Jack Ketch was a British executioner in the late 1600's, who executed such notables as Lord Russell in 1683, and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. Ketch was notorious for horribly bungling executions, and to this day the name "Jack Ketch" symbolizes an executioner, usually a hangman.

Beginnings of an Executioner

It's not known where or when Ketch was born, but public records show that Ketch received his appointment as a public hangman around 1663. He must have liked his work, as by 1678 he was one of two or three official executioners in the city of London, and had already established a reputation of botching up work, such as making the nooses too low or requiring multiple axe strokes to behead a person.

The first public mention of Ketch was in 1678, in an anti-Roman Catholic broadside entitled The Plotters Ballad; Being Jack Ketch's Incomparable Receipt for the Cure of Traytorous Recusants; or Wholsesome Physick for a Popish Contagion, which outlines Ketch's bungling of the executions of many innocent Roman Catholics convicted in the Popish Plot of 1678. Many Anglicans thought that Ketch's bungling ways was an appropriate end for Roman Catholics, a "Wholesome Physick".

High-Profile Executions

In those days, the big break for any executioner was to execute a member of royalty or the nobility. Ketch's first nobility execution was that of Lord William Russell, who was beheaded on a scaffold in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on July 21, 1683. Not to dissapoint the crowd, Ketch proceeded to completely bungle this execution, causing Lord Russell much undue anguish. According to the eyewitness account of Sir Charles Lyttelton,"The hangman gave him 3 blows, besides sawing with ye ax, before he cut his head off". After the first blow with the axe proved ineffectual, Russell allegedly looked at him and said "You dog! Did I give you ten guineas to use me so inhumanly?"

In the end, Lord Russell ended up dead, but public sentiment turned against Ketch. It's indicative of how bad of an executioner he was when crowds in those days complained about inhumane treatment. Ketch was forced to publish a pamphlet later that year defending his actions, entitled The Apologie of John Ketch Esq.. In the pamphlet, Ketch dismisses as untrue allegations that he bungled the execution through being drunk, or struck ineffective blows on purpose, to cause needless suffering to his victim. He also denies that Russell said anything to him during the course of the execution. Emphasizing the need for a straight record, Ketch says:

"It is not fit that so Publick a Person as the Executioner of Justice should lye under the scandal of untrue Reports, and be unjustly Expos’d to popular Clamour."

However, rather than dispel notions of his botching record, Ketch became famous throughout England for his bungling. His public executions would draw the most spectators, and any criminal or nobility brought under Ketch's axe would quiver with fear. Although Ketch "specialized" in executions, he also worked as a public whipper, whipping criminals and the like. His most famous victim of whipping was Titus Oates, inventor of the Popish Plot, who in May 1685 was sentenced to be whipped twice through the streets, after being convicted of perjury. Oates was whipped from Aldgate to Newgate streets in May 20, and from Newgate to Tyburn on May 22. Both whippings were inflicted by Jack Ketch, with the utmost severity. On the first occasion, the offender was whipped at the cart’s tail; on the second, he was dragged on a sledge and whipped from behind. Said 17th-century historian Laurence Echard,

Oates was a dismal and piteous Spectacle to the People, who cou’d much better judge of his Punishment, than his Crimes. In sum, as he himself says, he sustain’d unexpressible Torments; and his escaping with Life was insisted on by his Friends as something miraculous, and a signal Testimony of his Innocence."

Ketch Becomes a Legend

Two months after the whipping of Titus Oates, Ketch received his biggest and most notorious execution assignment yet; to execute James Scott, Duke of Monmouth who was sentenced to death by King James II for trying to invade England and claim the throne for himself (he was an illegitimate son of Charles II). The "Protestant Duke", as he was called, begged for mercy, probably not from death but from death at the hands of Jack Ketch. However, since this execution of a high-level noble drew a huge crowd, Ketch obviously thought it wise to bungle the execution beyond all reproach, securing his name in legend.

On July 15, 1685, the Duke of Monmouth arrived at Tower Hill in London, the chosen site of his execution, amid throngs of spectators who thought him a "Protestant martyr". As was the case with all other important beheadings, a low block was used, before which the prisoner had to lie full length rather than kneel. The scaffold was draped with black cloth, as was usual at executions of this type. The Duke addressed the crowd, saying "I come not to speak but to die. I die a Protestant of the Church of England". As the Duke laid down on the block, he was fairly calm, as he had paid Ketch a handsome sum (six guineas) to get it right; he expected that within seconds, he would be dispatched to the afterlife. Ketch raised his axe, and brought it down with force; the crowd gasped, expecting to see the Duke's head roll off.

Nothing happened - the first blow made only a slight neck wound. So Ketch raised his axe and brought it down again - again, only superficial wounds. Ketch had to hack at the Duke's neck eight times, and still it wouldn't come off, so the local sheriff pulled out a butcher's knife and sliced through the last remaining sinews and gristle, finally beheading him and in the process soaking the scaffold and nearby spectators with large amounts of blood.

Ketch's Legacy

The Duke of Monmouth execution was Jack Ketch's last major execution, and by November 1686 Ketch himself had died, of unknown causes. Ketch's penchant for extreme gore and cruelty earned him a place in English slang for centuries to come; until the late 19th century, hangmen were still referred to as "Ketch" or "Jack Ketch". And it goes without saying that a Ketch execution was, by far, the crowd favourite.

Britannica 2002 Standard Edition

For further reading, look here and here.

Jack" Ketch" (?). [Perh. fr. Jack, the proper name + Prov. E. ketch a hangman, fr. ketch, for catch to seize; but see the citations below.]

A public executioner, or hangman.


The manor of Tyburn was formerly held by Richard Jaquett, where felons for a long time were executed; from whence we have Jack Ketch. Lloyd's MS., British Museum.

[Monmouth] then accosted John Ketch, the executioner, a wretch who had butchered many brave and noble victims, and whose name has, during a century and a half, been vulgarly given to all who have succeeded him in his odious office. Macaulay.


© Webster 1913.

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