killed the bailiff responsible for his arrest.

Two years later, a broadside appeared called The Plotters Ballad, where Ketch was represented in a woodcut depicting the execution of Edward Coleman. In 1681, in the autobiography of Anthony à Wood, the author described how Ketch hung a man named Stephen College for half an hour before quartering him and throwing his entrails in a fire.

Ketch derives particular notoriety in the manner in which he disposed off the condemned. In those times, hangings were the norm and beheadings were relatively few, reserved only for the high-born. Consequently, Ketch had no experience as an axe-wielder, which he proved with his appalling incompetence in the beheadings of Lord William Russel in 1683 and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685.

Lord William Russel was a leading member of the Country Party, which would later become the Whigs. He was one of the participants of the Rye House Plot, a plan to murder King Charles II and his brother James near Rye House, Hoddesdon. The plan foiled and Lord Russel, along with other conspirators, were arrested and sentenced to death.

On July 21, 1683, Lord Russel knelt before Ketch and placed his head on the executioner’s block. But Ketch was so inept that he took four blows from the axe to separate the head from the body. Each blow landed somewhere else rather than the neck, causing the victim to suffer horrifically. After the first blow landed on the shoulder his victim reportedly looked up and said “You dog, did I give you 10 guineas to use me so inhumanely?.” Lord Russel was referring to the bribe victims often paid the executioner for a swift and merciful death.

The proceedings were so gory and brutal that it created an outrage even among the bloodthirsty audience that habitually attended English beheadings. Ketch was later compelled to write and publish a pamphlet titled Apologie, in which he excused his performance with the claim that Lord Russell had failed to “dispose himself for receiving of the fatal stroke in such a posture as was most suitable” and that he was therefore distracted while taking aim on his neck.

Two years later, in 1685, James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth, was condemned to die. Knowing that Ketch had butchered Lord Russel, the Duke paid Ketch 6 guineas and promised more from his servants if the execution was swift. But in vain. It took Ketch seven or eight blows, each failing to separate the head from the body. Half way through, he cast down his axe in frustration and was only induced to complete his task by the threats of the sheriffs. Finally, Ketch threw down the axe and pulled out a butcher’s knife from the sheath on his hip and proceeded to finish the job by slashing with it the last cords of sinew and flesh that prevented the head from falling into the ground.

The diarist John Evelyn wrote that Ketch’s botched execution “so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces.”

Ketch’s bumbling executions of Russell and Monmouth earned him significant notoriety, and for the next two centuries his name became the synonym for hangman, although it is unlikely that any of his successors exhibited as much inhuman barbarity as Ketch did. Jack Ketch died towards the close of November 1686. His immediate replacement, whose name is not known, reportedly used the whip on a certain Mr. Samuel Johnson “civilly”.

Jack Ketch also found place among English literature. He is mentioned in Charles Dickens novels Oliver Twist, Dombey and Son, The Pickwick Papers and David Copperfield . He also appeared in C. M. Kornbluth’s science fiction story The Marching Morons (1951), and more recently in Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (2003) and The System of the World (2004).


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