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

The Restoration: a Brilliant Period for Historical Romance

With so many British historical romances set in the nineteenth century, you would be forgiven for thinking nothing happened in England before the Regency. Although the nineteenth century was a time of progress and those famous balls at Almack’s, I decided to set my new historical series two hundred years earlier in the seventeenth century. 


Charles II in exile

The Southwark Saga begins in 1671, eleven years after the restoration of Charles II. The Restoration is an exciting period to read, write and research. It was a time of change and was characterized by cataclysmic events, such as the English Civil War that saw the execution of Charles I and the exile of his son with a significant part of the Court. The Plague killed more than a quarter of London’s population between 1665 and 1666 and was chronicled in Defoe’s nightmarish Journal of a Plague Year. The last of that was wiped out by the Great Fire of London, which incinerated most of the medieval City of London over a four day period, destroying 13,200 houses and 87 churches including St. Paul’s cathedral, and killing or displacing thousands of people. After the fire, London was rebuilt with a new street plan designed by Christopher Wren, and began to take on the shape it is today, with the new St. Paul’s Cathedral as its crowning glory. 


Solomon Eccles

There were also many larger than life figures who we still remember to this day. Charles II, “The Merry Monarch” had more mistresses than there are days in the week and more than a dozen illegitimate children, and when the Great Fire threatened to consume the entirety of London, he and his brother, the Duke of York, fought the fire themselves. Diarist Samuel Pepys meticulously recorded his daily life in the 1660s, providing an invaluable resource for historians, while John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester, entertained and enraged with his bawdy verse. Out on the streets, you’ll find Solomon Eccles, a composer who had a religious awakening and spent his days nude with a dish of burning coals on his head, urging passers-by the repent as they did their shopping. 


Nell Gwyn

The Restoration is a wonderful time to set fiction, and particularly romance. With the Civil War behind them, London was in the mood to celebrate. The theaters reopened and women were allowed onstage, providing cheap entertainment to people of any class most nights of the week. The rigid social structure and excessive manners of the nineteenth century had not set in yet, and the social mobility of the time was second to none. Courtesans regularly rose above their stations, such as Nell Gwyn, who rose from being an orange seller of humble birth to become Charles II’s favorite mistress. 

The poor could still marry with little more than a declaration and a witness. Highwaymen haunted the forests and roads around the city, and execution at Tyburn was a real threat to them and anyone caught stealing anything worth more than a shilling. For excitement, color, and danger, you’ll be hard pressed to find a time better for fiction than the seventeenth century. 

Tyburn, the first book of The Southwark Saga, follows Sally Green, a French immigrant and Covent Garden prostitute as she tries to escape her unfortunate circumstances. Hero Nick Virtue, a private domestic tutor turned highwayman, must decide if saving her is worth risking his life.

In Virtue’s Lady, Lady Jane Ramsey attempts to marry out of wealth when she falls for Nick’s brother, Mark, an ex-convict and carpenter who lives in the slum in Southwark. Five years after the fire, Mark is still struggling to adapt his business for a city that no longer wants wooden houses, and the last thing he needs is an earl taking shots at him for ruining his daughter. 

In both books, I hope to show you what the Restoration was like from the ground up. You’ll feel the dirt, smell the river, and taste the terrible, terrible coffee right along with the characters as you are introduced to a new world in historical romance. I invite you to join me in the seventeenth century, and I very much hope you’ll enjoy The Southwark Saga. 

For a directory of my history posts about this period, click on the Seventeenth Century History Posts tab above or click here. This page is a work in progress, but so far I have short articles on infamous highwayman Claude Duval, The Great Fire of London, the Plague, the Cheapside Hoard, condom use, mortality, executions at Tyburn, Newgate prison, illegitimacy, Guy Fawkes, coffee, the lead content in makeup, and a whole lot more. Be sure to check it out! If there are any seventeenth century subjects you would be particularly interested in reading about, please leave your suggestions in the comments below and I will see what I can do. 

Thanks for stopping by! 

The Act of Oblivion: Guest Post by Historian John Polsom-Jenkins

Charles II in exile. Philippe de Champaigne, 1653
By early 1660, England and Wales had been in a state of civil war since 1642 and engaged in intermittent related conflicts in Scotland and Ireland since 1638, to say nothing of foreign wars against the Dutch and increased colonial engagements. The success of Parliament against King Charles I had resulted in the traditional structure of England: its monarchy, government, courts, and national church, being dismantled and replaced with a series of experiments in republican government and more radically reformed religion. However, Parliament ultimately found itself unable to negotiate a political and religious settlement between the varied interests who had fought against the King, especially since a wide range of fanatical religious groups had developed during the unstructured years of war, some of them now espousing a radical social agenda, all of which was deeply threatening to those who still believed in a rigid social structure and unified national church.

