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Botched Beheadings April 29, 2013

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Medieval, Modern , trackback

big axe

The guillotine was originally invented as an act of humanitarianism to liberate criminal kind from the axe. It made sense, after all, to remove a criminal’s head from his or from her shoulders if that criminal had to be killed. But the procedure was messy. Two important things could go wrong while removing said head with a free falling blade. First, the criminal might move slightly on the block offering a moving target. Second, the executioner might miss his mark and take a blow or more to get the head off the neck. A famous example is Mary Queen of Scots, there the first blow of the sword hit the back of her head: Mary whispered, as well she might, ‘sweet Jesus’ and the second blow was more successful going through all the neck save for some sinews.

Criminals were all too aware of the danger. James Duke of Monmouth memorably  told Jack Ketch, his executioner. ‘Here are six guineas for you. Do not hack me as you did my Lord Russell. I have heard that you struck him three or four times. My servant will give you some more gold if you do the work well.’ In fact, Ketch took five blows to dispatch the usurper. On the first blow James was so disgusted that he sat up and stared at Ketch.

Ketch failed his victim, his employers and the crowd, who booed him. But sometimes you can feel sorry for the executioner as well as the man or woman about to die. When Margaret Pole was to be killed on Henry VIII’s orders – she is one of the most striking examples of judicial murder from that bloody reign – the elderly woman refused to put her head on the block, recalling madame du Barry. Pole had to be forced down and the unnerved executioner took ten or eleven blows to remove her head. It is enough to send you running for the sharp blade of the guillotine: though note that in Germany axe decapitations were still being carried out under the Third Reich; whereas in Saudia Arabia today…

In any case as a bit of catharsis after this unpleasantness. What about the following story that appeared in a British newspaper 5 March 1681. It related to an (attempted) execution in Stockholm. It is presumably a fake.

We are informed of a strange circumstance which happened some days since near this city. A woman, who, for being married to two or more husbands, was condemned to be beheaded; being prepared for death, and laying her head upon the block, the executioner gave the blow, but the axe rebounded like a tennis-ball; whereupon the condemned party rose up, and complained of injustice, and willed the executioner to desist, and alledged that she was free. Being re-conducted to prison, and visited, nothing appeared save only a small red stroke, and a little swelled, as we are informed by the Ministers of Justice of that place. The hatchet was sent for hither, and is as sharp as a razor; the swelling is now over; and many are of opinion that there is some cunning artifice in it.

