Jack Ketch

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For the racehorse, see Jack Ketch (horse).
John Ketch
Died November 1686
Nationality English
Other names Jack Ketch
Occupation Executioner
Years active c.1663 - 1686

John Ketch (died November 1686), generally known as Jack Ketch,[1] was an infamous English executioner employed by King Charles II.[2] He became famous through the way he performed his duties during the tumults of the 1680s, when he was often mentioned in broadsheet accounts that circulated throughout the Kingdom of England. He is thought to have been appointed in 1663. He executed the death sentences against William Russell, Lord Russell, in Lincoln's Inn Fields on 21 July 1683, and James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth, on 15 July 1685, after the Monmouth Rebellion. Ketch's notoriety stems from "his barbarity at the execution of Lord Russell, the Duke of Monmouth, and other political offenders."[3]

Because of his botched executions, the name "Jack Ketch" is used as a proverbial name for death, Satan, and executioner.[2][4][5]


Ketch is thought to have taken office in 1663. He is first mentioned in the Proceedings of the Old Bailey for 14 January 1676,[6] although no printed notice of the new hangman occurred until 2 December 1678, when a broadside appeared called The Plotters Ballad, being Jack Ketch's incomparable Receipt for the Cure of Traytorous Recusants and Wholesome Physick for a Popish Contagion.[Note 1] In 1679, there appears from another pamphlet purporting to be written by Ketch himself, and entitled The Man of Destiny's Hard Fortune, that the hangman was confined for a time in the Marshalsea prison, "whereby his hopeful harvest was like to have been blasted."[7] A short entry in the autobiography of Anthony à Wood for 31 August 1681 describes how Stephen College was hanged in the Castle Yard, Oxford, "and when he had hanged about half an hour, was cut down by Catch or Ketch, and quartered under the gallows, his entrails were burnt in a fire made by the gallows".[7][Note 2]

Lord Russell's execution[edit]

On that occasion, Ketch wielded the instrument of death either with such sadistically nuanced skill or with such lack of simple dexterity – nobody could tell which – that the victim suffered horrifically under blow after blow, each excruciating but not in itself lethal. Even among the bloodthirsty throngs that habitually attended English beheadings, the gory and agonizing display had created such outrage that Ketch felt moved to write and publish a pamphlet title Apologie, in which he excused his performance with the claim that Lord Russell had failed to "dispose himself as was most suitable" and that he was therefore distracted while taking aim on his neck.[9]

James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth's execution[edit]

Monmouth's execution on Tower Hill by Jack Ketch on 15 July 1685 (O.S), in a popular print

He [the duke] would not make use of a cap or other circumstance, but lying down, bid the fellow to do his office better than to the late Lord Russell, and gave him gold; but the wretch made five chops before he had his head off; which so incensed the people, that had he not been guarded and got away, they would have torn him to pieces.[10]

Later life[edit]

In 1686 Ketch was sent to prison for "affronting" a sheriff. His job was taken by his assistant, Paskah Rose, formerly a butcher. Rose was arrested after only four months in his office for robbery.[7] Ketch was reappointed in his place and hanged his own assistant at Tyburn.

He died towards the close of 1686.[7]


In 1836 a fictitious autobiography of Ketch, with illustrations from designs by Meadows entitled The autobiography of Jack Ketch, was published.[7][11] Another book entitled Life of Jack Ketch with Cuts of his own Execution was furnished by Tom Hood for the Duke of Devonshire's library at Chatsworth.[7]

Jack Ketch is one of the characters in Giovanni Piccini (d.1835) The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy as dictated to John Payne Collier, in 1828.[12] He is mentioned in the Charles Dickens novels Oliver Twist, The Pickwick Papers[13] and David Copperfield and in the C. M. Kornbluth science fiction story "The Marching Morons" (1951). More recently, Jack Ketch plays a role in Neal Stephenson's 2003 and 2004 volumes Quicksilver and The System of the World, the first and last volumes, respectively, in his The Baroque Cycle series (though the last volume is set in 1714, well after the death of the historical Jack Ketch.) A Jack Ketch character appears in Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. His name is also used frequently in Neal Asher's series of Polity Universe science fiction novels. Ketch's name (The Jack Ketch) is, for somewhat inscrutable reasons, taken by a ship-based AI. The name Jack Ketch, referring to whomever was the hangman of the day, also appears in the children's book series The Gideon Trilogy, written by Linda Buckley-Archer. He also makes an appearance in the Fables series of comic books. In the series Batman Incorporated, a masked executioner works for Talia al Ghul under the name of "Jack Ketch".[14] The name Jack Ketch is also adopted in by the main character in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of Novel (aka Midnight Riot in the US) in reference to the Piccini play. Jack Ketch is also referenced in Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man. In Chapter 30, Opening with a Poetical Eulogy of the Press, and Continuing with Talk Inspired by the Same, Charlie says: "Thrown out of employment, what could Jack Ketch turn his hand to? Butchering?" The character of Jack Ketch is included in the L. Ron Hubbard novella Fear as an ominous specter encountered multiple times by the protagonist James Lowry.

