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Authors: Geoffrey Abbott

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Although now the name of Brandon is hardly remembered, that of another executioner is recalled by the name given to the gibbet-shaped cranes seen at docks and warehouses. He was Derrick, the executioner who decapitated Queen Elizabeth I’s favourite, Robert, Earl of Essex, at the Tower of London in 1601. Three blows were aimed at the earl’s neck before severance was achieved, though it was said that ‘the first deprived him of all sense and motion’. But without doubt the executioner who really carved his name with the axe was Jack Ketch, he who butchered so many, among them Lord Russell in 1683. Condemned for plotting against Charles II, the prisoner looked out of the window of his cell the night before he was due to die. ‘A pity,’ he said. ‘Such rain tomorrow would spoil a good show.’ And the next morning he asked how much he should give Ketch to ensure a speedy demise. On being told ten guineas, he said wryly: ‘A pretty thing to have to give a fee to have one’s head cut off.’ It was indeed an exorbitant price to pay, for Ketch struck him thrice before his head was off.

Ketch was also the executioner of James, Duke of Monmouth, mentioned earlier, at whom he delivered five blows. He was no mean hangman either, his callous attitude towards his victims making him a worthy henchman to Judge Jeffreys, the Hanging Judge of the Bloody Assizes.

Some of the others officiating at executions were also lacking in sensitivity. When Lord Stafford, falsely accused of treason by Titus Oates, mounted the scaffold on 29 December 1681, he was loudly jeered by the assembled multitude. When he appealed to the officers around him to quieten them, Sheriff Bethel, with brutal humour, replied: ‘Sir, we have orders to stop nobody’s breath but yours.’

It should not be thought, however, that England had the monopoly of axe blades and hefts. In Denmark the axe also found favour, at least until 1887. In that year Rassmusen, the leader of a gang of highway robbers, was sentenced to death. On his arrival at the scaffold it was found that the axeman had imbibed rather too much of his pre-execution beverage. When Rassmusen knelt over the block, the first blow went badly awry, as did the second, and it was not until the axe fell for a third time that decapitation took place.

Due to the public outcry that ensued, an inquiry was carried out, the results of which were imparted to the King, Christian IX. So appalled was he at its findings that he decreed that no further executions, either in public or private, should take place in his country.

A century earlier John Howard, the prison reformer, had visited Stockholm and noted that not only men but women too were put to death by the axe. In the case of the latter, the scaffold was afterwards set on fire at the four corners, the head and body being consumed in the conflagration.

Nor did Austria hesitate to execute women with such a weapon. In the 1930s police became suspicious about an attractive young woman, Martha Lowenstein. Adopted by an elderly, rich businessman, she inveigled him into making a will, leaving much of his property to her.

Shortly afterwards he died, and she married a young man with whom she had been having a liaison during the past year. Together they entered into an extraordinary pact whereby he would insure himself for £10,000 against having a serious accident; a week later he was rushed to hospital together with his severed leg, which was still wearing a shoe and stocking.

He later explained that while he was chopping down a tree, the axe had slipped, though the evidence, showing that no fewer than three blows had been delivered, refuted this. Such evidence further proved that Martha must, at the very least, have assisted in causing his grievous injury. They were charged with attempted fraud, and received light prison sentences.

During the following years more sinister circumstances surrounded Martha’s life. Her husband died, seemingly from tuberculosis, as did their young daughter some time later. Then a lodger in the house also passed away, leaving Martha all her money and possessions. Such deaths could not be overlooked, and all three corpses were exhumed. The subsequent post-mortems revealed that a poisonous compound of thallium had been administered in each case. Martha Lowenstein was tried and condemned to death.

On 6 December 1938 the multiple murderess mounted the scaffold, there to have her second encounter with an axe. In the first encounter she had helped to hack off her husband’s leg. Now, her hands bound behind her, she knelt over the block, the Austrian executioner being only too willing to demonstrate that he was the more accurate, for only one blow was required to sever her head completely.

The execution of Lady Jane Grey



‘The “lictors”, as they were called, were so skilled that they could flick the victim’s body hundreds of times without breaking the skin, or, at the other extreme, tear the flesh off in long strips.’

A far from speedy death, the bastinado involved the victim’s being caned gently and rhythmically with a lightweight stick on the soles of the feet. A skilled executioner was needed to sustain the torture for many hours before the mental collapse and eventual death of the victim.

Although the method was widely used in Persia (now Iran), the specialists were the Chinese who, while not concentrating just on the soles of the feet, used thin lengths of split bamboo to torture and eventually kill their victims. The ‘lictors’, as they were called, were so skilled that they could flick the victim’s body hundreds of times without breaking the skin, or, at the other extreme, tear the flesh off in long strips.

Such expertise was achieved only after much practice on blocks of bean-curd, a substance resembling thick custard, and they were not permitted to graduate on to a live target until they were able to strike repeatedly at the bean-curd without breaking the surface.

The Turks also employed the bastinado during the atrocities they inflicted on the Armenians in 1915–16, evidence being provided in documents placed before Parliament in October 1916. As reported by eyewitnesses, the residents of Hartpout and Mezre were subjected to beatings of as many as 200 to 800 strokes until they lost consciousness. Many suffered prolonged applications of the bastinado on the soles of their feet, followed by boiling water poured over the seared and lacerated flesh, death frequently ensuing.



‘The nine lashes, each about sixteen inches long, were made of a thick, strong kind of whip-cord, mounted on a wooden handle the length of a drumstick… men have declared to me that the sensation experienced at each lash, was as though the talons of a hawk were tearing the flesh off their bones.’

