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10 of the Most Notorious Executioners from History

by Huxley Brown
fact checked by Darci Heikkinen

In medieval Europe, the role of an executioner was a necessary but often reviled profession. The job of the executioner was to carry out the sentence of the court, which often involved gruesome and torturous methods of death. Despite their unsavory reputation, executioners played an important role in medieval society, as they were responsible for maintaining law and order and instilling fear in the general population.

Here we will delve into 10 of the most notorious executioners from history—from the infamous Pierrepoint family of England, who executed more than 600 people over three generations, to the brutal torture techniques used by the executioners of the Spanish Inquisition. As we explore the history of these figures, by examining their methods and the social context in which they operated, we can gain a better understanding of the role that executioners played in shaping medieval society.

Related: 10 Famous Writers’ Gruesome Accounts Of Public Executions

10 William Calcraft

England’s Hangman – William Calcraft

William Calcraft was a notorious figure in English history who served as an executioner from 1829 to 1879. Born in 1800 in Little Baddow, Essex, he came from a poor family and worked various jobs before being recruited as an executioner. Throughout his career, Calcraft became known for his cruelty and incompetence, and his botched executions earned him a reputation as one of the most controversial figures in British history. Despite this, he remained in his post for an impressive fifty years, during which he carried out between 430 and 450 executions.

Calcraft was infamous for his love of spectacle, and he often made his executions as gruesome as possible. He used a range of methods to carry them out, including hanging, beheading, and burning at the stake. While his preferred method was hanging, his executions were often poorly executed and resulted in prolonged suffering for the condemned.

For example, during the hanging of John Babbacombe Lee, Calcraft took almost an hour to complete the execution. Similarly, his beheadings were carried out with a blunt axe, which meant that the condemned would suffer a slow and painful death. His burnings were also known to be equally gruesome, with many of the condemned dying from smoke inhalation rather than the flames themselves. [1]

9 Giovanni Battista Bugatti

The Grim History of the Popes Executioner

Giovanni Battista Bugatti, also known as Mastro Titta, was born in Senigallia, a port town on the Adriatic coast about 19 miles (30 kilometers) northwest of the city of Ancona, on March 6, 1779. He served as the official executioner for the Papal States from 1796 to 1864, executing a total of 514 people during his career. Bugatti’s nickname, Mastro Titta, is a Roman corruption of maestro di giustizia, or Master of Justice. At the age of 85, he was retired by Pope Pius IX with a monthly pension of 30 scudi.

Bugatti’s most preferred methods of execution were beheading, hanging, and breaking on the wheel. Breaking on the wheel was a particularly gruesome form of execution in which the condemned person was tied to a large wheel and beaten with iron bars until their bones were broken. Despite his profession, Bugatti was known for his professionalism and precision during executions, which earned him respect from some members of society.[2]

8 Sanson Family

Charles Henry Sanson Executioner

The Sanson family of France was a notorious dynasty of executioners that spanned six generations from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The family’s patriarch, Charles Sanson, was appointed as the Executioner of Paris in 1684, and his descendants continued to hold the position for several generations. The Sansons were infamous for their role in carrying out the death penalty, and their name became synonymous with brutality and savagery.

The Sansons primarily employed beheading as their method of execution, which was considered a more humane form of capital punishment compared to other methods at the time. However, the family’s reputation for skill and efficiency in carrying out beheadings also made them infamous. Some of their most notable executions include those of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and the infamous highwayman Cartouche. The Sansons’ legacy as one of the most ruthless and feared executioner families in history is still remembered to this day.[3]

7 Franz Schmidt

16th Century Executioner Describes His Executions and their Crimes (1573-1617) Franz Schmidt’s Diary

Franz Schmidt was a prominent Austrian executioner who lived from 1555 to 1634. He served as the official executioner for the city of Nuremberg for over 40 years. Schmidt was born into a family of executioners and continued his family’s legacy as a skilled practitioner of various execution methods. He was also responsible for interrogating and torturing prisoners to extract confessions. Schmidt kept a detailed journal of his work, which provides valuable insight into the practice of execution during the Middle Ages.

Schmidt’s expertise in execution techniques extended to hanging, beheading, and breaking on the wheel. He was known for his meticulous preparation and attention to detail, which ensured that the execution was carried out with as much efficiency and minimal suffering as possible. Schmidt earned a reputation for his professionalism and compassion towards the condemned despite the gruesome nature of his work.[4]

6 Lady Betty

The BRUTAL Female Executioner Of Ireland – Lady Betty of Roscommon

Lady Betty was a notoriously cruel and fearful public executioner born around 1740, who, according to Sir William Wilde (father of Oscar Wilde), drew portraits of all the persons she executed on the walls of her dwelling with a burned stick.

Though her story may be partly legend, Wilde’s story gives some credence to the tale. Elizabeth Sugrue, a poor widow from Kerry, Ireland, found herself alone after one of her children died young and another left for a better life in America. Then opportunity knocked one night on her door in the form of a wealthy stranger seeking refuge for the night. Seeing a chance to better her life, she killed the man, only later discovering that he was her now-grown son.

