Skip to main content
A medieval executioners holds a large axe

Hang 'Em Higher: 7 more of history's most famous executioners

Executioners were feared and loathed by many, but they were paid to do a job | Image: Shutterstock

In a previous article on this site, we looked at seven of history’s most famous executioners. For centuries they have been paid to hang, behead, torture, burn, gut, smash, and chop up those unfortunates at the sharp end of justice. Here we look at seven more of history’s most famous official slayers.

The Handy Hangman - Thomas Derrick

Legend has it that, from a window, a sneering Sir Walter Raleigh watched the Earl of Essex’s execution on Tower Green through clouds of his tobacco smoke. He would have seen the rebel leader get literally hacked to death, for on that day in February 1601 the executioner took three blows to finish off the former favourite of Queen Elizabeth I.

Apart from the fact that Sir Walt would lose his head in a similar fashion 17 years later, there was another ironic twist to this bloody affair. The headsman that decapitated Essex, Thomas Derrick, had been pardoned by the earl some years previously.

Convicted of rape and headed for the gallows, Derrick was pardoned by the noble on the condition that he took up the job of executioner. Working mainly at Tyburn, London’s famous execution ground, ‘Tom the Terminator’ finished off more than 3,000 convicts throughout his career.

Like many executioners throughout history, Derrick was keen on improving the deadly design of his equipment. He developed a type of gallows that consisted of an upright post and a boom from which the noose would be threaded through, controlled by a system of pulleys. This became known as a ‘derrick’ and to this day some types of cranes and oil well machines are called the same name.

The Masked Killer - Richard Brandon

On a cold Saturday morning in January 1649, a crowd in Whitehall watched King Charles I have his head cut off. The scaffold was draped in black and so were the executioner and his assistant, who disguised themselves with large black wigs and fake black beards.

Fifty-nine prominent men signed the death warrant, but who was the man who had brought down the fatal blow and separated the king’s head from his shoulders? It was probably Richard Brandon, the common hangman in London at the time.

Richard Brandon’s father Gregory was also a hangman and ‘Young Gregory’, as Richard was known, practiced his craft as a youngster by beheading cats and dogs. Rick took over from Dad in 1639 and quickly gained notoriety. He carried out many high-profile executions in the 1640s and he was known for his ability to decapitate the condemned with one blow of his trusty tool.

Brandon’s apparent confession appeared in print just after his death in June 1649, but this didn’t put an end to speculation over who the masked axeman was. A man named William Hulet was convicted in 1660 of being Charlie’s headsman, but he was later pardoned.

The unknown identity was something of a talking point in the 17th century, and even late in the century there were cranks and eccentrics claiming to have been the executioner. Most historians agree, though, that the weight of evidence points to Charles’s executioner being Richard Brandon.

The Butcher of the Bayou - Louis Congo

In 1725, in French Louisiana, an African slave named Louis Congo was given his freedom. But it was freedom at a price, as he was appointed by the colonial government to be the public executioner. For 12 years he took charge of this deadly office, and though it is doubtful how much choice he really had in the matter, he was well-paid and given a house with wine rations.

Among his duties were judicial torture, whipping, branding, maiming, and execution by hanging, burning alive, and breaking on the wheel.

In 1729 he hanged European immigrant Joseph Graff for murder, and he is believed to have been the executioner of eight Africans in 1731. Louis was thought to have been transported to America as a slave from the Congo Basin region in 1721.

The Half-Century Hangman - Solomon Blay

Probably the longest-serving executioner in the history of the British Empire was Solomon Blay, who offed over 200 people as an official slayer in Australia from 1837 to 1887.

Convicted of theft in his native England, he was transported to Oz in 1836. He applied for the job of hangman in Tasmania while still serving time as a convict. His first commission was to string up two bush bandits.

A few years after receiving a full pardon in 1857, Blay took a stab at going to England but was forced to return to Tasmania, where he soon resumed his macabre occupation.

On top of the money he received for his executions he was allowed to keep prisoners’ clothes, which he often sold on for profit. Blay finally hung up his noose at the age of 71. His final client was Timothy Walker, a pensioner who had murdered a prostitute by stabbing her.

Chillingly, his 1897 obituary detailed Blay’s fondness for souvenirs. For every neck he strangled, he cut off the knotted noose, labelled it with the dead person’s name, and stored it. Old Sol, as he was known, certainly liked to reminisce.

The State Electrician - Edwin F. Davis

In August 1890, William Kemmler became the first person in the world to be executed by electricity. However, it didn’t go to plan. It took a full eight minutes for Kemmler to die, during which time witnesses were shocked (ahem) to see Bill’s shaved head singe and blacken, and to smell burning flesh.

The executioner for this debut electrocution, Edwin F. Davis, went on to fry hundreds more in his career as New York’s first ‘State Electrician’. One source says he threw the switch on 240 souls, while another puts the figure at over 300.

Davis himself designed and perfected many of the features of the first chair and he was given a patent for his ‘Electrocution-Chair’ in 1897. He executed many high-profile criminals including Leon Frank Czolgosz, the young assassin of President William McKinley in 1901.

The first woman to have an appointment with ‘Old Sparky’, as the chair was nicknamed, was Martha M. Place, electrocuted by Davis in March 1899.

The Beast - Maria Mandl (1912-1948)

Many victims who arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp would see as they approached the gate a young woman holding a whip. This was Maria Mandl, a senior SS guard in charge of the female prisoners. Mandl was directly involved in the execution of half a million women and children.

She would stare at inmates as they arrived at the camp and anyone who looked at her would immediately be taken out and sent for execution.

Nicknamed ‘The Beast’, Mandl was known throughout the camp for her callous brutality. She would tear children away from their mother’s arms and savagely beat anyone who complained or tried to stop her. She was responsible for selecting women deemed unfit for work, many of whom then had to endure the appalling conditions in buildings such as the notorious Block 25 (known as ‘The Block of Death’ or the ‘The Death Barrack’), before being sent to the gas chambers.

Mandl was arrested by the Americans in August 1945 and hanged by the Polish in 1948.

The Murder Machine - Vasily Blokhin (1895-1955)

Born in Suzdal, Russia, Vasily Blokhin served in World War I and then joined the Cheka, the Soviet secret police, in 1921.

Five years later Stalin chose Blokhin to be the top triggerman of the NKVD (the new name for the secret police). The unit he headed up was tasked with carrying out and supervising the executions of everyone Stalin didn’t like, which was a lot of people.

One episode he has remained notorious for is the Katyn massacre. This was the murder of 22,000 Polish officers, policemen, and intellectuals, by Blokhin in rural western Russian, in spring 1940.

There, the prisoners were taken out to a customised outbuilding where Blokhin was waiting for them dressed in a leather apron and leather gloves up to his shoulders. With ruthless efficiency, Blokhin, using a tiny German handgun, fired a bullet into the base of the skull of each man, a diabolical conveyor belt of killing. The bodies were then loaded onto a flatbed lorry outside and the blood hosed down into a drain at the bottom of a sloping floor.

This was repeated for 10 hours every night for 28 days, after which Blokhin reached the horrific tally of around 7,000 men that he’d personally dispatched in this remote execution room.

Shortly after Stalin’s death, Blokhin was forced into retirement. He committed suicide in February 1955.