The Day from Hell (2)

Last time, I told you about Jack Ketch’s abilities as the King’s Executioner. He was useless. Absolutely useless. All that happened to him, though, was that he was promoted.

If you are in management, always give  the important  jobs to the most useless people. It will make your own performance look so much better. Ketch was the man tasked with executing the Duke of Monmouth:

The Duke of Monmouth knew all about Jack Ketch’s reputation for incompetence. They were all assembled, up on the scaffold and ready to go, when the Duke walked over to Ketch and said:

“Here are six golden guineas for you, Ketch. Do not hack me to bits as you did with Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you even more gold if you do the work well.”

“No problem, your Dukeness” replied Ketch, picking up his axe to begin the ghastly deed.

Monmouth ran his almost royal finger over the edge of Ketch’s axe. He was not a happy man. The axe wasn’t really that sharp. It was certainly not as sharp as the knife he’d had at breakfast. And it didn’t cut his finger at all.

Ketch began his work.

One slash of the axe. It missed. Just a little nick on the neck. Monmouth actually got up from the block and gave Ketch a dirty look.

Second go. Whoops, missed again. Sorreeeeeeeee !

Third attempt.

“Don’t worry, Duke. I’ll get you next time.”

Next time.

“Sorry, I don’t know where I’m going wrong. It was all right yesterday at rehearsal.”

That made four goes. How many more were needed?

Well, at least four more large swings of the axe. Ketch made a grand total of eight attempts at killing the Duke. And there were even some witnesses who talked of double figures.

And was the Duke dead? Well, no, not quite. Not yet. The neck was still not severed and the Duke was still moving about on the planks of the scaffold.

Ketch flung his axe down. The crowd was not happy. But they knew the rules.

Either the job was finished and the crowd went home happy or they themselves would ensure that at least one person went home dead. And that one person would be either the Duke or it would be Ketch. They really were not that bothered.

Lucky then that Ketch was carrying a penknife in his pocket. “Bear with me”, he shouted to the crowd, “I’ll get him this time.”

And he began sawing the Duke’s head off with his penknife. Eventually, he did it.

Here’s the close up. Look at the knife. Eight inches? Ten? :

The Duke of Monmouth was now, as requested by the King, in two completely separate pieces.

Ketch showed the two pieces to the crowd:

And then some slack jawed local of an assistant piped up with something he should have said to Ketch about an hour before:

“Jack!! Jack !!!  Don’t forget the drawing.”

“What drawing?”

“Well, Jack, they haven’t got an oil painting of the Duke anywhere in England so there’s a man here who needs to draw the Duke before you cut his head off.”


Was Ketch beaten? Hell, no. They sewed the Duke’s head back on to his body (which was not considered a serious breach of the Two Pieces Rule) and the artist then drew a quick sketch. When he had finished, Ketch took out his trusty penknife and cut the Duke’s head off (for a second time, presumably) and the Two Pieces were sent off for burial and/or display.

Now THAT was a bad day.

Incidentally, the oil painting is still in the National Portrait Gallery. They insist on calling it the “Portrait of a Man Sleeping” but they’re wrong, very, very wrong:

Just look at that piece of cloth tucked neatly around his neck. Surely it covers second rate stitching done at speed.

This is not a Man Sleeping.

This is the Duke of Monmouth.

But unfortunately, he has ceased to be! ‘E’s expired and gone to meet ‘is maker! ‘E’s a stiff! Bereft of life, ‘e rests in peace!

No no he’s not dead, he’s, he’s restin’!

NO  ‘E’s kicked the bucket, ‘e’s shuffled off ‘is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin’ choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-DUKE OF MONMOUTH!!

Jack Ketch died in November 1686. He went on to be mentioned in three different novels by Charles Dickens. He also gave rise to the Rock/Punk/Metal/ super group entitled “Jack Ketch & The Bilge Rat Bastards”.

I could not have written this blog post without the description of events supplied by Lord Macaulay in his “History of England”.




Filed under Criminology, History, Humour, Politics

34 responses to “The Day from Hell (2)

  1. What a suitably horrible band to illustrate such a monumental cock-up

  2. Ha ha it’s good to know that even back then incompetent people were promoted to ridiculous levels of responsibility. What a complete mess he made of that one.

    • Precisely! And now you will watch the news every night and think “Did Jack Ketch’s descendants emigrate to the New World? Did any of them go into politics? My Dad’s own favourite was the Labour Party politician who was put in charge of the Post Office. He decided to put up the price of a standard letter from three pence to four pence but guess what he didn’t bother to get printed for the big day?

      • What?

        ……..The four pence stamps. The result was lots of letters but no stamps to put on them. To begin with, the mathematically inclined used 3+1 and 2+2 and even 3 + ½ +½ and ultimately, four one pence stamps and even eight ½ pence stamps. But after just a few hours Britain’s postal services shuddered to an embarrassing halt.

