John Ketch, the Infamous Executioner

An infamous English executioner employed by King Charles II, John Ketch was an Irish immigrant who became famous through the way he performed his duties during the tumultuous 1680s. He was mentioned in the broadsheets of the time Appointed in 1663, he executed the death sentences of William Russell in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 July 1683 and that of James Scott, the First Duke of Monmouth on 15 July 1685, after the Monmouth Rebellion. Ketch’s notoriety grew from what was termed his barbarity. Because of Ketch’s botched executions, the name “Jack Ketch” is used for all executioners, especially those who saw to the hangings at Newgate Prison. “Jack Ketch” is also a proverbial name for Death or Satan.
Ketch is first mentioned in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey for 14 January 1676, although no printed notice of the new hangman occurred until 2 December 1678, when a broadside appeared called The Plotters Ballad, being Jack Ketch’s incomparable Receipt for the Cure of Traytorous Recusants and Wholesome Physick for a Popish Contagion. Ketch reportedly wrote a second pamphlet himself. It was entitled The Man of Destiny’s Hard Fortune. It claimed that the hangman was confined for a time in the Marshalsea Prison.
A short entry in the autobiography of Anthony á Wood for 31 August 1681 describes how Stephen College was hanged in the Castle Yard, Oxford, says “and when he had hanged about half an hour, was cut down by Catch or Ketch and quartered under the gallows, his entrails were burnt in a fire made by the gallows.”

 

Lord Russell’s Execution:

Ketch’s execution of Lord Russell at Lincoln’s Fields Inn on 21 July 1683 was performed clumsily; in a pamphlet entitled The Apologie of John Ketch, Esquire he alleged that the prisoner did not “dispose himself as was most suitable” and that he was interrupted while taking aim.

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 title 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.

James Scott, First Duke of Monmouth’s Execution:

Monmouth’s execution on  Tower Hill by Jack Ketch on 15 July 1685

On the scaffold on July 15, 1685, James Scott, the First Duke of Monmouth, addressing Ketch, referred to his treatment of Lord Russell, thus disconcerting him, stating “Here are six guineas for you. Do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well.” The duke subsequently undressed and felt the edge of the axe expressing some fear that it was not sharp enough, and laid his head on the block.” The first blow dealt by Ketch inflicted only a slight wound after which the Duke struggled, rose from the block, and looked reproachfully at the executioner before sinking down once more. Ketch struck the duke twice more, but still the neck was not severed, and the body continued to move. Yells of rage and horror rose from the onlooking crowd to which Ketch flung down the axe with a curse and stated that “I cannot do it, my heart fails me.” The sheriff present asked Ketch to “Take up the axe, man” to which Ketch responded by once more taking up the axe and dealing two more blows to the duke, killing him.  Still, the head remained attached and Ketch used a butcher’s knife from the sheath on his hip to cut the last sinew and flesh that prevented the head from dropping. The crowd was so enraged that Ketch had to be escorted away under strong guard.

Monmouth’s reminder of Russell’s execution either unnerved or angered Ketch. Even as the first blow fell upon the duke, those who counted themselves connoisseurs of the headman’s art knew the axe had missed its mark. Ketch stood back, regarding his botched handiwork, and dealt another blow, then another, as Monmouth writhed, screamed, and moaned. According to the official record of the Tower of London, there were five blows in all, though some onlookers counted seven and others eight. Whether five, seven, or eight, none proved sufficient to sever the man’s head from his suffering body, and Ketch pulled a butcher’s knife from the sheath on his hip, which he drew across the last cords of sinew and flesh that prevented the head from dropping to the scaffold floor. With that, the life of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, ended on July 15, 1685.

In his Diary, John Evelyn wrote of the duke’s execution that:

He [the duke] would not make use of a cap or other circumstance, but lying down, bid the fellow to do his office better than to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces.

The execution of the duke was considered to be worse than that of Lord Russell. In 1686, Ketch was deposed and imprisoned at Bridewell.

Later Life:

In 1686 Ketch was sent to prison for “affronting” a sheriff. His job was taken by his assistant, Paskah Rose,  formerly a butcher. Rose was arrested after only four months in his office for robbery. Ketch was reappointed in his place and hanged his own assistant at Tyburn.

He died towards the close of 1686.

About reginajeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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4 Responses to John Ketch, the Infamous Executioner

    • I thought it appropriate to include information on Ketch here. Years ago, I came across his name in a Regency romance, but I didn’t understand why the characters referred to the hangman as “John Ketch” when that wasn’t his name. I went searching for the truth.

  1. Breandán Dalton says:

    In fact, Ketch was not Irish. An entry in wikipedia in 2007 listed him as such. The entry was apparently added by an anonymous contributor after he had visited Madame Tussaud’s waxworks museum in London. No attribution of sources was made, and the entry has since been amended.

    The most complete biography that I have been able to find online is that in the Dictionary of National Biography published in 63 volumes between 1885 and 1900. There, Thomas Seccombe wrote this entry: Ketch, John, which makes no mention of his origins (nor does the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, also authored by Seccombe). Seccombe is the author of a biography entitled “Life of John Ketch, executioner”, a copy of which I have not been able to obtain.

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