1431: Joan of Arc 1962: Adolf Eichmann

1718: John “Jack Ketch” Price, former hangman

May 31st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1718, the former common hangman got a taste of his own medicine.

As the 18th and especially 19th centuries unfolded and executions became more private, orderly and “humane,” the executioner’s office became more subtle and bourgeois. In the early 1700’s, however, it was commonly filled by a character who might just as easily have been on the other end of the rope. And once in a while … they were.

One disreputable character who performed the office for twenty years and more following the Stuart Restoration, Jack Ketch, lent his very name to the position (and its accoutrement — e.g., “Jack Ketch’s knot,” the hangman’s noose).

Our day’s victim, by the Christian name of John Price, was “Jack Ketch” in 1714-1715 until his debts caught up with him, and if the Newgate chronicle be believed wasn’t half-bad at the gig. Alas that he lost the position: his life in every other respect is reported by our sanctimonious interlocutors as one of drunken savagery.*

In such a state a couple of years later, he beat a woman to death during an attempted (or actual) rape at Bunhill Fields, at which location the law compelled him, in the parlance of the times, to “dance with Jack Ketch.” The prospect of hanging concentrated old Ketch’s mind wonderfully on the task of not missing one precious moment that might be spent drinking.

[H]e was no sooner confined in the condemned hold, than laying aside all thoughts of preparing himself for his latter end, he appeared quite void of all grace; and instead of repenting for his manifold sins and transgressions, he would daily go up to chapel intoxicated with cursed Geneva [i.e., gin] … As he was riding in the cart he several times pulled a bottle of Geneva out of his pocket to drink before he came to the place of execution

One would imagine that the dreadful scenes of calamity to which this man had been witness, if they had not taught him humanity, would at least have given him wisdom enough not to have perpetrated a crime that must necessarily bring him to a similarly fatal end to what he had so often seen of others: but perhaps his profession tended rather to harden his mind than otherwise.

Price/Ketch was not the only public executioner to find himself on the receiving end of his former trade, but he does seem to have the distinction of being the only one who was also gibbeted — his carcass hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway.

Update: John Price’s career narrated by Lucy Inglis of Georgian London in a podcast interview with Early American Crime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Executioners,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Language,Murder,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Rape,The Worm Turns

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