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

The executioner Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel
Drawing: The executioner Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591 | Wikimedia | Public Domain

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.

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.’

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Irma Grese (1923-1945), known as ‘the Beautiful Beast’, was a notoriously sadistic 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.

Written by:

James Brigden