On May 31, 1718, an executioner in England got a taste of his own medicine when he was hanged at the gallows for his crimes. John Price was born in 1667 and was appointed executioner in 1714. As was customary at the time, Price went by the nickname “Jack Ketch” during his time in office.
The first executioner with the name Jack Ketch took the job in 1663 and was London’s top dispatcher for 23 years. The first Jack Ketch was known for horrendously botching executions and causing the condemned men — including Lord William Russell and James Scott, 1st Duke of Monmouth — to suffer several strokes of the sword before being beheaded. In the case of the Duke of Monmouth, after delivering five strokes with the sword, Ketch eventually resorted to cutting his head off with a knife. His career was marked by so much death and brutality that he became a bit of a bogeyman at the time, and after his death in 1686, and for about the next 200 years, his name became slang for anyone working as an executioner.Related: 9 Things We Learned About Execution By Hanging From Amanda Howard’s Rope: The History Of The Hanged
Part of this fame and longevity was assured by the fact that the hangman character in the Italian play Pulcinella (or Punchinello), and later the popular British puppet shows Punch & Judy was named Jack Ketch. Additionally, there are Jack Ketch characters in fiction, such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.
The phrase “Jack Ketch’s Kitchen” was used in the 18th and 19th centuries to describe the room in Newgate prison in which the executioner would “boil the quarters of those executed and dismembered for high treason.” A visitor to the “kitchen” once described what he witnessed there: “heads that were brought to be boiled, carried in dirty wicker baskets, and the hangmen gloating and jeering and laughing at them.” Heads and other body parts would be boiled in camphor or pitch to partially preserve them so they could be displayed as cautionary tales on London Bridge or other landmarks.
In the United Kingdom, “Jack Ketch” continues to be used as a proverbial name for death, Satan, and an executioner. And the knot on a hangman’s noose is still referred to as “Jack Ketch’s Necklace” or “Jack Ketch’s Knot.”
Unlike his predecessor, John “Jack Ketch” Price stayed relatively low-key and his career was not nearly as eventful. He did, apparently, carry a sadistic streak into his personal life when he attempted to rape a woman named Elizabeth White. White died only four days later from the horrific injuries Price inflicted on her body, but was able to describe the man who attacked her.
For his crime, Price himself was condemned to the gallows in 1718, ironically becoming a hangman sentenced to be hung. After he was put to death, his corpse was reportedly hung up in an iron cage in the London district of Holloway, to rot for all to see.
Main image: Jack Ketch (John Price), by unknown artist [Wikimedia Commons]