For as long as there have been laws, there has been the death penalty. That means that someone has always been needed to carry out the sentence, and while some sanctioned executioners seem to have been able to leave their work at the office, others have taken their work to heart…. and to extremes.
10 Simon Grandjean
On May 12, 1625, Dijon executioner Simon Grandjean and his wife (who served as his assistant), were handed what should have been an easy if not heartbreaking assignment. After a dead child had been found in the woods wrapped in an unfortunately monogrammed blanket, a guilty verdict was passed on the baby’s 21-year-old mother, Helene Gillet. In spite of Helene’s insistence that not only was she innocent of the murder but that the baby had been conceived after the unwanted attentions of the family tutor, the sentence stood. Because of her family’s status—and in spite of the fact that her father had already disowned her—she was allowed an execution by beheading.
While Helene and her mother appealed to the courts, a rumor started to circulate that someone from the nearby Bernadine abbey had foreseen Helene’s death from old age and natural causes rather than on the executioner’s block, but still the law insisted she die.
Part of the responsibilities of the executioner is not to botch things up, and unfortunately for Grandjean, that is precisely what he did. His first swing of the sword clipped her shoulder and even more bizarrely, the second swing was deflected. In theory, tying back a woman’s hair should have given the executioner a clean shot at her neck, but the story says that it was the knot her hair was tied in that partially blocked the second swing.
By the time the second swing failed, the crowd had already been worked into a frenzy and was hurling anything they could at the platform. Grandjean retreated to a nearby chapel, while his wife grabbed the condemned and dragged her beneath the platform to shield her from the crowd and to finish the job with a pair of shears. The crowd was having none of it, though, and broke through the barricades to kill first Madame Grandjean, then to drag the executioner from his hiding spot and tear him to shreds, too.
Helene was patched up, and none of the wounds the Grandjeans had managed to inflict were life-threatening. That created a bit of a problem, as she was still considered guilty and Dijon rather suddenly had no executioner. She was ultimately pardoned by Henrietta Maria, the sister of Louis XIII, and was said to have spent the rest of her life in a convent.
9 Artur Braun
During the first few decades of the 20th century, Poland reportedly had some trouble finding a reliable executioner. There were problems with one after the other, with one man even committing suicide after claiming he was haunted by the ghosts of the people he had killed. Another ended up suing the government, after a particularly bitter official ordered the execution to proceed without the standard black hood, giving the condemned a chance to kick and incapacitate his executioner.
In November of 1932, they were looking for a new man to fill those dark shoes. Out of 120 applicants, they chose Artur Braun. Unfortunately, Braun’s career ended before it even started. Overjoyed at his success in securing a new job, Braun and his friends decided to celebrate by heading out for a few drinks, as you do. Things got out of hand, though, and he apparently wasn’t a very nice drunk.
Reports say that Braun and his friends ended the night in a suburban bar, and that is where the guns came out. He drew a pistol and started firing, for whatever reason, and from there the night turned into an outright barroom brawl. Broken brandy bottles became weapons, innocent bystanders were beaten senseless, and Braun was fired from his new job before he even had the chance to execute anyone.
While it’s unclear just what became of Braun after his shooting spree, the Minister of Justice later said that the next man appointed as the chief executioner was going to be one who never drank.
8 Dick Bauf
Dick Bauf was born in Ireland into a less-than-stellar family situation, and was only 12 years old when his parents were arrested and convicted of breaking and entering with a side of murder. Child care being a different thing in the 17th century, the boy’s life was spared on one condition: that he be the one to execute his parents. Reportedly unwilling at first, Bauf’s parents gave their approval and told him that they would rather be hanged by him than by an uncaring stranger, and if it meant saving his own life, he needed to do it.
So he did.
After the execution, he found he was completely unable to find any honest work and turned to pickpocketing. From there, he fell in with a group of thieves and was tasked with scouting out churches in particular, to see what sort of treasures he could grab. Traveling the country, he finally decided that petty theft was not entirely his thing, and thought he could make a much better living as a highwayman. He was incredibly good at it, and his victims finally appealed to the government in hopes that they would help bring Bauf to justice. After Bauf captured a group of men looking to claim the reward on his head, he burned them alive in a barn and headed to Scotland until the heat died down.
Once there, he made the ultimately fatal mistake of trying to hook up with a woman married to a very, very vengeful man. Bauf was arrested, sent back to Ireland and, in spite of offering to pay a hefty sum for mercy, was hanged on May 15, 1702.