Unspeakable Times
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Botched Execution Attempts That Went Horribly Wrong

Updated December 17, 2019 1.6m views18 items

Capital punishment: the age-old way for humans to dispose of one another for crimes perceived to be the most egregious in a particular moment and place. As an ancient practice carried out countless times throughout history, there have predictably been some horrifically failed attempts. These failed executions have resulted in sheer agony for the condemned, adding insult, injury, and intense suffering to their final moments.

This list serves as a lowlight reel for history's most brutally botched executions - some from as recent as 2015. What follows goes to show that the process of capital punishment still seems to be working out a few bugs, even after hundreds of years of testing. In fact, some of these methods are still used around the world.

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  • Jesse Tafero - 1990
    Photo: Florida Department of Corrections / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1976, Jesse Tafero, his wife, their two children, and Tafero's friend Walter Rhodes were sleeping in a parked car when a patrol trooper, Phillip Black, tried to wake them up. Black spotted a gun on the floor of the car and wanted to speak to everyone inside. But as they got out, Rhodes and Tafero allegedly jumped the officer, shot Black and Constable Donald Irwin, and took off.

    Tafero was convicted and sentenced to capital punishment. As the first surge of electricity pulsed through the electric chair, Tafero's head suddenly caught on fire. A 6-inch flame shot out of Tafero's head due to one of his executioners using a synthetic sponge instead of a sea sponge. Two more jolts were delivered, and Tafero finally died after seven minutes. 

    However, after Tafero's execution, Rhodes admitted he was the one who took out the officers, not Tafero.

  • Tom Ketchum - 1901

    Tom "Black Jack" Ketchum was an Old West outlaw in the most classic sense. He and his posse - the Ketchum Gang - marauded across New Mexico and Texas during the late 1800s, holding up trains, saloons, stores, and post offices. By 1900, however, Black Jack's gang was reduced to nothing as a result of dangerous standoffs, gangrene, and other perils of a high-risk career path. By then a lone rider, Ketchum figured he had one more train holdup in him.

    He boarded a train just outside of Folsom, New Mexico, and stormed the engine with a pistol. The train stopped on a curved segment of the track, which allowed the conductor to get the drop on Ketchum and maim him in the arm. Ketchum was apprehended shortly thereafter.

    After a short trial in Clayton, New Mexico, Ketchum was condemned to hang. This was a big occasion for the town of Clayton, as they had never hanged a man before. Novices that they were, the hangmen forgot about the 200-pound sandbag attached to the rope they used to test it out, which rendered the noose extremely taut. As a result, when Ketchum was dropped through the gallows, his head was instantly severed.

  • George Painter - 1894

    In 1892, George Painter was found guilty of ending the life of his lover Alice Martin in their Chicago home. Up until his passing,  Painter denied he was culpable for the brutal act. He would go on to get three stays of execution from Illinois's governor while his attorney scrambled to find witnesses to back his alibi that he was out at the pub when someone harmed Alice. But his attorney's efforts were ultimately useless, and in 1894, George Painter was sent to be hanged. 

    In front of about 75 people, Painter was led to the gallows where he declared his innocence one last time: "Listen! If there is a man here who is an American, on his soul I say to that man, see that the murderer of Alice Martin is found. Good-bye." 

    With his final words spoken, a hood was placed on his head and the trap door was released, sending his body hurtling downward. Painter dangled in the air for a moment until the rigid rope snapped from his weight and he tumbled to the ground. Doctors rushed to Painter's side and discovered that while his neck was snapped, he was still alive. The solution was to hang him again.

    Painter was carried back to the top of the platform. As the broken noose was replaced, blood began to fill his white hood and cascade down his torso. Stunned onlookers began to flee from the grotesque display. Soon the trap door was again released, this time finishing Painter.  

  • Jimmy Lee Gray - 1983

    Jimmy Lee Gray was responsible for brutally taking the life of 3-year-old Deressa Jean Scales. Prior to the incident, Gray was convicted and then paroled for ending the life of his 16-year-old girlfriend. Subsequently, he ended up in Mississippi's gas chamber in 1983 for his crimes against Deressa.

    Eight minutes after the gas was released, prison staff had to clear the room of witnesses. Gray was convulsing, gasping for air, and banging his head on the chamber's steel pole, repulsing the audience. Reporters counted 11 anguished moans from Gray as he slowly asphyxiated. Later, it was revealed that the executioner was intoxicated during the procedure, and his impaired performance contributed to Gray's long, agonizing end.