Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ketch, John
KETCH, JOHN, commonly known as 'Jack Ketch' (d. 1686), executioner, is supposed to have been the immediate successor in the office of hangman to Edward Dun, who had in his turn succeeded Richard Brandon [q. v.], the executioner of Charles I. The last known reference to 'Squire Dun's' official activity is in a curious pamphlet dated 1662, and entitled 'Qui chetat chetabitur, or Tyburn cheated.' It is believed that Ketch took office in the following year, but no printed notice of the new hangman occurs until 2 Dec. 1678, when a broadside appeared called 'The Plotters, Ballad, being Jack Ketch's incomparable Receipt for the Cure of Traytorous Recusants, or Wholesome Physick for a Popish Contagion.' On the top of the sheet is a woodcut, in which is represented Edward Coleman [q. v.] drawn in a sledge to the place of execution, exclaiming, 'I am sick of a traytorous disease,' while Jack Ketch, with a hatchet in one hand and a rope in the other, is saying, 'Here's your cure, sir." In 1679 it appears from another pamphlet purporting to be written by Ketch himself, and entitled 'The Man of Destiny's Hard Fortune,' that the hangman was confined for a time in the Marshalsea prison, 'whereby his hopeful harvest was like to have been blasted.' A short entry in the autobiography of Anthony à Wood for 31 Aug. 1681 states how Stephen College was hung in the Castle Yard, Oxford, and when he had hanged about half an hour, was cut down by Catch or Ketch, and quartered under the gallows' (cf. Hist. MSS. Comm. 12th Rep. App. vii. 163). In a pamphlet probably written by Ketch himself, and entitled 'The Apologia of John Ketch, Esquire' (the title of 'esquire' being still claimed by the hangmen in confirmation of the arms granted to Richard Brandon), in 'vindication of himself as to the execution of the late Lord Russell, 21 July 1683.' Ketch repudiated the charge that he had been given 'twenty guennies the night before that after the first blow my lord should say, "You dog, did I give you ten guennies to use me so inhumanly?"' He attributed the bungling of the execution (described by Evelyn as done in a 'butcherly fashion') to the fact that Lord Russell 'did not dispose himself for receiving the fatal stroke in such a position as was most sutable,' and that he moved his body, while he himself 'receav'd some interruption just us he was taking Aim.' Ketch successfully struck for higher wages in 1682—action to which allusion is made in D'Urfey's popular 'Butler's Ghost' (1682). In the 'Supplement to the last Will and Testament of Anthony, Earl of Shaftesbury ' (1683 fol. p. 3), Ketch is referred to under the name of Catch as a person of established reputation, and in the epilogue to Dryden's 'Duke of Guise' he is termed an 'excellent physician.' From the fact that the manor of Tyburn, 'where felons are now and for time out of mind have been executed,' was leased for a considerable time during the seventeenth century to the family of Jacquet, Arthur Collins, in his 'Memorials of the Sidneys,' assumes that the 'name of the executioner has corruptly been called Jack Ketch.' But this, which was written in 1746, can hardly be regarded as more than an ingenious theory (Collins, i. 85).
At Monmouth's execution, 15 July 1685, Ketch played a prominent part. Monmouth, in his address to him on the scaffold, alluded to his treatment of Russell, and this appears to have totally unnerved him. After three ineffectual blows he threw down the axe with the words, 'I can't do it,' and was only induced to complete his task by the threats of the sheriffs. Sir John Bramston (Autobiog. p. 192) and others confirm the fact that Ketch dealt at least five strokes, and even then, according to Macaulay, be had recourse to a knife to completely sever the head from the trunk (Macaulay, Hist.; Somers Tracts, x. 284-5). In January 1086 Ketch, for affronting the sheriff, was turned out of his place and committed to Bridewell, one Pascha Rose, a butcher, taking his place. But on 28 May following Rose himself was hanged at Tyburn and Ketch was reinstated.
His behaviour at the executions of Russell and Monmouth, combined with the prominent position he occupied in carrying out the barbarous sentences passed on Titus Gates and his fellows (cf. Thomson, Loyal Poems, 1685, p. 291), greatly increased Ketch's notoriety. This was perpetuated by the natural application of his name to the executioner, who regularly figured in the puppet-show drama of 'Punchinello,' introduced into England just about this time from Italy, and popularised by Robert Powell [q. v.] and others during the reign of Anne. A letter 'From Charon to the Most Illustrious and High Born Jack Ketch, Esqre.,' in Tom Brown's 'Letters from the Dead to the Living' (1702, p. 48), shows that the office of executioner was very soon specially identified with his name. That Ketch deserved his reputation for excessive and inhuman barbarity is rendered very probable by a letter from Dr. Hutton to Thomas Comber, D.D. [q. v.], dean of Durham, dated 4 Dec. 1686, in which it is said ‘Mr. [Samuel] Johnson [1649–1703] [q. v.], was whipped on Wednesday, but civilly used by the new hangman, Jack Ketch being buried two days before.’ It appears, therefore, that Ketch died towards the close of November 1686.
A fictitious ‘Autobiography’ of Ketch, with illustrations from designs by Meadows, was published in 1836, and a ‘Life of Jack Ketch with Cuts of his own Execution’ was among the humorous titles furnished by Tom Hood for the Duke of Devonshire's library at Chatsworth.
[Luttrell's Diary, i. 271, 353; Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xii. 293, 2nd ser. xi. 151, 256, 314, 447, 5th ser. xi. 349, 510; Butler's Hudibras, ed. Zach. Grey, ii. 341; Evelyn's Diary, ii. 182; Burnet's Own Time, i. 646; Macaulay's History, chap. v. p. 306 (popular ed.); Griffiths's Chronicles of Newgate, i. 155; Wheatley and Cunningham's London, iii. 418; Hone's Table Book, p. 695; Brit. Mus. Cat. Pegge, in Curialia Miscellanea, argues that Ketch's real name was Catch; and Gent in his Canting Dict. calls him Kitch.]