  3. Thank goodness for the French and Madame Guillotine!

    • As far as I know, Monsieur Guillotin invented the guillotine so that there would be a quick and humane methods of executing prisoners. The Revolution certainly gave it a thorough road testing. They didn’t stop public guillotinings until as recently as 1939. Wikipedia says “Eugen Weidmann was a German serial murderer executed by guillotine in France in June 1939, the last public execution in that country. Executions by guillotine continued in private until Hamida Djandoubi’s execution on September 10, 1977.”

      • I think it was supposed to be less messy but I still wouldn’t want a front row seat.
        In Spain they last garrotted a convicted police killer in 1974. Equally as unpleasant but less blood to mop up!

  4. A great example of the Peter Principle. In management people willrise to the level of their incompetence”.

    • I went to Wikipedia again: “a concept in management theory formulated by educator Laurence J. Peter in 1969. It states that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role.” When you put it like that you can see just how true it will always be. Let’s take an example….you might be very good at running Leeds Council but that doesn’t mean that you will make a good Prime Minister. What did Donald Trump used to do before he became President for example?

  5. Good grief, what a way to go. Yuck!

    • Yes, History can be very messy but you’ve got to credit Jack for his determination to get the job done and for his foresight in carrying his penknife at all times. I wonder if he learnt that in the Boy Scouts? What badges were there to get in 1685? Executioner’s badge? Axemanship? Leather sewing? Scaffold building?

  6. Re- Monty Python parrot sketch analogy, can I sing the lumberjack song now?! Great but grim post John!

  7. How gruesome! To think that people went to watch the execution.

  8. Ed Grummitt ON

    Congratulations on a superb post – I had to have a nice sit down after that. You are the natural successor to Robin Williams (not that one!) who made Geography at NHS memorable with his bravura descriptions, not to mention his accuracy with the board rubber.
    Congratulations also on the Anecdotal History – have you heard the urban legend of the sixth former in a gorilla suit who ran through the Hall and offered Ken Imeson a banana? Kong was subsequently rugby tackled to the floor by a master whose name I forget. This story was retold to me by an ON gent who was working on Vulcan XH558 long before it took to the air. Just shows that you can’t stop a good tale.

    • Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed the post and the Anecdotal History. I tried very hard to write a history of the school which contained lots of stories about the two groups of people who make up any school. The teachers and above all, the pupils.

  9. Chris Waller

    One feels that Ketch did not receive the best of advice on his choice of career. What did surprise me is that France continued to use the guillotine until 1977. I had always assumed that the guillotine had ceased to be used once the Revolution was complete. It shocks me that a nation as culturally fastidious as the French continued with such a gruesome method of execution.

    • As far as I am aware, the French continued to have faith in the words of Monsieur Guillotin that this was a humane method of execution. Personally, I think that an efficient hangman is probably the quickest and the best but even in the 1950s and 60s they were pulling people’s heads off because they did their calculations wrongly.

      • Chris Waller

        Some years ago I read Albert Pierrepoint’s autobiography. In it he describes in detail the preparation for, and the carrying out of, a hanging. It was one of the few books which made me feel nauseous.

  10. This is ghastly, John! I read stuff like this and I ask am I actually a part of this species called humans? I shudder to think how horrible a death this was.

    • It certainly was. To be honest, as I’ve grown older I have wanted the death penalty less and less. When you see the stream of documentaries on TV about lying police officers, I don’t feel that a human being’s life should be trusted to them. We are currently finding out about how our police have not released vital evidence to the accused’s defence lawyers so that the prosecution can get a conviction in rape trials. Apparently, hundreds and hundreds of cases will need to be looked at. It’s a good job that that was not a death penalty crime as it is in some countries!

      • Chris Waller

        We are told that we in Britain have the best judicial system in the world. While it is vastly preferable to that of many other countries it still delivers miscarriages of justice. The case of Timothy Evans is well-known, as are the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, but among the less publicised are Stefan Kiszko and Stephen Downing, spending 16 and 27 years respectively in prison for crimes they did not commit. Also to be mentioned are Trupti Patel, Angela Canning and Sally Clark, that last being particularly tragic since she was a solicitor. All were imprisoned for child murder based on flawed evidence. After her release, Sally Clark fell into deep depression and committed suicide.

      • Fully agree with you, Chris. The system is far too adversarial when it should be attempting to establish the truth.

      • Have you ever thought that humans will gladly carry out a death sentence to another, yet when someone is dying in agony, the “law” forbids any “mercy” to be undertaken to bring that suffering to an end? We are able to walk the Mercy Act for our animals but not for those humans we love. Talk about screwed up!

  11. A bad day at the office for both Ketch and Monmouth. Probably better, on balance, for Ketch.

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