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Welcome to Episode 144 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Many famous people from history have had their lives come to an end by execution. We tell these stories with gusto, reverence, and sometimes even humor, but the person responsible for being the executioner goes largely unnoticed beyond the recognition that someone, albeit we rarely know who, had to actually be the executioner. 

The word “executioner” comes up in Shakespeare’s plays 17 times, twice referred to as a “common” executioner, twice mentioned in context of characters expressing their distaste for the profession, and a few times mentioned in the stage directions as a character appearing on stage. But what was an executioner supposed to look like on stage in the 16th century? If it was a common profession, how did someone become an executioner? Who were England’s executioners, how were they hired for this repulsive job, and with something so repugnant as a career that several characters in Shakespeare’s plays verbalize how much they hate the idea of being an executioner, what must it have been like to live in early modern England as an executioner–were there personal ramifications against them for the performance of their duties?

Here to help us answer these questions and explore the profession of official executioner in early modern England is our guest, DJ Guba. 

Join the conversation below.

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Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

DJ Guba profile image

David A. Guba, Jr. (PhD, Temple University) is a historian of drugs, violence, and colonialism in modern France & Europe and an Assistant Professor of History at Bard Early College in Baltimore, Maryland. His research and publications cover a range of topics in European history, icluding executioners and capital punishment, women and gender in Nazi Germany, and the colonial history of cannabis in France. He is the author of “Axed from History: Executioners in Early Modern Europe,” published online, which explores the largely ignored and mythologized history of the men (and women) who served as executioners in Europe's past. His research in this area focuses on the lives and legacies of the Sanson family of executioners, who supplied seven consecutive generations of axemen to the French state from the reign of Louis XIV through the Revolution to the reign of Louis Philipe I (1684-1847). 

***His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Conversation, Salon, and Slate, and his first book, Taming Cannabis: Drugs and Empire in 19th-Century France, was recently published by McGill-Queen's University Press

In this episode, I’ll be asking DJ Guba about :

  • Did executioners have a specific uniform they had to wear? 

  • Were there executioners who were given a higher rank than others, for example, with the execution of someone like Anne Bolyen, who was Queen at the time of her death, would they have selected an executioner of higher status for this purpose, or were all deaths treated the same?

  • Without going too far into the macabre, there was more than one way to kill a person, even as capital punishment, during Elizabethan England, with hanging, a guillotine, and an axe all being methods of dispatching someone in a formal execution. DJ, was there some kind of guild or training program established that taught executioners how to use the machines involved in this profession? 

    … and more!

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Here is in our prison a common
executioner, who in his office lacks a helper: if
you will take it on you to assist him, it shall
redeem you from your gyves; if not, you shall have
your full time of imprisonment and your deliverance
with an unpitied whipping, for you have been a
notorious bawd.

Measure for Measure (IV.2)

Franz Schmidt executing a man 1591, Wikimedia Commons

The executioner Franz Schmidt executing Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591. This drawing in the margins of a court record is the only surviving fully reliable portrait of Franz Schmidt. Uploaded to wikimedia commons by The Director of the Theater of Horror, Slate magazine, 30 May 2013. Attributed to Staatsarchiv Nürnberg. Artist unclear. Original Source

Executioners Were Raised in Families

Being an executioner was considered an unclean job. The people who had this profession were often appointed there by virtue of being born into a family of executioners, and thereby having little chance of any alternate social mobility. In this episode, DJ explains that executioners were sourced in three main ways:

1500-1800 executioners were appointed by the crown and came from one of three sources. The first and dominant source of executioners were families. This was a hereditary England, Germany, and France people were Brandons, Pierrepoints, Giomes, Sansons in France, and famous Smitz in Germany, [which were] a father/son combination.

[Executioners] were born into this system of social pollution/contamination, [where they were] considered spiritually profane, or your job [was to be] a murderer, [these perspectives] combined to make you someone that was to be physically avoided or not touched, so every aspect of it was handled by the person or their family, as the assistants.

Second area they came from is through prisons or through a system of more or less reprieve from punishment. Work release program. They could avoid [their punishment if they volunteered to be an executioner.]

DJ gives the example of Black Mall, “she was a woman [who had been arrested for a crime and sentenced to a death penalty]. She was given [an] opportunity to get out of execution, in Bermuda, [because] she served as an executioner to avoid getting killed herself.” 

The third way that executioners were procured for enforcement of capital punishment was through military prisons. DJ indicates this third method of becoming an executioner was not widely used during Shakespeare's lifetime, but by the late 17th and 18th centuries, military prisons and converting prisoners to executioners was much more well established (which may be where many of the modern attributes given to executioners stereotypically are founded).