"Jack Ketch" was twice used as a fictional radio drama on the CBS series Suspense which aired from 1942-1962 and had a short run on live television in the early '50's. For years it was believed that no TV episodes had survived. In recent years 90 episodes have been located and are available on DVD.

In "Parasite Planet", a 1935 short story by Stanley Weinbaum set on Venus, explorers encounter carnivorous Jack-Ketch trees, which use long, leathery branches as nooses to strangle and kill their prey.


  1. ^ "On the top of the sheet is a woodcut, in which is represented Edward Coleman [q. v.] drawn in a sledge to the place of execution, exclaiming, 'I am sick of a traytorous disease,' while Jack Ketch, with a hatchet in one hand and a rope in the other, is saying, 'Here's your cure, sir.' "[7]
  2. ^ "[Aug.] 31. Wednesday at 11. Stephen College, born at Watford in Hertfordshire, nephew to Edmund College of St. Peter's in the Bayly, suffered death by hanging in the castle yard Oxon, and when he had hanged about half an hour was cut down by Catch or Ketch, and quartered, under the gallows, his entrails were burnt in a fire made by the gallows. He spoke and prayed more than half an hour, his body was, after quartering, put into a coffin, and the same day was conveyed to London, and buried privately the Thursday following at night in St. Gregory's church near St. Paul's."[8]
  1. ^ "Jack Ketch (English executioner)". Britannica.com Inc. Retrieved 24 August 2010. 
  2. ^ a b Kronenwetter, Michael (2001). Capital punishment: a reference handbook. ABC-CLIO. p. 172. ISBN 978-1-57607-432-9. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  3. ^ Green, Jonathon (2005). Cassell's dictionary of slang. Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. p. 782. ISBN 978-0-304-36636-1. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  4. ^ Halperin, Rick (12 February 2006). "[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----worldwide". Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  5. ^ Grose, Captain (September 2008). 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. BiblioBazaar, LLC. p. 178. ISBN 978-0-559-13810-2. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  6. ^ "Killing > murder, 14th January 1676 (t16760114-7)". Old Bailey Proceedings Online. Retrieved 9 October 2011. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g  Lee, Sidney, ed. (1892). "Ketch, John". Dictionary of National Biography 31. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 71–2. 
  8. ^ Wood, Anthony à (1813). Athenae Oxonienses: An exact history of all the writers and bishops who have had their education in the University of Oxford. To which are added the Fasti, or Annals of the said University. Rivington. p. 92. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  9. ^ Fiorillo, Juré (2010-01-01). Great Bastards of History: True and Riveting Accounts of the Most Famous Illegitimate Children Who Went on to Achieve Greatness. Fair Winds. p. 82. ISBN 978-1-59233-401-8. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  10. ^ Evelyn, John; Bray, William (1889). The diary of John Evelyn, Esq., F. R. S.: from 1641 to 1705-6 : with memoir. F. Warne. p. 481. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  11. ^ Whitehead, Charles (1835). The autobiography of Jack Ketch. Carey, Lea & Blanchard. Retrieved 23 August 2010. 
  12. ^ Banham 1995, p. 888.
  13. ^ Dickens, Charles (1837). The Pickwick Papers. Premier Classics. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-307-29175-2. 
  14. ^ Batman Incorporated #3 (2012)


  • Banham, Martin (1995). The Cambridge guide to theatre (2, illustrated, revised, reprint ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 888. ISBN 978-0-521-43437-9. 
  • Piccini, Giovanni (1976) [1860]. Collier, John Payne, ed. The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Punch and Judy. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. p. 53. ISBN 0-7100-8199-5. 

External links[edit]

Preceded by
Edward Dun
British office of hangman
Succeeded by
Paskah Rose