It depends on the time and place, but often the position of executioner was a patronage position, and not a particularly desirable one, so you got people who weren’t very good at their job and weren’t hugely interested in being good at their job. For example, the infamous Jack Ketch:
Jack Ketch was Charles II’s executioner and was so astonishingly bad at his job that he became a figure of both hatred and mirth to the London public, such that to this day his name is a synonym for death, executioners, and Satan himself, and he became a bad guy in the Punch & Judy shows. (Yes, some of the research here started with Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch) For example, this is how Ketch carried out his job when it came to Lord William Russell:
“On that occasion, Ketch wielded the instrument of death either with such sadistically nuanced skill or with such lack of simple dexterity – nobody could tell which – that the victim suffered horrifically under blow after blow, each excruciating but not in itself lethal. Even among the bloodthirsty throngs that habitually attended English beheadings, the gory and agonizing display had created such outrage that Ketch felt moved 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 as was most suitable” and that he was therefore distracted while taking aim on his neck.”
To be more specific, he took three swings with the axe and couldn’t pull it off, and then finished the job with a saw. It takes a special kind of bastard to write, print, and distribute a pamphlet to avoid blame for botching an execution, and to hit on “the dead guy sucked at being executed” as the excuse. And this was not a one-time thing: Ketch botched the execution of the Duke of Monmouth, taking no less than five whacks of the axe to finish the job (apparently because Ketch hadn’t bothered to sharpen the axe ahead of time) and had to be hustled out of town for a while because the London mob wanted to lynch him.
Meister Frantz Schmidt
(1555 – 1634),
an executioner in Nuremberg, left a diary where he mentions his training. It was practically a hereditary position, and his dad trained him from a young age in their yard: he first learnt to chop vegetables, then sacks of straw and dead animals, then live animals. He also progressed from a smaller sword to the huge one he was to use officially. Then he trained with live people, as an apprentice to his father.
He was proficient in using the sword, the noose, the wheel, fire, and drowning.
was very dutiful, displayed a professional pride for his work, and at the same time was very unhappy that he was saddled with such a shameful, undignified post. It was considered dishonourable, and he and his whole family were more or less untouchables in the community (if relatively well-off). It wasn’t a job people volunteered for, if they had a choice. Apparently, Schmidt’s father was once ordered
by a passing lord
to execute a man, which sealed the fate of the family thereafter. And he seemed REALLY upset about this injustice, that his honour was besmirched through no fault of his own.
At NO point does he seem upset about the horrific tortures he inflicted on people (both the interrogation and execution methods
were positively hair-raising — decapitation was the merciful version),
the “confessions” he forced,
the pain he caused, or the 381 lives he took. Only about his honour…
200+ years later, when the modern Greek state was founded, they brought a guillotine from France — a spectacularly unpopular decision. The first executioner was a Frenchman, who quickly resigned for fear of his life. They couldn’t convince anyone to succeed him, no matter how well they paid. In the end, a bandit on death row agreed to take the gig, in exchange for a pardon. Inexperienced as he was, he botched his first execution, tormenting three convicted bandits for quite a long time before killing them. He narrowly avoided a lynching, and could not mingle with the population after that, so they put him all by himself on a little island
near the coast
— a tiny fortress on a rock, basically. He got provisions by boat, and only left the island when there was an execution. His own mother denounced him. He was dead to the world.
Bourtzi: ex-fortress, ex-executioner’s quarters, now a fancy hotel.
Executioners were despised in general, of course, but the guillotine handlers were by far the most extreme case.
For botched executions, there’s the book “The Executioner Always Chops Twice: Ghastly Blunders on the Scaffold” by Geoffrey Abbott. It’s not serious research by a historian or anything, but hey, it’s a book.
Reblogging for some excellent additions.