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Depiction of the public execution of pirates in Hamburg, Germany, 10 September 1573 | Sebastian Sonntag – Flugblatt Nachrichtensammlung J. J. Wick (1560-1586), gedruckt bei Hans Weigel Nürnberg | Public Domain | Original Source

16th Century Executioners Did Not Wear Uniforms

While some executioners in high profile cases, such as the execution of Anne Boleyn, would take pains to disguise their identify for fear of retribution, when it came to most executioners during Shakespeare's lifetime, DJ explains that the people employed in this profession were not normally hooded, nor clothed in dark and forboding attire:

No– this is a misnomer, myth about executioners. The hooded, black clad, broodish executioner almost portrayedas mindless orblindlyloyal to the King/crown, is not the common or even average model. The most common (thereare images, woodcuts and paintings 14, 15, 1600s), [show that executioners had a] wide range of uniforms. They would have been widely known by everyone because it was necessary for them to be isolated and avoided, so they were known and identified. Fran Schmidt [is shown] in Germany-military garb/armor, matter of torture, he wore outfit of a normal laborer. In France, [during the] Revolution, the Sanson family wore revolutionary cap and look very similar to the crowd. [The outfit of an executioner] rarely included a hood. In England, 1680s, there was a hood for Charles II (sic), [because] that was so high profile, they provided anonymity for the executioner to avoid retribution.” 

Editor's Clarification: Charles I was executed by beheading in 1649 at Whitehall Palace. The guest's comments here about executioners and the presence of a hood mashup the execution of Charles I with the infamous executioner under Charles II, named Jack Ketch. The separation of Charles I & II is not clear from the guest's quote provided here so I wanted to add this note. The guest, who is talking about executioners and not the reigns of either Charles, is giving an example of when a hood might have been used. With cases like the beheading of Charles I, when the person dying was of high rank, a hood might be granted to the executioner to give him some anonymity. You can hardly address the issue of famous executioners without mentioning Jack Ketch, who served England in the 1680s, but if you do not already know this history you may have missed that step in the quote provided. I hope this note helps!

Execution of Monmouth on Tower Hill, 15 July, 1685 (O.S)s. The man executing him is the infamous Jack Ketch. Ketch was employed in the 1680s by Charles II, and he became famous through his horrible executions. He was talked about in broadsheets that circulated around the entirety of the kingdom. His most infamous execution was the Duke of Monmouth, the barbarity with which he executed the Duke horrified the observers and lead Jack Ketch to eventually publish an apology. After these events, the phrase “Jack Ketch” would go down in history as a proverbial name for death, Satan, and the executioner. (Kronenwetter, 172 and Green, 782. See full citations below). Image is Public Domain. Image Source

Kronenwetter, Michael (2001). Capital punishment: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 172. ISBN 978-1-57607-432-9.
Green, Jonathon (2005). Cassell's dictionary of slang. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. p. 782. ISBN 978-0-304-36636-1.

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Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

The common executioner,
Whose heart th' accustom'd sight of death makes hard,
Falls not the axe upon the humbled neck
But first begs pardon. Will you sterner be
Than he that dies and lives by bloody drops?

As You Like It (III.5)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

17th century executioner's sword, Germany ca. 1600 | Thomas Quine – Executioner's sword c. 1600 | Photo taken by Thomas Quine. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CCBy2.0 license. | Original Source

Executioners Were Also Medical Doctors

Due to their close promiximty with the human body, ability to understand what stopped (as well as sustained) life, and handling of it after death, executioners throughout the 15-19th centuries were often healers as well as merchants of death. People of all social status would seek out Executioners as medical professionals, going to them for repair of broken limbs, to apply balms and herbal remedies, and even surgery. DJ explains one popular executioner treatment was called Hangman's Grease (beware, it's not for the faint of heart. Keep reading at your own tolerance level.) DJ describes Hangman's Grease as the fat of a dead person being boiled down and made into a cream, which was applied by the executioner to a person complaining of ailments like lameness, joint pain, and even helping to heal broken bones. DJ says that the fat was not the only source of medical tinctures, however, they would also “Grind up skulls into a powder, ingested or dissolved into medicinal purposes.” Many executioners of the 15-19th centuries worked not only as executioners, but would also successfully run apothecaries, pharmacies, and medical practices. 

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behold, where stands
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An image of traitors' heads on old London Bridge. 1858. Artist Unknown. This image is a scan of a better quality version found on page 313 of this book| The image itself is public domain | Original source | The book link provided here is an affiliate link to John Cassell's Illustrated History of England, Volume 2, which you can also read on Google Books Here

Executioners Were In Charge of Heads on Pikes

Several criminals who were executed had their heads put on pikes and displayed on London Bridge. DJ explains that it was the job of the executioner to both acquire the head, before placing it on the pikes for display. All of the steps involved from death to management thereafter fell to the executioner, or his assistants.

Ultimately the job of the executioner or the assistants. So from planning to completion. Building the tools or forging the tools, obtaining the wheel, etc. All the way to disposal of the body, or figuring out where to display the body when killed. All of that done by the executioner or his assistant. Holding up the head of Louis XVI, done by an assistant. the physical property chain of command was the executioner or his network. 

This management of  death and being the person who walked the condemned to their grave came with serious social and spiritual consequences for the executioner. DJ explains, 

“[The] Soul and social position [of anyone would be permanently] compromised by [being associated with] or serving an executioner even once. This perspective starts to wear off in the 1700s, but very much true for Shakespeare’s lifetime.”

Use our collection of activity kits to can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare with recipes, games, and crafts straight from Shakespeare's lifetime (and mentioned in his plays!) It's the most fun way to explore history.

Books & Resources DJ Guba Recommends

DJ Guba also recommends this thesis:

Jane Coleman Harbison, “The Black Executioner: The Intercolonial Interactions of a Martinican Slave in Quebec,” MA Thesis McGill University, 2012.

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