It’s wildly accepted that crime and punishment in history has been brutal. A person could find themselves facing terrible punishments for what we now consider petty crimes. But behind the horror of execution where those tasked with delivering it. The life of an executioner was nothing glamorous or forbiddingly dark. Forget the black hooded man you see in period dramas, he didn’t even wear one, the real person was not as mysterious.
Firstly, they lived a rather lonely life, ostracised from society. This was likely partially their choice as well as societies. They earned a decent wage for their work torturing and killing. But it cost them their social standing, entering this career would see a person being shunned wholeheartedly. Who would have wanted to befriend the person who ripped out the guts of other men or killed someone they knew? Naturally this wasn’t a job that received a lot of applicants, typically an executioner was selected, local butcher was a favourite choice from then on it was typically a family career children of an executioner often followed into the trade, further limiting their social circle. It is easy to trace the family tree of those descended from executioners due to the almost dynastic nature of it. A son of one would was usually set to marry the child of another executioner. Their homes were not much better, they stood a distance from the majority of the towns residence. Often an executioner and their family lived near graveyards, brothels, or cess pits. Other methods of annexation where disallowing them from church services due to the inherit sin of their job, the preformed a necessary evil, but an evil none the less and where therefore seen as unclean. The church was the social hub of most communities this was a very clear statement that they were seen as not belonging to the town. This is even echoed in legal terms as most executioners and their kin were denied citizenship of their towns.
Despite having the death penalty commonly used executions were not done frequently. However, sitting around doing nothing just waiting for an execution order to come was not an option, there was plenty of work to be done. Executioners performed other public services too, unsurprisingly administering non-lethal torcher on suspected criminal was one of their extended duties. Other less predictable jobs requirements had one thing in common, they were jobs that others didn’t want to do. Collecting tax from other ostracised citizens such as lepers, policing bars and gaming house (Games of dice and gambling resulted in cases of assault and theft regularly) featured as staple duties. As did other dirty jobs that the public viewed as making them more vulnerable to illness and filth. They would collect the carcasses of butchered livestock to transport them to the ‘knackers yard’- nothing to fancy, just pit where the rotting remains of animals where left to turn into fat, bone meal, feed or char. Evidence suggests that because of being well acquainted with human anatomy, an executioner would be called upon to double as a surgeon should an official one be unavailable. But do not let yourself imagine that the average executioner was a social pariah, conditioned by society to be dark and brutal. This job required a certain amount of showman ship and respect for the traditions and people. Killing a criminal was messy work but came with ritualistic aspects to assure the forgiveness of condemning them to death and to potentially save their souls. Prayers and console the condemned, it was like a play of piety. An efficient death was an important part of that. This was one of the key factors that separated the executioner from an unlawful killer. Some regions of Germany where so strict in this idea that they limited headsmen to ‘3 strikes’ of the axe. Failure to efficiently dispatch was a punishable by imprisonment, dismissal, or death. Being mobbed by the observing crowd was a greater risk, they faced no punishment if they decided to murder an executioner for killing in a gruesome manner. This respect and capability was tenfold in the case of nobility, dying with dignity was a fundamental requirment. A botched execution could reflect poorly on those who condemned them in addition to the person dispatching. Such as the case of Margaret de la Pole, Countess of Salisbury, her crime was simply being the mother and thereby associate to Henry de la Pole who was a traitor to Henry VIII. Her guilt already divided many people in the court. Executing a 67-year-old woman for a weak reason was not well received. All of this was made horrific by the events of her execution. She was beheaded on May 27th 1541 but 150 witnesses saw her suffer terribly as she was struck eleven times. The disaster reaffirmed the outrage. Another example of ineptitude was the 17th century’s Jack Ketch, known for seemingly relishing taking multiple blows to decapitate. During the execution of James Scott in 1685, he took five strikes. Angering the observers so much that he had to be protected by guards due to the risk of being mobbed by the crowd. But the relationship between the condemned and the executioner was most often one of acceptance and a form of respect. After all why make enemies with the one person who stood between you and a less agonising death? One custom that lined the pockets of the executioner was a bribe. Usually given by the person facing death or their family for a clean death or some alcohol beforehand. It could have been money, trade goods or food. One example in Germany claimed the widow of a beheaded man gave the executioner gingerbread for the privilege of a clean dispatch.
Although the children of local executioners where banned from public schooling they were educated privately with the tools of the trade in mind. Interestingly those in this profession also had better literacy skills then the public. Many European executioners where expected to keep a journal detailing the individual executions and punishment they performed, recording details of the convict’s final moments and the reason for their death. Serving as a form of official record. In addition to this a good knowledge of local justice, human anatomy and the orders of different types of execution. Even the disturbing ‘hang, draw and quartering’ required skill and precision. The guilty man would be hung but kept alive. The next step ‘Drawn’ referring to removing a man’s entrails and privet parts (Sometimes the organs would have been burned in front of the person). Finally, quartering when the head was removed, and the rest of the body hacked into four parts. Depraved as it was ordinary men would have not had the means to do it competently. Not all executioners where equal in this regard, some could get to used to hanging and butchery so lesser used methods could be poorly done. Back to beheading? Despite what you might have imagined from hearing about Tudor history, beheading was not frequent. Before the 16th century it was very uncommon and when finally used it was a noble’s death. Beheading is arguably one of the cleaner and quick ways to go. In theory. But in practice this wasn’t a guaranteed, particularly in England. Accounts of 15th and 16th century beheading can be shocking to read. As mentioned before, multiple swings where common place, causing horror. Which was one of the factors that provoked Henry VIII to employ a French swordsman to carry out Anne Boleyn’s execution. Another notable example of an beheading gone wrong to the point of sounding like satire, was that of Mary queen of Scots, who took three axe strikes to decapitate. When the deed was finally done, the executioner held her head up to the crowd to proclaim, “behold the head of a traitor”. However holding it by the signature red-blonde locks was a mistake. Her head fell to his feet, leaving him holding a wig.
A life of social barriers, fear of the mob and suffering fatal punishments should they fail to carry out their duty. It was not an enviable career. Although the financial benefit could be substantial, by estimates from 14th Century England it appears that at this time 10 Shillings would be payed per common execution, coinciding with extra payment made via their other obligations and conscripted tasks. This was substantially more than a labourer who made around 40 shillings a year in the same century (Although by the end of the century this inflated to 80 shillings due to the impact of the Black Death). Another silver lining was that social mobility, although rare, became less limited as centuries progressed. Exceptional cases such as Frantz Schmidt managed to gain a healthy social respectability based on his skill, community service and work as a surgeon. He was granted citizenship of his town of Nuremberg, a right typically deprived from executioners and their families. Certainly, Schmidt’s work seemingly outshone his darker career. At the time of his death in 1634 he was respected enough to have been buried in a state ceremony at in Johannisfriedhof cemetery in Nuremberg, a far cry from past executioners who endured a burial without proper religious rights in the far off section of the graveyard reserved for ‘undesirable’ members of society.