Being an executioner has to be one of the strangest jobs in history. Who would volunteer? As you’ll discover, the most prolific executioners known to us are a diverse group of men. Some took their job seriously, trying to give dignity to the condemned. Others showed no mercy or compassion. Together, they combined to kill thousands of people.
10. Edwin Davis
While trying to prove that AC current was more dangerous than DC current, employees of Thomas Edison invented the electric chair. After making a few adjustments, Edwin F. Davis was the first person to use it to execute someone. He was New York’s first official “State Electrician.”
The chair’s first victim was William Francis Kemmler, who murdered his common-law wife on March 29, 1889. His lawyers tried to argue that the electric chair was “cruel and unusual punishment,” but they were unsuccessful. So on August 6, 1890 at Auburn Prison, Kemmler was the first human to die via the electric chair.
By all accounts the execution was horrible. They first put 1000 volts into his body for 17 seconds, and he was declared dead by the doctors. But then a witness noticed Kemmler was still breathing, so the doctor ordered 2000 volts to be used. This led to a horrible sight, as the blood vessels under his skin began to rupture. It took eight minutes for him to die and the process made a horrible stench.
One would think causing this horrific death would be enough for Davis to consider a career change, but he held the position for 24 years and executed 240 people, including Leon Frank Czolgosz, the assassin of President William McKinley. During his career, Davis continued to work on the chair and had a patent on modifications as he tried to make it more humane for the condemned.
9. Saleh Shamsadeen
Executions are a unique procedure in Yemen. They are done between 9:00 am and 10:00 am, the condemned is laid down on the ground on their stomach, and a doctor finds their heartbeat through their back and marks it with a circle. Armed with an AK-47, the executioner straddles their back as the verdict is read allowed. The victim, or the victim’s family, are then given a choice. They can stop the execution if they speak up, but if they remain silent the executioner shoots the target twice.
Saleh Shamsadeen is an executioner in the country’s fifth largest city. Shamsadeen, who was 65 when Time Magazine interviewed him in April 2013, has had the job for 12 years and executed over 300 people. He would recommend the job to anyone, except for his children.
8. John C. Woods
Woods was a Master Sergeant with the United States Army during World War II. He volunteered for the job of executioner when the army was looking for men to hang Nazi war criminals. Woods’ career spanned 15 years, during which he hanged 347 people.
His most notable executions took place on October 16, 1946, shortly after the Nuremberg trials. Woods was scheduled to hang 11 of the top members of the Third Reich. However, Hermann Göring managed to poison himself, leaving Woods and his partner, Joseph Malta, to hang the other 10 Nazis over a span of about 75 minutes. When later asked if he felt bad for executing so many people, he said the opposite — he was proud for executing those men.
7. Franz Schmidt
A major evolution in capital punishment is the efforts made by authorities to make the process more humane. Back in the 16th century, you have to imagine that to be an executioner you’d have to be a cold blooded psychopath. Yet that wasn’t the case with Franz Schmidt, who was called a somber family man.
Schmidt was born in 1554 and lived in Hof, in northeastern Bavaria. Franz got into the business thanks to his father. How his father got the job is an interesting story — there was a tyrannical nobleman who wanted to hang two men. No one wanted to perform the execution, so the nobleman picked Schmidt’s father out of the crowd and demanded that he do it. He didn’t want to, but he was ordered to do it or face the same fate, so he reluctantly proceeded. Afterward the family was ostracized, and Franz had no choice but to join the family business.
Schmidt chronicled his 45 year career in a diary. He beheaded most people with a sword, most of them with just one chop. He also burned two men alive, used the wheel on violent criminals and drowned a woman who committed infanticide. Besides executing people, Schmidt was also responsible for all corporal punishment in Nuremberg. This included removing fingers, removing ears and flogging people. In all, Schmidt executed 394 people and punished 345 more.
6. William Calcraft
Most of the executioners on this list were quiet, humble men who looked at their job as a necessary tool. They meant to end the lives of the condemned as painlessly and with as much dignity as possible. But William Calcraft seemed to care very little about the victims of his noose.
Calcraft was originally a cobbler, but also worked as a night watchman and sold meat pies on the street. While selling pies around London’s Newgate Prison he met executioner John Foxton, who got him a job flogging young offenders. When Foxton died on February 14, 1889, Calcraft took over as England’s hangman. At times, his executions brought in 30,000 witnesses. Sadly, his popularity was probably because Calcraft was either sadistic or incompetent.