Other bad beheading stories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

***30 April 2013: Chris from Haunted Ohio Books writes in: Here is a botched decapitation from 1874 Japan. The backstory: “The Japan Gazette of Aug. 21 contains an account of the murder of Mr. Haber, the German Consul at Hokodadi, by a native, who says he was actuated by a demon.[The murderer was described as a “spiritualistic fanatic” in other papers.]  He killed his victim with a sword, slashing him in a most horrible manner, and cutting one leg entirely off.” New York Herald-Tribune 11 September 1874: p. 1 And excerpts from the execution story: A JAPANESE EXECUTION. A Horrible Scene. Decapitation of the Murderer of the German Consul Hakodate, September 27, 1874. On Friday evening notice was given to the consuls that at 9 o’clock A.M., of the day following, Tazaki Hidechika would be sentenced for the murder of the late Mr. Haber, acting German Consul at this port, and that he would be executed at 10 o’clock, in the jail inclosure. [This was to prevent the prisoner from exhibiting “unseemly bravado.”] The prisoner was made to kneel, blindfolded, at the edge of a trench. “Two executioners stood by with their swords, which were dipped in water. First executioner advanced and struck, missing his aim and hitting under the neck close to the shoulders; the body fell forward, with the head in the trench, seeming to suffer much. A second blow was struck and then the hesitant executioner advanced and delivered a heavy blow, which, being unsuccessful, a fourth attempt to sever the head from the body was made but failed. One executioner then took the head by the hair and began to saw the head off with his sword in most horrible manner, but was stopped by the chief officer. Water was thrown on the face, and in order to show the face to the witnesses, the head not being entirely severed it was necessary to partially lift the body up with it. The body was covered with a mat and Tazaki Hidechika had met his due reward. The time occupied by the decapitation was two minutes. As the head was not severed from the body as per sentence and according to Japanese custom, the question may be raised as to whether the failure was intentional or not, as Hidechika may have preferred to suffer more to having his head cut entirely off; as to the Japanese idea of disgrace I am entirely ignorant. Notice of the execution was posted in one place, written in Japanese.” Wheeling [WV] Register 21 November 1874: p. 1 And one from 1882 Denmark: A HORRIBLE EXECUTION A Drunken Headsman Causes a Frightful Scene. Copenhagen, December 11. The entire country was thrilled by a general feeling of horror when the papers this morning brought the details of the execution of a criminal in a provincial place the previous day. According to the Danish law, criminals condemned to death suffer the last penalty of the law by decapitation by means of an axe, the block being placed at some conspicuous point as near as possible to the place where the murder was committed. A man condemned to death was to be executed yesterday morning and, as usual, a large crowd of people from the surrounding districts had assembled round the spot, only one constable being present to keep order. When the usual formalities were gone through, the criminal laid his head on the block; but the eye and the hand of the executioner, who had been drinking heavily on the previous day, were uncertain, and the stroke fell over both shoulders, the criminal uttered a smothered cry of pain. The executioner wrenched the axe out of the wound, wielded it again, and struck the criminal high upon the back of the head; again he wrenched the axe out of the wound and succeeded at last in cutting the head off. The crowd rushed to the headless trunk, some to try to catch some drops of blood, which the peasants think has some kind of magical effect to cure certain diseases, others to satisfy their morbid curiosity; in fact, a horrible and disgusting scene took place, several men and women fainting. Every one agrees that such a disgraceful spectacle must never more take place in Denmark; and the Minister of Justice has already, with praiseworthy speed, declared his intention to bring in a short bill providing for execution by means of the guillotine and within the precincts of a prison. Plain Dealer [Cleveland, OH] 12 December 1882: p. 4. Then the Count: You’re right to feel sorry for the poor old executioner, whether he was a headsman or a hangman. It was an extremely unpopular job, but somebody had to do it. The public executioner was shunned by absolutely everyone, the belief being that his grim trade gave him an ill-omened aura that might somehow rub off on people like leprosy, so he frequently had to live in an isolated house, where of course he got no visitors except officials coming to tell him his services were required. At one time the public executioner of Edinburgh lived in a now-vanished and very lonely cottage on Arthur’s Seat, and eventually grew so depressed that he committed suicide, which of course automatically made the house haunted and even more uninhabitable than it would have been anyway, hence its total demolition. The guillotine, under a different name but the same device in almost all respects, was invented in Halifax. The “Halifax Gibbet” was mainly intended as a humanitarian way of dispatching felons as mercifully as possible, but it also did away with the need for an executioner, since all that was required to do the deed was a tug on a rope. This meant that a committee of law officers could all pull the rope at the same time, sharing responsibility while allowing each of them to think that it wasn’t his feeble tug but somebody else’s that actually released the blade. (Similarly, in those  American states that execute murderers by firing-squad, one rifle is always loaded with blanks, so that should the executioners feel bad about taking a human life, they can console themselves with the thought that maybe they didn’t.) Sometimes an animal was used; if the crime was stealing livestock, the actual creature stolen, assuming it hadn’t been eaten, became the executioner.For some reason it never caught on in the UK, except in Edinburgh, where a copy of the Halifax Gibbet known as the Edinburgh Maiden was used for a time. The good Dr. Guillotine’s machine was in fact the third such device, and presumably inspired by the other two, His only innovation was making the blade triangular, which resulted in an even more efficient lopping action.’ Thanks Chris and thanks to the Count!