A 17th century public executioner famed for his botched executions, Jack Ketch looms as an infamous figure in British history and a byword for brutality and executioners in general.
Ketch’s origins are unknown (he’s also known as John Catch) but he is believed to have received his appointment as a public hangman sometime in the early to mid 1660s – the first recorded mention of him in that role, in a pamphlet celebrating his handiwork, dates from 1678. Such was his self-importance that he apparently adopted the title Esquire and apparently asked for his letters to be addressed to Dr John Ketch.
Among those who died at his hand were those accused of involvement in the Popish Plot against the Crown – a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate King Charles II which was all apparently fabricated by Titus Oates. These included William Staley and Edward Coleman both of whom were hung, drawn and quartered in 1678 (Ketch was also charged with whipping Oates following his perjury conviction).
But Ketch’s most infamous executions, the only two beheadings he is known to have performed, became notorious because of the botched manner in which they were carried out.
It was reported that it took Ketch three blows to strike off the head of William, Lord Russell, when he was executed for treason on 21st July, 1683 (he had opposed the succession of James II and was accused of involvement in the Rye House Plot), although Ketch apparently denied suggestions he had turned up drunk and blamed Lord Russell for flinching.
The beheading of James Scott, the Duke of Monmouth (and illegitimate son of King Charles II), on 15th July, 1685 (pictured above in a print from the time), was apparently even worse – it took Ketch five blows to take off his head and he apparently finished the job with a knife after having almost given up halfway through. Monmouth had been captured following the Battle of Sedgemoor in July 1685 in which he led an army having declared himself king (more on that another time).
Ketch fell out of favor with the authorities later that year and was briefly gaoled in Bridewell prison. He was reinstated but his return to the job of public executioner was only short-lived for he died in 1686 and is believed to have been buried in St James’ in Clerkenwell on 29th November, 1686.
He was survived by his wife Katherine, who apparently stood by her man despite the public feeling against him, and is it generally assumed a girl Susanna who was baptised at the church in Clerkenwell in 1668 – some 18 years before his death – was his daughter.
Following his death, Ketch’s name was adopted by subsequent public hangmen – he even appeared as an ongoing character in Punch and Judy shows.
For more on Ketch, see Tim Wales’ article Jack Ketch in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (a subscription is required for access).