Betty was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to hang at the Roscommon jail. On the day of her execution, she was led out with 20 or so other prisoners, but there was a problem. There was no hangman available! Quickly speaking up, Betty pleaded to be allowed to do it to spare her own life—”Spare me life, yer honour, spare me life an’ I’ll hang thim [sic] all.”

After showing herself an able executioner, Wilde asserts that Sugrue “officiated, unmasked and undisguised, as hangwoman for a great number of years.” Lady Betty remained in prison in a single cell while continuing to perform her executioner duties, though receiving a pardon in 1802, until her death in 1807.[5]

5 Jack Ketch

History’s BLOODIEST Executioner – Jack Ketch

Jack Ketch, also known as John Ketch, was a controversial figure in 17th-century England who became infamous for his brutal and often botched executions. Although not much is known about his early life, Ketch first appeared in historical records in 1663 when he was appointed as a hangman in London. Ketch eventually became the official executioner for King Charles II and held this role until his death in 1686.

Ketch was known for using various execution methods, including hanging, beheading, and drawing and quartering. However, he was notorious for his inefficiency and incompetence in carrying out these tasks, earning him a reputation as a bungling and barbaric executioner.

Ketch’s most infamous execution was that of William, Lord Russell, a prominent politician implicated in a plot to overthrow King Charles II. During the execution, Ketch made several attempts to sever Russell’s head, causing the condemned man to suffer a prolonged and agonizing death. This and other similar incidents further tarnished Ketch’s already notorious reputation, and he was often the subject of public ridicule and scorn.[6]

4 Pierrepoint Family

The Pierrepoints, Britain’s Hangmen

The Pierrepoint family is well-known for their involvement in executions in England throughout the 20th century. The family was led by Henry Albert Pierrepoint, who served as the official hangman for the British government from 1901 to 1910. Following his tenure, his brother Thomas Pierrepoint took over the role from 1910 to 1946, and the family continued to serve as executioners for the British government for many years, with other family members also holding the position.

The Pierrepoint family was known for their proficiency and skill in executing criminals through hanging. They were frequently called upon to execute high-profile criminals and carried out the executions of infamous figures such as Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and William Joyce, also known as “Lord Haw-Haw,” a Nazi propagandist who was hanged for treason after World War II. Although their legacy as executioners is a controversial one, it remains an important part of British history.[7]

3 Bertrand Barere de Vieuzac

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bertrand Barere de Vieuzac was a French revolutionary who served as a leading member of the Committee of Public Safety during the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793-94. Born in Tarbes in 1755, Barere initially pursued a career in law before becoming involved in politics. He served as a member of the Revolutionary National Assembly and of the Convention, where he voted for the execution of King Louis XVI. Barere later became a radical and one of the most feared revolutionaries due to his stringent policies against those suspected of royalist tendencies.

During his time on the Committee of Public Safety, Barere oversaw the use of the guillotine as a means of execution, which became a symbol of state-sanctioned violence during the French Revolution. Barere authorized other forms of execution, including hanging and shooting, which were used to punish those who opposed the revolution. He was reportedly present at many of these executions and took great pleasure in watching them. Despite his controversial legacy, Barere managed to avoid punishment and lived in relative obscurity until his death in 1841.[8]

2 Johann Reichhart

Hitler’s Executioner – Johann Reichhart – World War 2

Johann Reichhart was an executioner who worked in Bavaria during the 20th century. Born in Wurzburg in 1893, Reichhart came from a family of executioners and became the official executioner of Bavaria in 1924, a position he held until his retirement in 1946. During his career, Reichhart carried out hundreds of executions, including those of Nazi war criminals, and trained and supervised other executioners in the region.

Reichhart’s preferred method of execution was beheading with a guillotine, which he considered to be more humane than other forms of execution, such as hanging or firing squad. He was highly skilled at using the guillotine, which was a portable device that could be set up in different locations, including inside prisons. Reichhart’s efficiency and precision earned him a reputation as one of the best executioners in Germany. Despite the controversial nature of his work, Reichhart ensured that the blade would fall cleanly and quickly, resulting in a relatively painless death for the condemned.[9]

1 Vlad the Impaler

Vlad the Impaler – Dracula The Man & Myth Documentary

Vlad III Draculea, also known as Vlad the Impaler, was a military governor, or prince, of Walachia, a principality in modern-day Romania. He held this position intermittently between 1448 and 1476, during which time he became notorious for his cruel and sadistic methods of punishment, especially impalement. Vlad’s father, also a Wallachian prince, was assassinated by a rival faction, which led to Vlad’s exile during his youth. This experience instilled in him a deep-seated hatred for his enemies and a preference for brutal retribution.

Vlad’s preferred execution method was impalement, in which a sharp stake was driven through the victim’s body, causing a slow and agonizing death. He believed this form of punishment was more fitting for his enemies than a quick beheading, and it became his signature method of punishment. It is believed that Vlad impaled thousands of people, including Turkish soldiers who invaded Wallachia. One particularly gruesome account tells of how he had a forest of impaled bodies set up outside a city he had conquered to deter any potential rebellions.[10]

fact checked by Darci Heikkinen