When it comes to hanging, the idea is to drop the victim so the noose breaks their neck and they die instantly. Calcraft instead used a short drop that caused the victims to asphyxiate and die a slow, awful death. Other times, Calcraft would get more involved and either pull on the legs of the condemned or jump on their shoulders to break their neck. After the execution he would cut up the rope and sell the pieces. During his 45 year career, Calcraft executed 450 people. He was eventually forced to retire in 1874 due to old age, and died of natural causes on December 13, 1879.
5. Hussein Qarrni Hussein al-Fiki
Born in 1947 in Tanta, Egypt, Hussein Qarrni Hussein al-Fiki first joined the army and then got a job with prison services. He was a big man, and his duties involved transporting the most dangerous offenders. While he was working in the Kana district he met the district’s executioner. Al-Fiki said he “dreamed” about being a hangman, because they made a considerable amount of money per execution.
For years he worked as an assistant hangman, which mostly involved leading the condemned to the gallows. After the main hangman passed away in 1998 al-Fiki took over — his first victims were a woman and a young man who were having an affair and conspired to murder the woman’s husband and brother. Since then he’s gone on to hang 1070 people. He says that at first he used to get anxiety, but now he no longer has problems sleeping.
4. Thomas Derrick
By now you’re probably wondering how one gets the job of executioner. What sane person would volunteer, especially before modern day execution methods?
That brings us to Thomas Derrick. Derrick was originally sentenced to death for raping a woman when Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, gave him an interesting proposition — he would give him a reprieve if he became an executioner. Given the options, Derrick agreed and went on to execute over 3000 people. Most notably he executed Devereux himself, who led a failed coup d’état against Queen Elizabeth I. Derrick is also noted for changing the way people are hanged. He invented a beam with a pulley, and to this day the beam in cranes that he invented is called a “Derrick.”
3. Johann Reichhart
Reichhart was born into a line of German executioners dating back eight generations. He got his start as a judicial executioner in 1928 and continued to work throughout World War II. Most of Reichhart’s executions took place from 1939-1945, when he was responsible for executing German citizens who were guilty of treason and other wartime crimes. Reichhart travelled all over Germany with his Fallbeil, which means “Drop sword” and is similar to the French guillotine.
Although Reichhart was a Nazi, he wasn’t tried as one because he didn’t kill people in concentration camps or on the battlefield. In fact, after the war he helped hang 156 Nazi war criminals, and cooperated with John C. Woods in the hangings of those found guilty at Nuremberg.
Over the span of his career, Reichhart executed over 3000 people. Strongly disliked in Germany, he retired due to the abolition of the death penalty in West Germany in 1949. Reichhart died in 1972 at the age of 78.
For centuries, there was an unusual trial for senior officials and other notables of the Ottoman Empire. If something was suspected, they were summoned to the Topkapi Palace. They would meet with the bostanci basha, which means “head gardener.” They would sit down, talk, and then be served sharbat, a drink made from fruit and flower petals. If the sharbat was white, the visitor was safe. If it was red, it meant they were condemned to death. But they still had a slight chance — they had to beat the head gardener in a foot race.
The race was to where executions were held, which was about 300 yards away from the palace. They had to run through the gardens and through the south side of the palace to an area that overlooked the Bosphorus. If the head gardener lost, the condemned would face banishment. If the gardener won, the execution would commence at the end of the race and the body would be thrown in the water. One of the most prolific head gardeners was a man named Souflikar, who apparently strangled three people a day for five years. It’s estimated that he killed more than 5000 people with his bare hands.
1. Vasili Blokhin
Born January 5, 1895 in the Russian Empire, Blokhin fought in World War I before joining the NKVD, the predecessor to the KGB. There he performed black work — assassinations, executions and torture. During his six years there, Stalin was impressed and moved him up the ranks. He was made the head of a small unit that took their orders directly from Stalin.
What makes Blokhin far and away the most prolific executioner on our list is his role during the Katyn massacre. In April 1940, captives of the Soviet invasion of Poland were dragged into a dark room. There was a log wall for the prisoner to stare at, and the floor was slanted so blood could be easily hosed down. Blokhin stood behind the door in a leather apron, a leather hat and long leather gloves. Without saying a word, Blokhin would shoot the prisoner in the base of the skull. He did this every three minutes for 10 hours a night for 28 days, killing at least 6000 men.
Blokhin was forced into retirement in 1953 after Stalin’s death. He was initially commended for his service until De-Stalinisation campaigns stripped him of his rank. Blokin turned to alcoholism, went insane and killed himself on February 3, 1955.