When state-sanctioned slaughter was big business, networks of professional executioners made a decent living through the ending of others' lives. While the work was far from glamorous, there have historically been times and places in which professional executioners were celebrities of sorts – admired, well-paid, and capable of drawing in a large crowd as they doled out punishment.
Whether their methods were gruesome or merciful, the most notorious historical executioners were just as revered as they were feared. Some were even given awards for their service from political and religious figureheads. Collected in this list are famous executioners with the most confirmed hits under their belts.
While England’s executioner John Ketch, also known as Jack Ketch, may not have the highest body count on his resume, his job performance earned him infamy because of its barbaric nature. He was allegedly wildly inefficient when called upon to man the chopping block.
He botched the execution of Lord William Russell back in 1683, failing to accurately land multiple blows of his axe several times. Then, when executing the Duke of Monmouth, James Scott, in 1685, Ketch took between five and eight swings of his axe to get the job done.
Whether Ketch was simply incompetent or deliberately vicious has been widely debated. Long after his own passing, his name went on to be used as a proverbial term for Satan and the end of life.
British Crown executioner William Marwood preferred to hang his victims. Marwood's attention to his methods and his innovation of a new technique are what really give him a spot in executioner history.
He perfected the "long drop" hanging technique, which snapped a prisoner’s neck instantly after a 6 –10-foot drop. This ensured a swift and more humane death.
Robert G. Elliott, The Man Of 387 Electrocutions
Robert G. Elliot became Chief Executioner of New York state in 1926 and he went on to take the lives of some of the most notorious criminals in US history. His chosen method of execution: the electric chair.
Over the course of his career, Elliott oversaw the execution of 387 people - including Sacco and Vanzetti and Bruno Hauptmann, who stole Charles Lindbergh's baby. Surprisingly though, in his memoirs, he wrote that he was strongly opposed to capital punishment. According to him, he only took the position because he was an electrician by trade, and could not find another job that had to do with electricity.
Famous executioner of France Anatole Deibler, offed over 395 men with a swift slice of the guillotine back in his heyday. Deibler reached celebrity status during his tenure as France's go-to executioner from 1885 to 1939. He was even granted the title "Executioner-in-Chief" in 1899.
At this point in history, photography was becoming more widely available. Because of this shift in potential media accessibility, the press constantly hounded Deibler for interviews and arrived at his public executions in droves.
From the beginning, Deibler's career was on the spotlight. A French newspaper commented on his first execution:
Young Mr Deibler demonstrated a confident flick of the wrist, and the ease of an experienced practitioner. After this happy trial, we can foresee and wish him a good career, and a number of respectable performances.
After his passing, Deibler's detailed accounts of his executions were located, providing significant insight into 19th- and 20th-century French culture and society. All 14 of his diaries are considered important historical documents and were purchased in 2003 for €85,000.