Hang 'em High: 7 of history's most famous executioners (2024)

For hundreds of years, European town squares saw prisoners executed before throngs of people. Many of these victims were famous, their bloody endings part of the history of many nations. But what of the person on the other end of the axe? The shadowy hooded figures that wrapped the nooses around the necks of the doomed, gutted traitors, and set alight to heretics? Who were these professional killers? In chronological order, we look here at seven of history’s most famous executioners.

Read more about Medieval History Hang 'Em Higher: 7 more of history's most famous executioners

1. Diary of Death - Franz Schmidt (1555-1634)

Four centuries ago, one man left a fascinating historical record - a diabolical diary of the hundreds of people he had legally killed, maimed, disfigured, and tortured throughout his life. He was Franz Schmidt, an official executioner in Bavaria from 1573 to 1617.

Before Franz was born, his father Heinrich, a woodsman, went to watch an execution in Hof, Germany. The regional margrave Albrecht II (1522–1557), pointed to Heinrich among the spectators and ordered him to come up and hang the three doomed men.

Heinrich thus became a professional executioner, and his son Franz followed in his footsteps at the age of 18.

The first entry in Schmidt’s journal of justice reads:

‘June 5, 1573. Leonardt Russ of Ceyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.’

He records an execution by breaking wheel in October 1589, of a man who had shot his father: ‘On this account he was led out in a wagon here, his body nipped thrice with red-hot tongs [a polite way of describing the tearing off of flesh], afterwards executed with the wheel, two of his limbs first shattered with it, and finally exposed on it.’

Read more about Ancient History 13 of the most brutal execution methods from the ancient world

2. The Prague Punisher - Jan Mydlář (1572-1664)

On 21 June 1621, the people of Prague gathered in its famous Old Town Square to witness a grim spectacle - the execution of 27 Bohemian rebel leaders. Nobles, knights, and scholars, the Habsburg rulers wanted to make an example of these men.

Some were strung up, while others were decapitated with a sword. One unfortunate chap had his tongue cut out prior to beheading, while others had their hands lopped off before their heads.

The man who was the lead executioner on this terrible day was Jan Mydlář, known as the ‘Master Executioner of Prague’.

According to legend, as a young medical student he fell in love, but his wife was condemned to death. He then became an executioner to gain access to his love, but he could not save her. After that he donned his famous red hood and devoted himself to ending life rather than saving it.

Interestingly, Mydlář was determined to move away from the traditional pariah status of executioners in Europe and wanted to be seen as an upstanding member of the community - and he nearly was. But after he carried out the executions of the Bohemian rebels he was seen as a traitor and was shunned once more.

Read more about Medieval History Execution in the Middle Ages

3. Hatchet Man - Jack Ketch (d. 1686)

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘Jack Ketch’ as, ‘A generic name for an executioner or hangman’, but he was in fact a real historical figure.

The early life of John ‘Jack’ Ketch remains a mystery, although he is thought to have come from Ireland.

Much of Ketch’s infamy derived from his botched executioners. One such bloody performance was the beheading of politician William Russell (1639-1683), which was so shockingly barbaric that Ketch published a pamphlet apologising for it!

Perhaps the most famous head that he took was that of James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth (1649-1685), leader of the failed Monmouth Rebellion, executed in London on 15 July 1685.

It is said that before laying his head on the block Monmouth asked him to do it in one blow, aware of his reputation as a bodger.

And bodge it he did.

Some say it was eight blows, other sources say five and seven. Monmouth at one point was even said to have risen from the block, half cut to pieces, drawing gasps from the crowd. The grisly, protracted affair was supposedly cut short, so to speak, by Ketch’s use of a small knife to complete the deed and remove the head.

Read more about Tudor History That takes guts: 7 gory execution methods from Tudor England

4. Chopper Charlie - Charles-Henri Sanson (1739-1806)

On Monday, 21 January 1793, arguably one of the most significant public executions in history took place – King Louis XVI of France was beheaded by guillotine in the centre of Paris, ending with the drop of the blade over a thousand years of monarchy in France.

The executioner was Charles-Henri Sanson.

In his career as the royal, and later high, executioner of France Sanson executed nearly three thousand people, most of these during the French Revolution (1789-1799), including Robespierre himself.

