John Ketch, generally known as Jack Ketch, (died November 1686) was an infamous English executioner employed by King Charles II. An immigrant of Irish extraction, he became famous through the way he performed his duties during the tumults of the 1680s, when he was often mentioned in broadsheet accounts that circulated throughout the Kingdom of England. He is thought to have been appointed in 1663. He executed the death sentences against William Russell, Lord Russell in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on July 21, 1683, and James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth on July 15, 1685, after the Monmouth Rebellion. Ketch’s notoriety stems from “his barbarity at the execution of Lord Russell, the Duke of Monmouth, and other political offenders.”
Because of his botched executions, the name “Jack Ketch” is used as a proverbial name for death, Satan, and executioner.
Ketch is thought to have taken office in 1663. He is first mentioned in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey for January 14, 1676, although no printed notice of the new hangman occurred until 2 December 1678, when a broadside appeared called The Plotters Ballad, being Jack Ketch’s incomparable Receipt for the Cure of Traytorous Recusants and Wholesome Physick for a Popish Contagion. In 1679, there appears from another pamphlet purporting to be written by Ketch himself, and entitled The Man of Destiny’s Hard Fortune, that the hangman was confined for a time in the Marshalsea prison, “whereby his hopeful harvest was like to have been blasted.” A short entry in the autobiography of Anthony à Wood for August 31, 1681 describes how Stephen College was hanged in the Castle Yard, Oxford, “and when he had hanged about half an hour, was cut down by Catch or Ketch, and quartered under the gallows, his entrails were burnt in a fire made by the gallows”
Lord Russell’s execution
Ketch’s execution of Lord Russell at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 21 July 1683 was performed clumsily; a pamphlet entitled The Apologie of John Ketch, Esquire contains his apology, in which he alleges 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, 1st Duke of Monmouth’s execution
On the scaffold on July 15, 1685, James Scott, 1st 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.
In his Diary, John Evelyn wrote of the duke’s execution that:
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 sherrif. 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.
He died towards the close of 1686.
In 1836 a fictitious autobiography of Ketch, with illustrations from designs by Meadows entitled The autobiography of Jack Ketch, was published. Another book entitled Life of Jack Ketch with Cuts of his own Execution was furnished by Tom Hood for the Duke of Devonshire’s library at Chatsworth.
Jack Ketch is one of the characters in Giovanni Piccini (d.1835) The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy as dictated to John Payne Collier, in 1828. He is mentioned in the Charles Dickens novel David Copperfield. More recently, Jack Ketch plays a role in Neal Stephenson’s 2004 volume entitled System of the World, which is the last book in his Baroque Cycle.