The Gruesome History of Botched Executions
Capital punishment (death by execution) has been a part of human society since time immemorial. Even though it is a practice as old as human civilization, perhaps the most surprising thing about executions is just how bad we are at them! Some big names from history have found their heads on the chopping block, and it hasn’t always gone smoothly. Here are just a few of the bloody and botched executions from history.
Botched Execution #1: Thomas Cromwell (NB: No, not Oliver)
Thomas Cromwell was one of King Henry VIII’s most loyal advisors, working as his top minister. Unfortunately for Cromwell his aptitude at his job and religious beliefs soon won him many enemies among his peers. These men dripped poison in Henry’s ear until Henry no longer trusted his right-hand man, fearing Cromwell was secretly working against him.
Cromwell’s loyalty was rewarded with a long list of trumped-up charges including treason and heresy. He was arrested in 1540 and sentenced to death without trial. To add insult to injury he was also stripped of his land.
The site where the ancient scaffold of Tower Hill, Trinity Square Gardens, London was located, and it was this scaffold that was used for the botched Thomas Cromwell execution. (Mariordo / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
He lost his head on 28th July 1540. It is believed he was given a poor excuse for an executioner who took several blows to fully decapitate him. A contemporary Edward Hall stated after the fact:
"So patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and Boocherly [butcherly] miser, which very ungoodly performed the office.”
If that isn’t bad enough, Henry changed his mind after the execution and stated that the charges were based on false information. Thomas Cromwell had died for nothing.
Botched Execution #2: Mary Queen of Scots
Mary Queen of Scots came to a particularly gruesome end. Being a royal came with quite a few obvious perks, good food, riches, a nice castle, etc. However, one of the less obvious perks was that when you found yourself condemned to die, your executioner was usually the best around.
It was expected that when a royal’s head was on the chopping block the executioner would be competent enough to do the grisly job in one swing. But this was not always so. When Mary was executed on February 8th, 1587, the executioner's first blow missed the neck completely, striking her in the back of the head.
The Mary Queen of Scots execution scene, drawn by eyewitness Robert Beale. (Robert Beale (1541-1601), Clerk of the Privy Council to Queen Elizabeth I / Public domain )
His second blow hit her in the neck, killing her instantly and putting her out of her misery. Unfortunately, it took another swing from the axe to sever her head completely. Perhaps attempting to save face, the executioner then lifted the presumably now mangled head and declared “God save the Queen .” Unfortunately, Mary was wearing a wig, causing her head to fall out of his grasp and to the floor.
Botched Execution #3: The Curious Case of William Duell
Evidently beheading the traditional way wasn’t always terribly effective. But what about hanging? Surely that was more reliable?
Hanging is actually a very technical form of execution. Not enough rope and the victim dies a slow painful death through asphyxiation. Too long a drop on the rope, and you risk not just the neck-snapping but coming off altogether.
Scaffold for the execution of the death penalty, which it turns out was not always perfect or successful. ( brszattila / Adobe Stock)
The strangest botched hanging is probably the case of William Duell, sentenced to death by hanging for being an accessory to the rape of Sarah Griffin. He was hanged on 24th November 1740 in Tyburn in England. His body was left hanging for around 20 minutes before being cut down and sent to the Surgeon’s Hall so it could be dissected for medical training.
As he was laid out on the board ready for dissection, it was discovered the 17-year-old was still breathing. Within two hours he was sitting upright and by the next day, he was back at full strength. He was sent back to prison while the authorities tried to decide what to do with him.
There was much excitement among the public over Duell’s case and so it was decided that his sentence would be changed to penal transportation . He was shipped off to live in exile in North America. So, Duell was executed at the age of 17, and lived to be 81.
Botched Execution #4: Robert François Damiens
On the 5th of January 1757, King Louis XV was stabbed with a penknife by Robert Francois Damiens. It didn’t do the King much damage thanks to the heavy winter clothes he was wearing. Damiens made no effort to escape and was arrested on the spot.
Damiens was promptly tortured and sentenced to death by being drawn and quartered . Damiens’ limbs were tied to four different horses who were to walk in different directions, pulling the man to pieces.
Robert Francois Damiens was sentenced to execution but not the standard death penalty execution style as you can see and hopefully not imagine. An etching by an unknown author. ( Public domain )
Unfortunately, the first attempt failed. However much the horses pulled, the man would not come apart. The executioner was ordered to sever the man’s tendons, only then did the dismemberment work.
Some witness accounts state even that was not enough to kill Damiens and his living, but limbless torso was then burnt at the stake. Damiens suffered an incredibly ignoble and painful death.
Botched Execution #5: William Kemmler
As the above executions show, sometimes the old ways really aren’t the best. Clearly beheading and hanging were just too unreliable. This is probably why on January 1, 1888, New York became the first place ever to institute the death penalty by electrocution.
William Kemmler was an alcoholic sentenced to death for killing his common-law wife with a hatchet. He was set to be the first felon to be electrocuted but, unfortunately for him, new technology tends to come with a few teething problems.
The electric chair used to ‘cook’ William Kemmler on August 6, 1890. ( Public domain )
Kemmler was initially electrocuted for 17 seconds at 1000 volts which was believed sufficient to kill a man. He was declared dead, but witnesses said they could still see him breathing. They doubled the voltage and tried again.
Rather than simply electrocuting him this also began to cook him . Witnesses claimed Kemmler’s flesh burst open and began to combust. An autopsy found that blood vessels in his head had carbonized, and his brain had hardened from the heat.
The spectacle was awful enough that the press soon jumped on the story, with one reporter remarking that the axe would have been more humane. This wasn’t enough to kill off the electric chair, however. To this day several states still have death by electric chair as an option.
It would be easy to look at most of these botched executions and put them down to being from a “less civilized age” but that would be a mistake. It has been estimated that between 1890-2010 3% of executions in the USA were botched, 276 out of 8,776. That is a startlingly high margin of error in a process that is literally life or death.
If the USA’s botch rate is so high it is likely that other countries that still use the death penalty are similarly high, if not worse. Whether or not the death penalty is right or wrong is a complicated matter of personal belief and a point of much contention. However, it seems most people would agree that if the state is going to claim a person’s life for their misdeeds, they should at least get it right on the first try.
Top image: Man hanging from an execution rope, a very technical method of execution. Source: zef art / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell
Bridgen. J. 2022. 8 Famous Botched Executions . Available at: https://www.history.co.uk/article/8-famous-botched-executions
Margaritoff. M. 2021. When Cruell Meets Unusual: 9 of the Most Botched Executions From History . Available at: https://allthatsinteresting.com/botched-executions
Sarat. A. 2014. Gruesome Spectacles: Botched Executions and America’s Death Penalty . Stanford University Press