Executioner, Death, or The Devil Himself? The Legend of Jack Ketch

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Jack Ketch in the Plotter’s Ballad (1678-9). Ketch is seen right of center holding a rope and an axe.

[From the archives] Jack Ketch, otherwise known as John Ketch or Richard Jaquet, began his twenty-three year career as London’s leading executioner in 1663. He was not the only executioner dispatching the condemned at Tyburn, but he was the most infamous, earning a reputation for brutality remarkable even for a man in his profession. After his death in 1686, his name became slang for any executioner, the devil, and even death itself. Over time, his reputation took on such epic proportions that he became a sort of bogeyman. So who was he?

Like many executioners, Ketch spent much of his early life on the wrong side of the law, and is known to have spent time in Marshalsea Prison. Little is definitively known about his origins. He is first mentioned in the Old Bailey proceedings in January 1676 in the case of a man who was executed for a murder taking place in Whitechapel, and who also killed the bailiff charged with arresting him. The mention is a small one, but the meaning is clear: “the jury brought him in guilty, and Jack Ketch will make him free”.

after Francis Barlow, line engraving, 1679

Coleman drawn to his execution. Francis Barlow, 1679

The first public reference to him appeared in the broadside The Plotters Ballad two years later. In the Receipt for the Cure of Traytrous Recusants, or Wholesome Physicke for Popish Contagion, he is represented in a woodcut depicting the execution of Edward Coleman. Accused by Titus Oates of being involved in a “Popish Plot”, he was executed for treason in December 1678. In the woodcut, Coleman is saying “I am sick of this traitorous disease.” Ketch, illustrated holding a rope and an axe, replies, “Here’s your cure sir.” (see top)

Ketch was paid for his services, and went on strike in 1682 for better wages and won. In addition to his wages, he received bribes, but he would have made most of his money by selling off pieces of the condemned. As a matter of course, executioners were given the clothes of the dead and the rope, which they sold for significant profit. A used noose could be sold for as much as a shilling an inch.

Grizzly as it sounds, execution paraphernalia was widely believed to carry serious magic and was in high demand. Even so much as a strand of a hangman’s rope was believed to cure any number of ailments when it was worn around the neck, and gamblers sought pieces to improve their luck. Nooses had been used to cure headaches by wrapping them around the temples of the afflicted since ancient Rome. The efficacy of these cures was not in question, and the public was willing to pay for whatever they could get.

Jack Ketch had a reputation of brutality and incompetence, but the truth might be more complicated than that. Although executions were highly ritualized, there was nothing in place that we might think of as “quality control,” and bribery was a more than frequent occurrence–it was the norm. Apart from his wages and the money he made from selling off pieces of the deceased, Ketch would have received a great deal of money in bribes. If the condemned had the coin, they would attempt to bribe the executioner for a swift and merciful death. There was no mechanism in place to break the neck upon hanging at this point, so many died at Tyburn of slow strangulation, a process that could take an agonizing forty-five minutes. It would have been up Ketch to set the pace of their death and to limit–or draw out–their suffering.

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The execution of the Duke of Monmouth

The condemned were not the only people bribing executioners. Following the horribly botched executions of Lord William Russell in 1683 and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685, rumors ran rampant that although both men paid Ketch to be merciful, their enemies paid him more to make them suffer. He denied the rumors, as anyone surely would, but one has to wonder how a man who made his living executing people for twenty-three years could fail at his task so spectacularly. He was no amateur, yet during the execution of poor Monmouth, Ketch struck him five times with an axe Monmouth himself is said to have proclaimed “too dull,” and in the end had to take the Duke’s head with a knife. The spectacle had been so horrific that Ketch had to make his escape under the protection of a military guard to avoid being lynched by the crowd.

For every botched execution Ketch presided over, there were several that went off without a hitch. He was said to have known ways to tie the rope that would alternately cause the victim’s neck to break quickly or to merely render them unconscious. Indeed, if the body was moved swiftly to a coffin or intercepted by friends or relatives before it was snatched by surgeons or torn apart by the blood-thirsty crowd, there was a change they might later be revived with peppermint oil. If a person was lucky enough to survive their execution, they were typically allowed to carry on living, as this was very rare. In 1709, years after Ketch’s death, John Smith was hanged at Tyburn and left there for some time before he was cut down and revived. He made a full recovery. He was allowed to live out his life and from that day was known as “Half-Hanged Smith.”

Ketch died in November of 1686. For at least the next two hundred years, his name was applied to a whole host of things related to execution. Apart from his name becoming slang for any executioner, “Jack Ketch’s Kitchen” was a name given to a room in Newgate prison where they boiled the severed limbs of those quartered for high treason. A “Jack Ketch’s Pippin” was a candidate for the gallows. A noose became, rather uncreatively, “Jack Ketch’s Necklace”, while the slum around Turnmill Street in Clerkenwell became “Jack Ketch’s Warren”.

Jack Ketch makes an appearance in my book, Tyburn, as an acquaintance of highwayman Mark Virtue. For more on Jack Ketch and the history of Tyburn as a place of execution, check out our post here.

Jessica Cale

Sources:

Ackroyd, Peter. London, The Biography.
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, Peter. Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree.
Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang
The Old Bailey Online
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Executions at Tyburn: Ritual and Reality

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Once enough to send a shiver down the spine of anyone in London or greater Middlesex, the infamous Tyburn gallows have at last begun to fade from collective memory.