As a young apprentice executioner, he assisted his uncle in the execution of the would-be regicide Robert-François Damiens (1715-1757).

Before being taken to his place of execution, Damiens was first brutally tortured. His feet were crushed, he was burned with red-hot irons, and his knife-hand was burned with sulphur. His wounds then had hot lead, wax, and oil poured into them.

Then he was taken to Paris’s Place de Grève, where Charles-Henri first emasculated Damiens (removed his genitals), then had him torn to pieces by horses. Finally, his body was burnt at the stake.

Read more about Modern History Is July the busiest month for declaring independence?

5.‘The Woman from Hell’ - Lady Betty (1740 or 1750-1807)

One dark and stormy night in November 1789 a tall, black-bearded man came to stay at the lodging house of one Elizabeth Sugrue, in Roscommon in Ireland. The guest was finely dressed and paid Elizabeth in gold pieces. Jealous of her houseguest’s apparent wealth, she crept into his room while he slept and stabbed him to death and robbed him.

The mysterious stranger turned out to be Sugrue’s long-lost son, Pádraig.

Sentenced to death and taken to Roscommon Gaol, in front of the assembled crowd and in chains, waiting to be strung up, Elizabeth volunteered to take the place of the official hangman, who was off sick.

According to legend Betty bellowed to the sheriffs, ‘Set me free and I’ll hang them all!’ She duly hanged the prisoners right there and then, coolly and calmly.

Dubbed, ‘the woman from Hell’, she lived for the rest of her life as a live-in hangwoman at the prison, in her own room. Some say Lady Betty, as she became known, was even paid, and would happily and with gusto flog criminals out on the street.

The number of victims of Betty’s rope was said to have numbered in the hundreds.

The legend of Lady Betty lingered on for generations in the public imagination in Ireland. Like Mastro Titta in Italy, Irish mothers would for decades tell naughty children that if they did not behave, they would get a visit from the dreaded Lady Betty!

According to one local story, Lady Betty was murdered by another prisoner in 1807.

Read more about Medieval History Torture in the Middle Ages

6. Under the Hammer - Giovanni Battista Bugatti (1779-1869)

Born in Ancona on Italy’s Adriatic Coast, at the age of 17 Bugatti became the Official executioner for the Papal States. He would serve in this ghoulish occupation until being retired by the pope at the age of 85. His tally of kills was 514.

Bugatti would sometimes employ one terrible tool of the trade – a mallet. Romans called this the mazzatello, described by one author as ‘one of the most brutal methods of execution ever devised’.

This large, long mallet would be swung around in circles by the executioner to gather momentum, before being brought down on to the head of the unfortunate felon. If this blow did not kill them outright, their throat would then be cut.

Mastro Titta, as Bugatti is nicknamed, is even today still something of a well-known figure in Italy, featuring in plays and films, and a traditional bogeyman of bedtime stories for Italian mothers.

In his 1846 travel book Pictures from Italy, Charles Dickens described standing among the crowds one morning in March 1845 to watch the public beheading of a young man by Bugatti.

Dickens said, ‘it was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle’.

Bugatti, Dickens commented, ‘retreated to his lair’ on the west side of the River Tiber, daring never to cross the Ponte Sant’Angelo into the centre of Rome except when discharging his macabre office.

Read more about Tudor History How many people did Henry VIII execute?

7. Money for Old Rope - Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992)

Irma Grese (1923-1945), known as ‘the Beautiful Beast’, was a notoriously sad*stic concentration camp overseer who also had the distinction of being the youngest woman to be executed by the British government in the 20th century.

On 13 December 1945, in Hamelin, Germany, Grese was led to the gallows, not by the Pied Piper, but by one of British history’s most famous executioners – Albert Pierrepoint.

Pierrepoint was known for his regimented way of working, and for his use of the ‘long-drop’ method of hanging. Grese was one of over 200 people Pierrepoint hanged for war crimes in Germany and Austria after the war. During the war he also offed German spies and British traitors.

Of the many criminals he finished off in Britain as a lead executioner in the 1940s and 1950s, possibly the most famous is Derek Bentley (1933-1953) – the well-known ‘Let him have it!’ case.

Active as a hangman between 1932 and 1956, his tally may have been as high as 600, although sources disagree.