Parliament eventually having felt compelled to put the King on trial and execute him for treason against his own people, and with his son in exile on the continent, the reins of government fell to the army and Oliver Cromwell in particular. In the 1650s, Cromwell succeeded in creating a sort of hereditary military dictatorship (the Protectorate), in which he fulfilled the role of king in all but name.  When the Protector passed on in 1658, his son, Richard, inherited his mantle but wore it unconvincingly and was persuaded to resign in April 1659. This left the army in charge of the country and it was George Monck who emerged as its foremost and most decisive general. Monck had been a royalist commander under Charles I before joining Parliament to lead its forces against the Irish. Once again, Monck demonstrated his preference for strong, stable government and, in March of 1660, began negotiating directly with Charles II (whose Scottish coronation had been moved as a result of Monck’s attacks) to secure his Restoration to the throne of England. Charles was restored by May.

By the time Charles returned to England, popular opinion had swung in his favor and the army was decidedly on his side, but ruling the country would be no easy task. The extravagant celebrations which accompanied Charles’ entrance into London on his 30th birthday, 29thMay, 1660, masked a country which had suffered years of bitter warfare and division. How to unite the Parliamentarian idealists, who had seen their hopes (in many cases for no less than bringing about heaven on Earth) dashed, with the Royalists, who had suffered military defeat, exile, and confiscation of their property, and who were now anxious for payback?

Charles II was canny enough to realize that for the country to heal, or even cease to tear itself apart, there would have to be plenty of forgiveness, not least from himself. Before he even set foot on English soil, the Act of Free and General Pardon Indemnity and Oblivion, or Act of Oblivion as it is usually referred to, had been agreed on and passed by the interim Convention Parliament. The Act of Oblivion offered a general pardon towards the King’s disloyal subjects for anything they might have done in the regular passage of warfare or governance during the Civil War and tried to prevent the “late Differences” from being perpetuated further by instigating fines for factional name-calling for the following three years (£10 for gentlemen; 40 shillings for everyone else).

Although the Act of Oblivion and Charles’ Declaration made from exile in Breda both represented a genuine attempt at reconciliation in April 1660, they both left unsaid some uncompromising realities. Charles had many who had followed him into battle and exile at the expense of their families, estates, and fortunes and who now expected their loyalty to be repaid. However, the new King could ill-afford to reinforce divisions and push his former opponents back to rebellion. Indeed, his Restoration could not have happened without the support of former opponents in the army, especially Monck.

Further, there were limits to forgiveness. Those most personally offensive to the King, those regicides most directly involved in the trial and execution of his father, were excepted from the general pardon, the new regime famously even going to the length of exhuming the bodies of Oliver Cromwell, Henry Ireton, and John Bradshaw, in order to give the corpses a traitor’s death. Of the forty-one surviving signatories to Charles I’s death warrant, only nine shared this fate with the unfortunate corpses along with four others regarded as contributing to the regicide (a preacher, Charles’ guards). Others were saved by family connections, excuses, or running into exile. Charles II needed to restrain himself from being too vindictive in order to preserve the peace, but it was also dangerous to allow those who had so blatantly challenged the divinely-appointed status of his family to rule to do so without consequence.

Perhaps the Act did do something towards consigning the divisions of the immediate past to oblivion, but new divisions developed from the old and Charles’ brother was deposed within five years of taking the throne.

For the verbose legalese of the Act in its entirety, see: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp226-234

Dr. John Polsom-Jenkins

Five More Common Ways to Die in Restoration London

This is a page from John Graunt’s Natural and Political Observations Made Upon the Bills of Mortality listing some of the recorded deaths from 1662. Here we have Excessive Drinking, Executed, Grief, and Leprosy, as well as “French Pox” and the King’s Evil. Although some people did die of “Itch” (12, to be precise), most deaths were caused by much scarier things. To follow up from Five Horrible Ways to Die in Restoration London, here are five of the most common (but no less horrible) ways to die in Restoration London.

Childbirth and Puerperal Fever (Childbed Fever): Complications and infections related to childbirth were the number one killer of women. Puerperal fever could be contracted during or after childbirth or miscarriage, and was often caused by genital tract sepsis from improper hygiene. Of course, they might not even get the chance to contract it: if it took too long for the afterbirth to come out, impatient midwives might reach in and just pull it out. This could result in acute inversion of the uterus, which would definitely kill them.

Being a Child: If infants survived birth, teething could kill them. Infants’ gums would sometimes be lanced for relief, after which the wounds would become infected, causing fever and death. If they made it past teething, they were vulnerable to mumps, whooping cough, scarlet fever, German measles, diphtheria, meningitis, erysipelas, typhus, and rickets.

Smallpox: Smallpox was incredibly infectious and could lead to death, especially in children. It was treated by bleeding and could be survived, but might cause loss of sight and scarring, and as many as half of all Londoners had smallpox scars. Smallpox scars were even seen as desirable in servants as their employers know that they would not catch the disease again.

Tuberculosis (Consumption): Probably the most prevalent killer during the Restoration period, this chronic condition was blamed on everything from witchcraft to “vapors from women.” Graunt estimated that at least 44,500 people were killed by tuberculosis between 1641 and 1661.

Fire: The Great Fire destroyed at least 13,000 houses and it’s impossible to know how many people were killed. The Bills of Mortality weren’t published that week. The areas hit the hardest were the poorest with very dense populations, and there were few remains that were recognizable as human. Fire was also the second biggest killer of women as their sleeves and skirts could easily catch while they were cooking over open fires.