Between 1196 and 1783, an estimated 60,000 people were executed at Tyburn. Murderers, sometimes, and highwaymen, certainly, but for every major criminal executed at Tyburn, there were four more condemned for petty theft. Most of the people hanged at Tyburn were under 21, and many of them were still children.

By the eighteenth century, “Tyburn had become associated with mockery, irreverence, and the defiance of authority. The activities there encapsulated rough-and-ready humour, elements of carnival and, on occasion, very public displays of approval of sympathy for the condemned miscreants. For their part, the latter sometimes seem to have relished their brief moment of glory and to have drawn succour from it.” (1)

The public executions at Tyburn and the rituals surrounding them were intended to demonstrate the omnipotence of the law and to serve as a deterrent to crime. Hangings took place eight times a year in a highly ritualized and somber manner that was intended to put the fear of God into the condemned and the spectators alike.

The evening before the execution, the condemned would be offered the final sacrament by the prison chaplain before the bell tolled in the tower of St. Sepulchre’s Church. In 1604, Robert Dow left the church fifty pounds annually to toll the bells for the condemned both the evening before and the day of the execution. The hand bell was also rung within the prison at this time to accompany the following cry:

“All you that in the condemned hole do lie, Prepare you, for tomorrow you shall die; Watch all and pray; the hour is drawing near, That you before the Almighty must appear. Examine well yourselves; in time repent, That you may not to eternal Flames be sent. And when St. Sepulchre’s Bell in the morning tolls, The Lord above have mercy on your souls.”

At dawn on the day of execution, the prisoner would have his irons struck off and replaced with a cord or handcuffs. A halter was placed around his neck by the Knight of the Halter, and he was loaded into the cart with the Ordinary and the coffin he was to be buried in. The cart stopped in front of St. Sepulchre’s Church where the bell was rung again, and the bellman would ask the crowd to pray for the soul of the condemned. The Ordinary was not there to provide comfort. His presence “indicated the involvement of the Church in the punishment of sin and recognized that although the prisoner’s physical life was about to be terminated, his soul could still be saved even at this late hour.” (1)

execution-at-tyburn1The law had their rituals and the public had theirs. While the authorities effectively stage-managed the executions to discourage the public from criminal acts, there is no evidence that this was any real deterrent as many attendees would later go on to commit similar crimes themselves.

Execution days were brilliant for businesses of all kinds. In addition to the pubs that benefited along the three-hour journey from Newgate to Tyburn, the “hanging fair” itself was ripe with opportunity for profit. Young pickpockets, known as “Tyburn Blossoms” did well in the tightly-packed and distracted crowds, the execution more an opportunity than a deterrent. Prostitutes could count on being busy as the carnival atmosphere and the grim demonstration of mortality drove many to the pursuit of more earthly delights. Cakes, pies, and baked potatoes were sold, and the “Last Dying Confessions” were purchased and circulated. Seats could be bought, and the grandstand known as Mother Proctor’s Pew made £5,000 (about £450,000 in today’s money) from the execution of Earl Ferrers alone.

Meeting a good end was crucial. While most would have been insensible with fear, the crowd loved those who showed a brave face. Some of the condemned gave daring or subversive speeches, joked with the crowd, or confessed at length, embellishing their crimes with lurid detail. The best executions had ballads written about them and were retold in newspapers and pamphlets. For so many who had lived lives of desperation and neglect, the idea of a little postmortem glory must have had its appeal.

The crowd loved a good show, and some of the condemned took the execution as a last opportunity to rebel. One way they did this was through their clothing. On the morning of the execution the prisoners were allowed to choose their clothes for the day. As the executioners could turn a handsome profit by selling the clothes of the condemned following the hanging, some chose to wear as little as possible to limit this.

A young Irish woman named Hannah Dagoe took this to the extreme. Intent on cheating the hangman out of the money he would receive for the sale of her clothes, she spent the three mile journey stripping them off and throwing them into the crowd. When they reached the gallows, she wore almost nothing at all. To add insult to injury, she kneed the hangman in the groin and leaped out of the cart herself, breaking her own neck.

What had been intended as a public display of punishment to encourage law and order evolved over time into regular acts of quiet rebellion. Executions became raucous fairs attended by thousands where pickpockets and prostitutes did their most profitable work. Displays of contrition and the warnings of the condemned were replaced with lurid confessions and triumphant farewells. While the law exercised power by executing people for relatively minor crimes, the people showed resistance by celebrating the condemned as heroes.

Evidence of the disregard the public had for the executions can be found in the tongue-in-cheek terms they developed for them. Tyburn became the “three-legged mare” or the “deadly nevergreen.” “Going west,” became a euphemism for execution, and being hanged was “to dance the Paddington frisk.”

The last hanging at Tyburn took place in 1783. After this, hangings were moved closer to Newgate to a site where crowds would be easier to control. They remained there until the end of public execution in 1868.

Sources

Tyburn: London’s Fatal Tree. Alan Brooke and David Brandon. Sutton Publishing Ltd, 2004.

The Thieves’ Opera. Lucy Moore. Harcourt, 1997.

An earlier version of this appeared on thehistoryvault.co.uk.