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

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Newgate: Welcome to Hell


From 1188 until 1777, Newgate Prison stood on the corner of Newgate Street and Old Bailey in the City of London. Appearing in literature as far back as The Canterbury Tales, Newgate was a real hell on earth that struck terror into the people of London for more than 700 years. 

Originally a gate in the Roman wall, a prison was built on the site at the end of the twelfth century. According to medieval statute, it was managed by two elected sheriffs, who in turn rented the administration to private Keepers for money. Being a keeper or a gaoler was a very sought-after position. They took their payment directly from the inmates, which made it one of the best paying positions in London. 

The Keepers charged for everything. They charged inmates for entering the prison (as if they had a choice), for putting their shackles on, and for taking them off. Many charged up to four times the legal limit for these and for basic human needs such as food and water. Inmates commonly died of starvation, violence, or disease, such as Jail Fever (typhus). They were sent there for debt, dissent, and crimes of any scale from stealing a few pennies to murder. They were kept together in long, filthy cells with little daylight and no sanitation until they were freed, executed, or died.

On the other hand, if you had money to spend, you could stay in relative comfort in a private cell of your own with a bed, food, tobacco, newspapers, and perhaps some prison gin. Prostitutes regularly visited the prison and serviced the inmates for a price. Some keepers even had arrangements with the inmates to let them out at night on the condition that they would return and share anything they had stolen. 

Reading a list of Newgate’s famous inmates is like reading a who’s who of British history. Claude Duval was kept there from December of 1669 until his execution in January of 1670. An even more famous ladykiller, Giacomo Casanova, was kept there for a time for alleged bigamy. Sir Thomas Malory (yes, as in Le Morte d’Arthur), pirate Captain Kidd, highwayman James MacLaine, pickpocket and fence Moll Cutpurse, and even the founder of Pennsylvania, William Penn, all stayed in Newgate for a time. Jack Sheppard escaped twice. Daniel Defoe was imprisoned there as well, and in his Moll Flanders, the heroine is born there and later does time there herself. 

Newgate was moved and rebuilt in 1777. In 1783, executions were moved there from Tyburn, and the prison continued operating there until it was closed in 1902. 

This prison plays a big part in both Tyburn and Virtue’s Lady, and it’s no secret that Mark’s been inside a couple of times. For a good, hard look at Newgate from the inside (complete with cadavers, rats, and sexpest wardens), check out The Southwark Saga.