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Symbolic robed figure of a medieval public executioner at Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg, Russia Palach u ekspozitsii orudii pytok.jpg
Symbolic robed figure of a medieval public executioner at Peter and Paul Fortress, Saint Petersburg, Russia
Photograph (hand-coloured), original dated 1898, of The Lord High Executioner of the former princely state of Rewah, Central India, with large executioner's sword (Tegha sword) The executioner.jpg
Photograph (hand-coloured), original dated 1898, of The Lord High Executioner of the former princely state of Rewah, Central India, with large executioner's sword (Tegha sword)
Depiction of a public execution in Brueghel's The Triumph of Death 1562-1563 Thetriumphofdeath - detail.jpg
Depiction of a public execution in Brueghel's The Triumph of Death 1562-1563
Depiction of the public execution of pirates in Hamburg, Germany, 10 September 1573 Hinrichtung.jpg
Depiction of the public execution of pirates in Hamburg, Germany, 10 September 1573

An executioner, also known as a hangman or headsman , is an official who executes a sentence of capital punishment on a legally condemned person.


Scope and job

The executioner was usually presented with a warrant authorising or ordering him to execute the sentence. The warrant protects the executioner from the charge of murder. Common terms for executioners derived from forms of capital punishment—though they often also performed other physical punishments—include hangman (hanging) and headsman (beheading). In the military, the role of executioner was performed by a soldier, such as the provost. A common stereotype of an executioner is a hooded medieval or absolutist executioner. Symbolic or real, executioners were rarely hooded, and not robed in all black; hoods were only used if an executioner's identity and anonymity were to be preserved from the public. As Hilary Mantel noted in her 2018 Reith Lectures, "Why would an executioner wear a mask? Everybody knew who he was".

While this task can be occasional in nature, it can be carried out in the line of more general duty by an officer of the court, the police, prison staff, or even the military. A special case is the tradition of the Roman fustuarium, continued in forms of running the gauntlet, where the culprit receives their punishment from the hands of the comrades gravely harmed by their crime, e.g. for failing in vital sentinel duty or stealing from a ship's limited food supply.

Many executioners were professional specialists who traveled a circuit or region performing their duty, because executions were rarely very numerous. Within this region, a resident executioner would also administer non-lethal physical punishments, or apply torture. In medieval Europe, to the end of the early modern period, executioners were often knackers, [1] since pay from the rare executions was not enough to live off.

In medieval Europe executioners also taxed lepers and prostitutes, and controlled gaming houses. They were also in charge of the latrines and cesspools, and disposing of animal carcasses. [2]

The term is extended to administrators of severe physical punishment that is not prescribed to kill, but which may result in death.

Executions in France (using the guillotine since the French Revolution) persisted until 1977, and the French Republic had an official executioner; the last one, Marcel Chevalier, served until the formal abolition of capital punishment in 1981. [3]

In society

In Western Europe and its colonies, executioners were often shunned by their neighbours, with their work as knackers also disreputable. [1] In Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers and in the film La veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Peter), minor character executioners are ostracized by the villagers.

The profession of executioner sometimes ran through a family, especially in France, where the Sanson family provided six executioners between 1688 and 1847 and the Deibler dynasty provided five between 1879 and its 1981 abolition. The latter's members included Louis Deibler, his son Anatole, Anatole's nephew Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, his other nephew André Obrecht, and André's nephew Marcel Chevalier. [4]

In Britain, the most notable dynasty was the Pierrepoints, who provided three executioners between 1902 and 1956 – Henry, his brother Thomas, and Henry's son Albert. Unlike in France and many other European countries, far from being shunned, British executioners such as William Marwood, James Berry, Albert Pierrepoint, and Harry Allen were widely known and respected by the public.

In Japan, executioners have been held in contempt as part of the burakumin class (today executions in Japan are not carried out by professional executioners, but by prison guards). In Memories of Silk and Straw, by Junichi Saga, one of the families surveyed in the Japanese village of Tsuchiura is that of an executioner family ("The Last Executioner", p. 54). This family does suffer social isolation, even though the family is somewhat well-off financially.

In the Ottoman Empire, only Romani could be executioners. Executioners were seen as "damned" people and even their graveyards were separate from public graveyards. There were no inscriptions on executioner tombstones, and usually uncarved and unpolished simple rough stones were used. One of the oldest and largest "executioner graveyards" is in the Eyüp district in Istanbul. After the republican revolution in Turkey, executions continued to be performed by Romani executioners. This situation continued until the abolition of capital punishment in Turkey.

