Before public execution was regarded with distaste, the town squares of Europe became witnesses to the execution of many prisoners and the crowd who watched as these people were killed by the shadowy hooded figure of an executioner. Who were these professional killers behind the covers?
Here are some of the famous ones.
Getting the Job
Before we get to know these people, let’s briefly discuss first how a person could become an executioner in ancient times. As it turned out, the majority of medieval European executioners were former criminals. How it worked was that those who were bound to be executed, whenever needed, were forced into the job. In return, of course, they wouldn’t be killed. It was a matter of being the executioner or being executed. As mentioned in the book written by Hugo Matthiessen called Boddel og Galgefugl,
In the year 1470, a poor thief stood at the foot of the gallows in the Swedish town Arboga and was waiting to be hanged. The public attending the spectacle had pity on the sinner, and when he, to save his neck, offered to become executioner in the town, it was agreed. He was pardoned, and the red-hot iron was used to brand his body with both thief and executioner mark.
In Scandinavia, they would even cut off one or both of the executioner’s ears so he could be easily identified in the crowd.
Charles-Henri Sanson (1739-1806)
Accounting to have executed some 3,000 people during his service for 40 years in Paris, Charles-Henri Sanson was the royal executioner of France and High Executioner of the First French Republic during the reign of King Louis XVI. The most surprising and significant public execution he did was no doubt that Monday of January 21, 1793, when he beheaded via guillotine in the center of Paris none other than Louis XVI himself. The drop of the blade not only ended the King of France’s life but also the thousand years of monarchy in the country.
Before he got his career, he worked as a young apprentice executioner first, assisting his uncle in the execution of Robert-Francois Damiens, a French domestic servant who attempted to assassinate King Louis XV in 1757. Before his execution, Damiens was brutally tortured first by crushing his feet, burning them with red-hot irons, and then pouring his wounds with hot lead, wax, and oil. On the day of his execution in Paris’s Place de Grève, it was Charles-Henri who emasculated Damiens first before he was torn to pieces by horses.
Lady Betty (1740 or 1750-1807)
While executioners were almost always portrayed in movies as men, there were also female ones, and Elizabeth Sugrue was one of them. She was an Irish executioner with a bit of a sad backstory.When her farmer husband died, Lady Betty was left without a single penny to her name. Along with her two children, she was evicted from their home and left to wander the town of Roscommon. Her younger child died from starvation and exposure, leaving her with her elder son Padraig. However, due to Lady Betty’s violent temper, Padraig decided to leave home in 1775 after receiving harsh treatment from his mom. Lady Betty was left to live in solidarity, earning a few pennies by taking lodgers at night.One dark and stormy evening of November 1789, a tall, black-bearded man arrived at her lodging house to stay for the night. The man was finely dressed and paid Lady Betty in gold pieces. The guest’s wealth was envied by Lady Betty, who decided to stab and rob him while he slept. As it turned out, the man was none other than her son, Padraig.
She was sentenced to death and was to be executed at Roscommon Gaol when she volunteered to take the place of the official hangman who was absent due to sickness. She was allowed, and right there and then, she ever-so-calmly hanged the other prisoners. Not only that, but she would also eliminate criminals out on the street in exchange for being paid. She spent the rest of her life as a live-in hangwoman at the prison, staying in her own room. It was said that she had hundreds of victims throughout her career. Unsurprisingly, she was nicknamed “the woman from hell.”
Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992)
One of British history’s most famous executioners of the 20th century was Albert Pierrepoint. At an early age, he already knew that he wanted to be a hangman. In September 1932, his twisted childhood dream came true when he was taken as an assistant executioner at the age of 27. Three months after, he had his first execution alongside his uncle Tom. By 1941, he was already a lead executioner.
After World War II, Pierrepoint hanged over 200 people who were guilty of war crimes in Germany and Austria, including Irma Grese, who was also known as “the Beautiful Beast” and was notorious for her sadistic concentration camp actions. She was hanged on December 13, 1945, with Pierrepoint’s long-drop method of hanging. Another famous one that he finished off was Derek Bentley, who murdered a policeman during a robbery attempt.