Executioners are seen as a strange breed. Usually tolerated, sometimes celebrated, frequently feared and often despised, the man (for it usually is) who drops the blade, swings the axe, pushes the lever or throws the switch remains a breed apart. With their particular profession you might think that, death being touted as a deterrent, they’d be most deterred by the thought of facing their own particular brand of punishment.
They haven’t, not by a long shot.
A surprising number, having dispensed the ultimate penalty, have later suffered it themselves. It’s said that it’s better to give than to receive but, despite their experienced eye for such matters, some of them didn’t get the memo.
We’ll start with Brazil, now a non-death penalty country. Brazilian executioners were often slaves. They were given no choice of whether they wielded the axe or rope. Three of them didn’t get to choose whether to receive the axe or rope, either. In 1828 Joao Pablo de Sousa faced his own form of justice, he wasn’t alone. Ten years later ‘Francisco’ met the same end. In 1850 it was the turn of ‘Ananias.’
The trend wasn’t confined to Brazil and neither started nor ended there. Sweden saw two executioners feel the kiss of their own axe. Jorg Volmar went to the block in 1541 while the appropriately-named ‘Styf’ became exactly that in 1854. Ireland’s Dick Bauf, a hangman of considerable experience, found himself ‘scragged’ for theft in Dublin in 1702.
Germany too lost at least one executioner, Frederick Stigler in 1590. Stigler, an assistant executioner himself, found himself facing his boss Franz Schmidt. This particular job saw Stigler, one of Schmidt’s more prominent assistants, taking far too prominent a role for his liking. One mighty swing of Schmidt’s sword solved the problem. Stigler became less prominent by about twelve inches.
The United States adopted hanging, shooting, lethal gas, electrocution and lethal injection, a veritable smorgasbord of slaughter. In 1905, Ohio State Penitentiary inmate, the appropriately-named Charles Justice, helped his captirs refine their new electric chair. Noticing that the leather straps originally used caused additional burning and that a prisoner’s skin often came away when the straps were removed, Justice proposed replacing them with metal clamps (think of the chair used in ‘The Green Mile’).
Ohio continued using the metal clamps until its last electrocution, that of Donald Reinbolt in 1963. Justice, however, wasn’t around to see his creations in action. Paroled for his assistance (other inmates might have killed him otherwise), he returned to prison in 1911 convicted of murder. His clamps worked as effectively on their inventor as on some 300 other inmates.
Montana’s Henry Plummer also came to the end of his own rope. Plummer, a lawman in the Montana town of Bannick, was also its principal criminal. While carrying a gun and wearing a badge, Plummer also ran the local villains. The ‘Innocents,’ a motley crew of killers and thieves terrorising the area, hid in plain sight behind his tin star. He even installed a town gallows, such was his outward devotion to upholding the laws he so conspicuously ignored.
Eventually, he ignored them a little too conspicuously and locals, finally fed up with his depredations, lynched him. Plummer was denied the dubious distinction of dying on his own gallows, his lynch mob preferring to simply put a rope round his neck and haul him off the ground until he died.
California’s Alfred Wells was an inmate at the notorious San Quentin in 1938 when he was assigned to help install California’s latest wrinkle in supposedly painless, humane execution. Ordered to help install the two-seater gas chamber known as the ‘little green room,’ ‘time machine,’ ‘Big Sleep’ and ‘coughing box,’ Wells finished his grim task. Once he’d finished he declared he hoped it was the closest he’d ever get.
It wasn’t. In 1942 Wells returned to San Quentin, this time to Death Row for a violent crime spree including a couple of murders. On December 3, 1942 he came closer to the gas chamber than he’d intended…
Returning from the gas chamber to the gallows, several of Britain’s executioners have faced the rope or the block. Whether top of the drops of top of the chops, at least six met their end on their own scaffolds. In 1538 the singularly unpleasant ‘Cratwell’ found himself wearing a hempen necktie. Amputee executioner ‘Stump Leg’ found himself entertaining the Tyburn crowd with a nifty ‘Paddington frisk’ in 1556. Scotland’s Alexander Cockburn faced his replacement, a man traditionally nicknamed the ‘Doomster’ by Scottish gallows fans, in 1681.
Perhaps England’s most notorious executioner was ‘Jack Ketch,’ so reviled for his barbaric incompetence that he was fired in 1585 and replaced by assistant Pascha Rose. At least he was until 1686 when Rose, convicted of sheep-stealing, became gallows fruit himself. In the absence of anyone else, the clumsy Ketch found himself back on one end of the rope while Rose danced merrily at the other.His name became synonymous with all British executioners and his infamy has long outlived him.
In 1718 John Price, once reprieved on condition he become a hangman, blotted his copybook with another capital crime and swung from the Triple Tree. In 1785 it was the turn of Thomas Woodham. His execution was the last time an English hangman performed the Tyburn jig.
From top of the drops to top of the chops, we’ll pay a brief visit to La Belle France by way of its dreaded Penal Administration in French Guiana. In 1418, executioner Capeluche was both a brute and a cleaver of heads. He was however, competent enough to have trained his own replacement. That same replacement graduated with honours when Capeluche’s own head had to roll.
A century later it was the turn of Florent Bazard. Having bungled one job too many, much to the disgust and fury of the crowd, they conveyed their displeasure by publicly lynching Bazard near his own scaffold. In 1625 Simon Grandjean met a similar fate, although he dangled beside his wife who was acting as his assistant. Last in France’s trail of terror came Jacques Joseph Durand. Remember the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent to potential murderers? it didn’t seem to deter Durand, guillotined in 1819 for murder.
The executioners in Guiana were volunteers. They were also convicts. Not surprisingly, they were the most hated men in the Penal Administration. Guards and inmates alike hated them for having turned on their fellow prisoners in return for extra privileges. Bad enough that they’d flouted society’s laws and rules, even worse that they then turned on their own kind as well. Being splashed repeatedly with the blood of fellow prisoners,however, doesn’t seem to have tempered their criminal instincts much.
Isidore Hespel (known as ‘the Jackal’) cared not for their scorn. He didn’t care much for the deterrent effect of his own guillotine, either. Sent to Guiana for murder and having killed twice there even before becoming ‘Monsieur de Guiane,’ Hespel’s assistant also graduated with honours when Hespel committed one extra-judicial killing too many in 1921.
Georges Bonfils didn’t fare any better. Having graduated to ‘Monsieur de Guiana’ in 1930 Bonfils too would be shaved by the ‘National Razor. He would be the last of Devil’s Island’s executioners to be executed, although at least two others were murdered by fellow prisoners.
Ironically Albert Pierrepoint, veteran of over 450 executions, was candid about what he called his ‘craft.’ Ending his 1974 memoir ‘Executioner; Pterrepoint’ with open opposition to capital punishment, Pierrepoint was explicit about its alleged deterrent effect:
‘All the men and women whom I have faced at that final moment convince me that, in what I have done, I have not prevented a single murder.’