The town of Roscommon has the distinction of having had Ireland's most notorious hangwoman, Lady Betty, who was given the post in exchange for her life being spared when the hangman due to execute her death sentence took ill on the day that she and 25 others were due to be hanged. Lady Betty offered to carry out the task in exchange for her death sentence being commuted to a life sentence, and she acted as the county's hangwoman from then on. [5] An unidentified woman hanged two men for murder on 13th, November, 1782 at Kilmainham, near Dublin. The men were also quartered. The sheriff received abuse for making a hangman of a woman. [6]

See also

Related Research Articles

Guillotine Apparatus designed for carrying out executions by beheading

A guillotine is an apparatus designed for efficiently carrying out executions by beheading. The device consists of a tall, upright frame with a weighted and angled blade suspended at the top. The condemned person is secured with stocks at the bottom of the frame, positioning the neck directly below the blade. The blade is then released, swiftly and forcefully decapitating the victim with a single, clean pass so that the head falls into a basket or other receptacle below.

Decapitation Total separation of the head from the body

Decapitation or beheading is the total separation of the head from the body. Such an injury is invariably fatal to humans and most other animals, since it deprives the brain of oxygenated blood, while all other organs are deprived of the involuntary functions that are needed for the body to function.

Hanging Death by suspension of a person by a noose or ligature around the neck

Hanging is the suspension of a person by a noose or ligature around the neck. The Oxford English Dictionary states that hanging in this sense is "specifically to put to death by suspension by the neck", though it formerly also referred to crucifixion and death by impalement in which the body would remain "hanging". Hanging has been a common method of capital punishment since medieval times, and is the primary execution method in numerous countries and regions. The first known account of execution by hanging was in Homer's Odyssey. In this specialised meaning of the common word hang, the past and past participle is hanged instead of hung.

Albert Pierrepoint English executioner

Albert Pierrepoint was an English hangman who executed between 435 and 600 people in a 25-year career that ended in 1956. His father Henry and uncle Thomas were official hangmen before him.

Hamida Djandoubi Tunisian agricultural worker and convicted murderer

Hamida Djandoubi was a Tunisian agricultural worker and convicted murderer sentenced to death in France. He moved to Marseille, France, in 1968 and six years later he kidnapped, tortured and murdered 22-year-old Élisabeth Bousquet. He was sentenced to death in February 1977 and executed by guillotine in September that year. He was the last person to date to be executed in Western Europe, and also the last person to be lawfully executed by beheading anywhere in the Western world, although he was not the last person sentenced to death in France. Marcel Chevalier served as chief executioner.

Marcel Chevalier worked as the last chief executioner in France. He succeeded his wife's uncle, André Obrecht, in 1976 and held his position until 1981, when capital punishment was abolished under president François Mitterrand and justice minister Robert Badinter. The method of application of the death penalty for civil capital offences in France from 1791 to 1981 was beheading with the guillotine. Military executions were by firing squad.

Capital punishment in Canada dates back to Canada's earliest history, including its period as a French colony and, after 1763, its time as a British colony. From 1867 to the elimination of the death penalty for murder on July 26, 1976, 1,481 people had been sentenced to death, and 710 had been executed. Of those executed, 697 were men and 13 were women. The only method used in Canada for capital punishment of civilians after the end of the French regime was hanging. The last execution in Canada was the double hanging of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin on December 11, 1962, at Toronto's Don Jail. The military used firing squad as the method of execution until 1999.

John Ellis was a British executioner for 23 years, from 1901 to 1924. His other occupations were as a Rochdale hairdresser and newsagent.

Thomas William Pierrepoint was an English executioner from 1906 until 1946. He was the brother of Henry Pierrepoint and uncle of Albert Pierrepoint.

James Berry was an English executioner from 1884 until 1891. Berry was born in Heckmondwike in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where his father worked as a wool-stapler. His most important contribution to the science of hanging was his refinement of the long drop method developed by William Marwood, whom Berry knew quite well. His improvements were intended to diminish mental and physical suffering and some of them remained standard practice until the abolition of capital punishment for murder.

