Are these the worst botched executions in history?
The definitive downfall of Henry VIII's advisor Thomas Cromwell is chronicled in the anticipated final novel in Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy, The Mirror and the Light. Cromwell meets a sticky end, but his execution – like those of so many others – didn't go to plan. Emma Slattery Williams explores some other death sentences and capital punishments that have gone gruesomely wrong
Margaret Pole: a bloody end to the Plantagenets
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, suffered the misfortune of an inexperienced executioner. The daughter of George, Duke of Clarence (himself the brother of Kings Edward IV and Richard III) she was one of the few surviving Plantagenets at the end of the War of the Roses. At the beginning of Henry VIII’s reign Margaret was in favour, yet the winds swiftly changed when her son, Reginald, spoke out against the King’s separation from Catherine of Aragon. The Poles’ Plantagenet blood was suddenly seen as a threat and various members of the family were taken to the Tower of London, charged with treason.
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The 65-year-old Margaret – elderly by Tudor standards – was arrested in November 1538. All of her titles were stripped from her, and evidence was produced that appeared to show Margaret’s support for Catholicism. She was held in the Tower for two years before her execution on 27 May 1541 – conducted away from the populace, on account of her noble birth, though it was ghastly all the same. The inexperienced axeman missed her neck on the first blow; ten further blows were needed to finally remove her head, making a hideous mess of her torso.
Thomas Cromwell: a neither swift nor merciful end
Being the right-hand man of Henry VIII was a dangerous position to be in – something Thomas Cromwell, the King’s chief minister from 1532-40 knew all too well. It was Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, that proved Cromwell’s downfall – Cromwell himself had been the mastermind behind the disastrous match, which was annulled six months after the January 1540 wedding. By June of the same year, Cromwell’s enemies had persuaded the King that he was a traitor.
Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill on 28 July. “[He] patiently suffered the stroke of the axe, by a ragged and butcherly miser, who very ungoodly [sic] performed the office,” wrote contemporary historian Edward Hall, whose description has led many to believe that the beheading was neither swift nor merciful, and that Cromwell may have suffered multiple unsteady blows as a reportedly unskilled executioner hacked away at him.
John 'Baddacombe' Lee: the man who survived the hangman
There is a saying that things happen for a reason – and John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee may well have thought this applied to him. In 1884, elderly spinster Emma Whitehead Keyse was horrifically murdered near Torquay in Devon and – on weak evidence – Lee, who was her servant, was arrested.
He was due to hang in Exeter Prison on 23 February 1885, but three times the trapdoor beneath the scaffold failed. The medical officer refused to continue with the execution, so the sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Lee served 22 years before his release in 1907. He became known as the ‘man they couldn’t hang’.
Grigori Rasputin: the man who wouldn't die
Mystical ‘priest’ and advisor to the Romanovs, Grigori Rasputin had many detractors. Many believed he held too much sway over the Imperial Russian family and there were even rumours that he was having an affair with the Tsarina, Alexandra. In 1916, a plot was hatched by a group of nobles to rid Russia of its shady mystic.
Rasputin was invited to the home of Russian nobleman Felix Yusupov on 30 December and was served poisoned wine and cakes – which had no effect, so he was shot and left for dead. Even this didn’t finish Rasputin off. He came round and made a run for it before being shot again several times in the back. Still clinging to life, Rasputin met his final fate in a watery grave when he was thrown into the icy Neva River.
Tom Edward Ketchum: too loose of a noose
Tom Edward Ketchum – known as Black Jack – gave up his life as a cowboy in 19th-century America and turned to crime. He joined a gang and terrorised Texas and New Mexico, robbing trains and even committing murder. His final caper came in 1899, when he attempted to rob a train, but was shot by the conductor when he was recognised.
On 26 April 1901, people came from all over to witness the hanging in New Mexico for train robbery – but the spectators were in for an unpleasant surprise. No one in the county had any experience of carrying out a hanging. The rope used was too long, and the weight Ketchum had gained in prison meant that as soon as he fell through the trapdoor he was decapitated. His head was sewn back on to enable viewing of his body.
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French outlaw Cartouche's little brother was given a warning; in 1722: he was hung up by his armpits with a rope around his chest. The judge who had ordered the unusual punishment had no idea it would prove fatal, and the unlucky prisoner was dead within two hours.
Mary, Queen of Scots: a royal reckoning
Mary, Queen of Scots had been held captive in England for 18 and half years before she was sentenced to death for plotting to kill her cousin, Elizabeth I. It appears that Elizabeth did show some hesitation in signing the death warrant, as she only did so four months after Mary’s trial.
Mary’s execution – a beheading, which was seen as being more humane than hanging – took place in the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire. The first blow didn’t sever her head, nor did the second. A third swing was needed to fully part her head from her body.
Unbeknownst to the executioners, Mary’s dog had been hiding under her dress the entire time and proved very difficult to part from his dead mistress.
William Duell: saved by divine intervention
Sixteen-year-old William Duell was hanged on 24 November 1740 for the murder of a servant – remaining strung up for more than 50 minutes before being declared dead and cut down. But later on – as his body was on the table being prepared for dissection by medical students – Duell woke up with no recollection of his ‘execution’ and seemingly no ill-effects.
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The problem now was what to do with him, as officially he was dead. An Old Bailey hearing was held to decide his fate, which posed quite a quandary: rescheduling his execution would make a mockery of the law and publicise that surviving the gallows was possible. There were also concerns that Duell’s survival was a sign from God. In the end, it was decided that he would be transported to America.
William Kemmler: a dubious first
New Yorker William Kemmler holds the dubious record of being the first person to have been executed by electric chair. Apparently an alcoholic, he had been convicted of murdering his common-law wife with an axe during a drunken argument. On 6 August 1890, Kemmler was sent to the newly designed electric chair – a form of execution believed to be humane and painless.
A current deemed strong enough to kill was sent through his body for several seconds. The physicians present soon noticed that Kemmler was still breathing so, to the horror of those in the audience, another current was passed through him, this time rupturing blood vessels and sending a foul stench into the air. Many witnesses would later claim that it was a much worse form of execution compared to hanging.
Ginggaew Lorsoongnern: the woman with a hidden heart
In Thailand in 1978, a six-year-old boy was kidnapped and murdered. His nanny, Ginggaew Lorsoongnern, was one of the three behind the horrific plot and was sentenced to death by firing squad. She was shot ten times, pronounced dead and carried off to the morgue. As they were preparing for the next execution, a cry was heard from within. What happened next was like something from a horror movie: Lorsoongnern was discovered trying to sit up. A second round of bullets eventually ended her life, and it was later discovered that she had survived her first execution due to her heart being on the right side of her body.
Wallace Wilkerson: unlucky shots
American murderer Wallace Wilkerson did not enjoy a quick and easy death. In 1877, a fight broke out between Wallace and another man over accusations of cheating during a card game, leading to Wallace shooting the other man in the head. Wallace was found guilty and chose to be executed by firing squad rather than hanging.
On 16 May 1879, Wallace was seated in front of the gunmen with a target pinned over his heart. At the sound of the countdown, he sat up straight and unintentionally moved the target. All of the bullets missed his heart and he tried to leap from the chair, screaming, but bled to death after nearly 30 minutes.
This content first appeared in the March 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed
Emma Slattery Williams was <BBC History Revealed’s staff writer until August 2022, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirate queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiled HistoryExtra’s Victorian newsletter and interviewed historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.. She studied both History and English at Swansea University.