The Lives of Official Executioners

Updated on September 19, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

What kind of psychological make up is needed to be able to kill another human being in cold blood and not be affected by it?

Obviously, a psychopath, who lacks empathy for other humans, would have no trouble doing the job; in fact, a psychopath would positively relish the occupation. But, it’s hoped that authorities take care to keep such mentally ill people away from condemned prisoners.

Source

In his 2013 book, The Faithful Executioner, Joel Harrington writes that “In pre-modern Europe, professional executioners were particularly reviled as cold-blooded killers for hire and accordingly excluded from respectable society at every turn. Most were forced to live outside the city walls or near an already unclean location within the city, typically the slaughter-yard or a lepertorium.”

When public executions ceased (the last one in America took place in Kentucky in August 1936) the official who carried out death sentences became anonymous.

Virginia’s Executioner

Between 1982 and 1999, Jerry Givens put to death 62 inmates.

For many years, Mr. Givens’s family did not know he was the State of Virginia’s executioner. They knew he was a corrections officer but not the man who threw the switch or started the flow of chemicals.

He wrote a book, Another Day is Not Promised, about his occupation in 2012. He says he never enjoyed his job, which came to an end in 1999 when he was convicted of financial crimes.

In 2013, Jerry Givens told The Guardian “If I had known what I had to go through as an executioner, I wouldn’t have done it. You can’t tell me I can take the life of people and go home and be normal.”

He now works with a group trying to get the death penalty abolished.

All the fun of public beheadings in 16th century Hamburg.
All the fun of public beheadings in 16th century Hamburg. | Source

Two Mississippi Executioners Troubled by their Work

Donald Cabana was warden at Parchman State Penitentiary in the 1980s, during which time he was required to carry out several executions. One was of Edward Earl Johnson who was almost certainly innocent of the crime for which he was put to death in the gas chamber in May 1987.

In his autobiography Death At Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner Cabana describes being so troubled by the experience of the death chamber that he left the corrections service.

Within a short space of time he suffered three severe heart attacks and no longer supports the death penalty.

In his 2001 book, The Last Face You’ll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty, journalist Ivan Solotaroff wrote about Donald Hocutt.

A huge bear of a man, Hocutt worked in corrections at Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman and took part in numerous executions. Solotaroff wrote that in Hocutt he found a man damaged by the after-effects of his job: “His mind hasn’t been right for years. Depressions steal over him, and for weeks he finds it almost impossible to get out of bed ... At the slightest provocation, he falls into rages.”


Some Executioners Turn to Self Harm

John Radclive was Canada’s official hangman from 1892 to 1910, during which time he sent at least 70 people to the great beyond.

The work bothered Radclive so much that he turned to alcohol to settle his demons.

Writing in The Toronto Star Patrick Cain recounts that “At some point, Radclive started a ritual of draining a full bottle of brandy after each execution …

“Radclive seems to have been either very drunk or painfully hung over nearly all the time, at least in the period around a hanging …”

The drink did him in and he died of cirrhosis of the liver in February 1911 at the age of 55.

John Radclive (by the right upright) does his work in 1902 before an appreciative audience on roofs and telegraph poles.
John Radclive (by the right upright) does his work in 1902 before an appreciative audience on roofs and telegraph poles. | Source

Some Executioners Execute Themselves

The man who succeeded Radclive, Arthur English, was also a heavy drinker and alcohol abuse was a common problem among hangmen. At BBC News Sachia Berg writes (February 2001) that “According to Steve Fielding, author of The Hangman’s Record, several hangmen had to be sacked for arriving at executions drunk. One tried to hang a priest by mistake.”

The hangman referred to in the article’s title was Henry Pierrepoint, a member of a family of executioners. His assistant on this occasion in 1910 was John Ellis who ran into self-destructive problems of his own.

He was one of Britain’s official executioners from 1901 to 1924. He took a great deal of pride in his work and wrote about it in Diary of a Hangman. However, he became unhinged by the execution of Edith Thompson in Holloway Prison in January 1923.

Thompson did not go stoically to the gallows; she was hysterical and according to CapitalPunishmentUK.org Ellis wrote that she looked dead already. “She was carried from the condemned cell to the gallows in the execution shed by two warders and the two assistants … and held on the trap whilst Ellis completed the preparations … this hanging seemed to have a profound effect on all those present.”

Ellis took to drinking and, in 1932, he committed suicide by slitting his own throat with a razor.

Untroubled Hangman

Some executioners appear to be not bothered by their grim occupation; perhaps they are better at dissociating than the average person and can detach from reality.

Albert Pierrepoint, Henry’s son, put about 450 people to death, including 200 Nazi war criminals. He pursued his grisly trade in Britain from 1932 to 1956 with a high level of professionalism and a belief that his clients deserved a swift and dignified end to their lives.

He said he was completely untroubled by his work, but he wondered at the point of it. He wrote of capital punishment that “It is said to be a deterrent. I cannot agree … I do not now believe that any of the hundreds of executions I have carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”


Bonus Factoids

The United Kingdom did not have an official executioner. Instead it kept a list of people qualified for the work. A name was picked from the list when needed and that person received a fee for the job and travel expenses – no salary, no benefits. Modern executioners had other full-time jobs and were unknown to the public and in some cases their part-time occupation was a secret even from their families and friends.

In May 2015, Saudi Arabia said it was running short of executioners and advertised for eight more people to fill the posts. Apparently, no special qualifications are needed for the job that involves beheading people with a sword. The occupation is described as a “religious functionary” and is at the bottom end of the government pay scale.

Outside of genocides Vasili Blokhin probably holds the dubious record for carrying out the most executions. As Joseph Stalin’s chief executioner, Blokhin likely had more than 10,000 corpses to his name. Despite having a team of assistants Blokhin personally took care of his victims with a shot to the back of the head. He is said to have killed as many as 300 people in a single night. When Stalin died in 1953, he was demoted and stripped of all his privileges and awards. He ended his own life the way he had ended the lives of so many, with a bullet to the head.

Allen Ault used to be the Director of Corrections for the State of Georgia. In the 2012 documentary, Death Row the Final 24 Hours he says “I remember the faces of the men I executed and they appear in my nightmares.”

Sources

  • “I Was Virginia’s Executioner from 1982 to 1999. Any Questions for me?” The Guardian, November 21, 2013.
  • “The Agony of the Executioner.” Patrick Cain, The Toronto Star, May 20, 2007.
  • “Hangman Dropped for Drinking.” Sachia Berg, BBC News, February 24, 2001.
  • “Diary of a Hangman.” John Ellis, True Crime Library/Forum Press, August 1996.
  • “The Faithful Executioner.” Joel Harrington, Picador, 2013.
  • “Another Day is Not Promised.” Jerry Givens, Westbow Press, 2012.
  • “The Last Face You’ll Ever See: The Private Life of the American Death Penalty.” Ivan Solotaroff, HarperCollins, 2001.
  • “Death At Midnight: The Confession of an Executioner.” Donald Cabana, Northeastern, 1998.

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    © 2016 Rupert Taylor

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