Capital punishment in France is banned by Article 66-1 of the Constitution of the French Republic, voted as a constitutional amendment by the Congress of the French Parliament on 19 February 2007 and simply stating "No one can be sentenced to the death penalty". The death penalty was already declared illegal on 9 October 1981 when President François Mitterrand signed a law prohibiting the judicial system from using it and commuting the sentences of the six people on death row to life imprisonment. The last execution took place by guillotine, being the main legal method since the French Revolution; Hamida Djandoubi, a Tunisian citizen convicted of torture and murder on French soil, who was put to death in September 1977 in Marseille.

André Obrecht was the official executioner of France from 1951 until 1976.

Capital punishment in Denmark was abolished in 1933, with no death sentences having been carried out since 1892, but restored from 1945 to 1950 in order to execute Nazi collaborators. Capital punishment for most instances of war crimes was legally ended in 1978. The last execution was in June 1950.

Capital punishment in Sweden was last used in 1910, though it remained a legal sentence for at least some crimes until 1973. It is now outlawed by the Swedish Constitution, which states that capital punishment, corporal punishment, and torture are strictly prohibited. At the time of the abolition of the death penalty in Sweden, the legal method of execution was beheading.

Jules-Henri Desfourneaux was the last French executioner to officiate in public. He came from a long line of executioners named Desfourneaux stretching back many hundreds of years. Like all French executioners since 1792 his method of application of the death penalty was beheading by guillotine.

Capital punishment in the Republic of Ireland was abolished in statute law in 1990, having been abolished in 1964 for most offences including ordinary murder. The last to be executed was Michael Manning, hanged for murder in 1954. All subsequent death sentences, the last handed down in 1985, were commuted by the President, on the advice of the Government, to terms of imprisonment of up to 40 years. The Twenty-first Amendment of the constitution, passed by referendum in 2001, prohibits the reintroduction of the death penalty, even during a state of emergency or war. Capital punishment is also forbidden by several human rights treaties to which the state is a party.

Death row, also known as condemned row, is a place in a prison that houses inmates awaiting execution after being convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to death. The term is also used figuratively to describe the state of awaiting execution, even in places where no special facility or separate unit for condemned inmates exists. In the United States, after a person is found guilty of a capital offense in death penalty states, the judge will give the jury the option of imposing a death sentence or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. It is then up to a jury to decide whether to give the death sentence; this usually has to be a unanimous decision. If the jury agrees on death, the defendant will remain on death row during appeal and habeas corpus procedures, which may continue for several decades.

Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 United Kingdom legislation

The Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 received Royal Assent on 29 May 1868, putting an end to public executions for murder in the United Kingdom. The act required that all prisoners sentenced to death for murder be executed within the walls of the prison in which they were being held, and that their bodies be buried in the prison grounds. It was prompted at least in part by the efforts of reformers such as Sir Robert Peel and Charles Dickens, who called in the national press for an end to the "grotesque spectacle" of public executions. Abolition of public executions was one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment 1864-1866. A similar measure, the Capital Punishment within Prisons Bill, had been introduced in 1867, but failed for lack of parliamentary time.

Carl Gröpler was Royal Prussian executioner from 1906 to 1937. Responsible for carrying out capital punishment in the Prussian provinces, he executed at least 144 people, primarily by beheading with an axe, but also with guillotines. Gröpler was one of the most famous executioners in Germany.


  1. 1 2 Evans, Richard (1998). Tales from the German Underworld: Crime and Punishment in the Nineteenth Century. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. p. 145. ISBN   978-0-300-07224-2.
  2. "The Executioners Who Inherited Their Jobs". Smithsonian.
  3. Clarke, P.; Hardy, L.; Williams, A. (2008). Executioners (in Swedish). Book Sales. pp. 374–380. ISBN   978-0-7088-0366-0 . Retrieved 16 September 2018.
  4. Gerould, D.C. (1992). Guillotine, Its Legend and Lore . Blast Books. p.  78. ISBN   978-0-922233-02-1 . Retrieved 16 September 2018. The job of executioner had become part-time. Henri Desfourneaux's two assistants also worked as a butcher and a hairdresser — fitting sidelines to their decapitating functions. The last guillotine operator, Marcel Chevalier, incumbent from ...
  5. "How Ireland's only female executioner got the job". Irish Examiner. 18 April 2019. Retrieved 18 October 2019.
  6. "on the 13th". Oxford Journal. 23 November 1782. p. 1.