In countries in which whips or clubs were used to control slaves or to inflict punishment on offenders, governments not only overlooked any resultant deaths but encouraged, even sanctioned, the use of such weapons as instruments of execution.

The harsh treatment meted out to the natives in the German colonies prior to the World War One consisted mainly of severe floggings, of both men and women. Death often followed such punishments, one witness reporting: ‘I discovered bodies of native women lying between stones and devoured by birds of prey. Some bore signs of having been beaten to death; the manner in which the beating had been carried out was the most cruel imaginable, pieces of flesh would fly from the victim’s body into the air.’

Undoubtedly the most vicious form of whipping was that practised in Russia using the knout or knoot. This fearsome weapon was introduced into the country by Ivan III (1462–1505), many different versions being used. One type consisted of a lash of raw hide, 16 inches long with a metal ring at its end to which was secured a second lash 9 inches long. That in turn also had a ring at its extremity, to which was attached a few inches of hard leather, ending in a beak-like hook.

Another version consisted of plaited thongs of leather interwoven with wire, each being tipped with a length of wire. Yet another, perhaps the commonest form, was a wooden handle about a foot long, with several thongs twisted together, to the end of which was fastened a single tough thong 1½ feet in length, tapering towards a point, and capable of being changed by the executioner when it had grown too soft with the victim’s blood. The point was often dipped in milk and allowed to freeze.

The reformer John Howard was present at a knouting on 10 August 1781:

‘The two criminals, a man and a woman, were conducted from prison by about fifteen hussars and ten soldiers. When they arrived at the place of punishment, the hussars formed themselves into a ring round the whipping-post, the drum beat for a minute or two, and then some prayers were repeated, the populace taking off their hats.

The woman was taken first, and after being roughly stripped to the waist, her hands and feet were bound with cords to a post made for the purpose, a man standing before the post to keep the cords tight. A servant attended the executioner, and both were stout, well-built men.

The servant first marked his ground, and struck the woman five times on the back. Every stroke seemed to penetrate deep into her flesh, but his master, thinking him too gentle, gave all the remaining strokes himself, which were evidently more severe.

The woman received twenty-five strokes, the man sixty; I pushed through the ring of hussars and counted the number as they were chalked on a board. Both seemed just alive, and afterwards they were conducted back to prison in a little waggon. I saw the woman in a very weak state later, but could not find the man any more.’

Some weeks afterwards Howard met the head knout-master of St Petersburg, a man so practised in his art that, when asked in how many strokes he could kill a man, he replied that if the criminal was a strong man, he would need 25 strokes to kill him; if he were not so strong, 20 strokes would be all he required to finish him off.

In Britain flogging was permitted in the armed forces until the middle of the present century, though by no means as harsh as in earlier days. The weapon was usually the cat-o’-nine-tails, and, although different types were in use, the general design would seem to be that as described by an officer in the 1800s:

‘The nine lashes, each about sixteen inches long, were made of a thick, strong kind of whip-cord, mounted on a wooden handle the length of a drumstick. On each were tied three large knots, one being near the end, so that a poor wretch, who was sentenced to receive one thousand lashes, as was often the case, had twenty-seven thousand knots cutting into his back, and men have declared to me that the sensation experienced at each lash, was as though the talons of a hawk were tearing the flesh off their bones.’

The savagery of such floggings was such that that happened in many cases. In 1800 it was reported by the doctor examining a man who had just received ‘only’ 200 lashes, that once the wounds were cleaned the man’s backbone and shoulder-blade were laid bare. In that same regiment in 1806, a man died after sustaining the same type of wounds; another received 400 lashes and, although he scorned to flinch at first, further strokes did so much damage ‘that he groaned and died’.

In 1812 records show that men were flogged for the smallest offences, and for the graver ones often flogged to death, the number of lashes being awarded by court martial. One eyewitness described how he had seen ‘men suffer 500 and even 700 strokes before being taken down, the blood running down into their shoes, their backs flayed like raw; red, chopped-sausage meat’. He continued:

‘Some bore this awful punishment without flinching, for two or three hundred lashes, chewing a musket ball or a bit of leather to stifle or prevent their cries of agony.

After two hundred lashes they did not seem to feel the same torture. Sometimes the head dropped over to one side but the lashing went on, the surgeon in attendance examining the patient from time to time to see what more he could bear. I DID see, with horror, one prisoner take seven hundred before being taken down, this sentence being carried out before the whole brigade.’

Such instances of military punishment resulting in fatalities are too numerous to recount, as are those which occurred in the navy, whether administered by the cat-o’-nine-tails or the rope’s end. Many were the reports entered in ships’ logs, one example being: ‘A man in the Theseus was severely and repeatedly punished until at last he could not walk. He was however brought up on deck in this weak condition, laid upon a gun, as he could not stand, and again flogged. He died almost immediately afterwards.’

Abroad, clubs were widely used. Henry Gouger, travelling through Burma in the last century, reported that criminals were beaten to death with iron clubs, others being first stamped on by guards wearing wooden shoes.

In Bengal thieves and trespassers were beaten to death, while in Natal, South Africa, in March 1824 a hundred and fifty witch-finders ‘smelt out’ over 300 tribesmen, declaring them all guilty of smearing the Royal kraal, the palace, with blood. However, Shaka, the ruler, declared them all to be innocent, stating that he had smeared the kraal himself to test the powers of the diviners. He then sentenced all the witch-finders to be executed, and this was carried out, they being skewered or clubbed to death.


BOOK: Execution: A Guide to the Ultimate Penalty
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