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:
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.
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.
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.