There are bad jobs, ones that are dangerous, disgusting, ones that are extremely physical and mentally taxing. Some have you take lives, but for a higher cause, an ideology. Is taking a life ethical in any context, though? Who mandates the ethics of ‘legally’ taking a life? Well, that argument has a long illustrious history, so we won’t get into it to deeply. What if your job had you kill as a form of punishment? As a form of punishment for killing in most cases? What if you were to be killed if you didn’t kill? Well, let’s wearily walk through the darkest corridors of humanity and its judicial system, and ask what it takes to be an executioner.
Capital crimes or capital punishment comes from the Latin word meaning ‘regarding the head’, alluding to the execution method of beheading, so we can assume that execution has at least been used since Roman times. In the past, execution would be preceded with torture and the act would be enacted in public. Some of the first laws written, though, go back to 18th century B.C.E. in the Code of Hammurabi of Babylon, which considered 25 crimes worthy of the death penalty. The Draconian Code (named after Draco of Athens, a man who was so strict that the term ‘draconian’ was created because of him) was developed in the 7th Century B.C.E. and had death as the punishment for even minor offenses such as stealing vegetables but, ironically, punished ‘involuntary homicide’ with exile. In the 11th century, William the Conqueror prohibited all types of executions in the U.K. but, just a few centuries later, Henry VIII would not only reinstate the death penalty, he would also condemn an estimated 72,000 people to death. Later on, the United States brought the death penalty with them across the Atlantic. During the Nazi era, Johann Reichhart (and his brother), was an eighth generation executioner. And you didn’t want to work in your dad’s café. During the reign of terror of the Third Reich, Reichhart took 2,876 lives with a total of over 3,000 throughout the span of his career. He would keep detailed records of all of his executions, all done in strict protocol. Although he was a Nazi party member, he was later used to execute the war criminals of the famous Nuremberg Trials only stopping when two men were wrongfully identified and executed. Towards the end of his life, he even became an anti-capital punishment spokesperson as his profession had cost him his marriage and his son (to suicide).
There are two sides of this cold coin
While I researched this topic, I found a clear dichotomy between executioners and their motives. Some approach it with reasonable denial and emotional detachment yet regret killing, and are moved by duty to their country and countrymen/women. Then you have the other sect, a despicable sect, that actually enjoys killing and does their job with such glee and depreciation for human life that you’d be sure they’re sociopaths. Actually, Hajj Abd Al-Nabi of Egypt most probably is: he displayed anti-social behavior as a child, such as torturing and killing small animals, and enjoyed seeing people in pain. He had overseen over 800 executions and, although retired, has promised to return from retirement if the occasion warranted it. Lady Betty of Ireland also fits into this category; she accidently killed her son to take his possessions and was then sentenced to death, but in a sick twist of faith, the executioner didn’t show up. She offered to execute the other condemned for an expungement of her sentence. She continued executing many years after that, even making charcoal drawings of the hanged that were found at her home when she died.
In opposition, men like Franz Schmidt (as revealed in his memoires) loathed and regretted every moment of his job that he inherited through his family. The reason his father had the profession wasn’t because he asked for it, but because he was forced by the local authorities, changing jobs from woodworker to executioner. Maybe in an attempt to balance what he thought as being evil, he also moonlighted as a healer. Jerry Givens, a man that spent 17 years executing the death sentence for the commonwealth of Virginia, is a far cry from the stereotype of a stone-faced killer. He would pray with the condemned men he would put to death and is deeply remorseful for the 62 live he had to take during his duties. He hadn’t even volunteered for the position but was appointed to it by a superior. After his retirement, he became a strong opponent of the death penalty and has given many interviews documenting the inhumanity and inaccuracy of methods used to enact capital punishment.
See also: The Deadliest Professions in the World
Executioners either do the job of taking a life voluntarily and with zeal, are given the position and they enact the government-sanctioned taking of life with detachment, feeling it is their duty, and finally there are the individuals that were forced into it and did it but with great cost to their morals and personal mental health. Seldom was the position of executioner revered by the public and many of these people, even if they did enjoy ending a life, were societal pariahs and relegated to the outskirts of their respective communities. Most anti-capital punishment individuals believe that the death penalty isn’t a deterrent for serious crime and serves no other purpose than sick vindication. On a side note and something to ponder, an execution costs taxpayers $250 million dollars, and $90.000 per year more to hold an inmate on death row compared to $1.5 million per inmate in general population for life without parole. So, if you can’t see on a humanistic level, consider that each inmate executed costs the taxpayer 200-fold the amount that it would cost to keep him in prison for a life sentence.