Hang 'em High: 7 of history's most famous executioners (2024)

FAQs

Hang 'em High: 7 of history's most famous executioners? ›

Albert Pierrepoint (/ˈpɪərpɔɪnt/ PEER-point; 30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) was an English hangman who executed between 435 and 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956. His father Henry and uncle Thomas were official hangmen before him. Pierrepoint was born in Clayton in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

Who was the famous hangman? ›

Albert Pierrepoint (/ˈpɪərpɔɪnt/ PEER-point; 30 March 1905 – 10 July 1992) was an English hangman who executed between 435 and 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956. His father Henry and uncle Thomas were official hangmen before him. Pierrepoint was born in Clayton in the West Riding of Yorkshire.

What was the most brutal medieval execution? ›

Perhaps the most brutal of all execution methods is hung, strung and quartered. This was traditionally given to anyone found guilty of high treason. The culprit would be hung and just seconds before death released then disemboweled and their organs were then thrown into a fire - all while still alive.

What is an executioner who hangs the condemned person? ›

hangman. an executioner who hangs the condemned person. headman, headsman.

Who was the executioner of the Tower of London? ›

Sir Benjamin Stone (1838-1914) - The Executioner of the Tower.

Who was the most brutal executioner? ›

Jack Ketch (died November 1686) was an English executioner notorious for his barbarous inefficiency; for nearly two centuries after his death his nickname was popularly applied to all of England's executioners. Ketch is believed to have received his appointment as public hangman in 1663.

What's the worst execution in history? ›

Maru Sira (1975) – Hanging. He was unconscious during his execution because he was sedated prior with Largactil, an antipsychotic drug, to prevent an escape attempt. During Sira's execution, he was laid down on the trapdoor, causing the rope to not be able to fracture his neck, leading him to strangle to death.

Which president was a public executioner? ›

20) Grover Cleveland was the only president to officially serve as an executioner (hangman). As the sheriff of Erie County, New York, he performed the role on multiple executions and earned the nickname “Buffalo Hangman.”

Why do executioners cover their faces? ›

A common stereotype of an executioner is a hooded medieval or absolutist executioner. Symbolic or real, executioners were rarely hooded, and not robed in all black; hoods were only used if an executioner's identity and anonymity were to be preserved from the public.

Who is the executioner in the United States? ›

In the U.S. prison system, there is no single "executioner." At the time of execution, the warden or superintendent usually reads the execution order from the court, and gives the order for the execution to be carried out. He is usually the only one with a sole-person responsibility.

Who was the bloodiest execution in the Tower of London? ›

The most gruesome and officially known as the bloodiest execution at the Tower of London was the one of the illegitimate son of king Charles II, James Scott in 1685. The executioner was a part-time butcher and a full time drunk. It took him 5 strikes to finish the poor Duke of Monmouth in inexplicable agony.

Who was the only woman to be tortured in the Tower of London? ›

Anne Askew

When Anne refused to name others who shared her faith, she was racked repeatedly. She was carried, as she was unable to walk after torture, to be burnt at the stake.

How many queens were executed? ›

There have been a total of nine queens of England who were executed throughout history. These include Lady Jane Grey, Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Mary, Queen of Scots.

Who was the hangman in US history? ›

In the United States, the hangman was seldom named in newspapers, and his identity was kept secret from the general population. In many cases, a sheriff or deputy would act as the hangman, and for a great number of these executions, the condemned was forced to suffer a long and agonizing death.

Who is the real hangman? ›

The hangman Albert Pierrepoint

His first hanging as a lead executioner was in October 1941, and between then and his retirement in 1956, he hanged between 435 and 600 people, including many notorious serial killers and German and Austrian war criminals from World War II.

Who invented hangman and why? ›

"The origins of Hangman are obscure meaning not discovered, but it seems to have arisen in Victorian times," says Tony Augarde, author of The Oxford Guide to Word Games. The game is mentioned in Alice Bertha Gomme's "Traditional Games" in 1894 under the name "Birds, Beasts and Fishes."

Who was the most famous medieval executioner? ›

Franz Schmidt (1555–1634), also known as Meister Franz or Frantz Schmidt, was an executioner in Hof from 1573 to April 1578, and from 1 May 1578 till the end of 1617 he was the executioner of Nuremberg. He left a diary in which he detailed the 361 executions he performed during his 45-year career.

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