AskDefine | Define executioner

Dictionary Definition

executioner n : an official who inflicts capital punishment in pursuit of a warrant [syn: public executioner]

User Contributed Dictionary



From English execution, and -er.




  1. The person who carries out the execution of a criminal.
  2. Something that executes.


Extensive Definition

For other meanings of the term, see executioner (disambiguation). Headsman redirects here; see The Headsman (2005 film) for the movie.
A judicial executioner (not to be confused with executor) is a person who carries out a death sentence ordered by the state or other legal authority, which was known in feudal terminology as high justice.

Scope and job

The executioner was usually presented with a warrant authorizing or ordering him to execute the sentence. The warrant protects the executioner from the charge of murder. Common terms for executioners derived from forms of capital punishment -though they often also performed other physical punishments- include hangman (hanging) and headsman (beheading). In the military the role of executioner was usually performed by a soldier, such as the provost. A common stereotype of an executioner is a hooded medieval or absolutist executioner.
While this task can be an occasional one, it can be carried out in the line of more general duty by an officer of the court, the police, prison staff, or even the military. A special case is the tradition of the Roman fustuarium, continued in forms of running the gauntlet, where the culprit receives his punishment from the hands of the comrades his crime has gravely harmed, e.g. for failing in vital sentinel duty or stealing from a ship's limited food supply.
Many executioners were professional specialists, who usually traveled a whole area since executions would rarely be very numerous. Still, especially if a resident, he would often also administer non-lethal physical punishments, or apply torture.
The term is also extended to administrators of a severe physical punishment that is not prescribed to kill, but which may result in death.
Since executions in France (using the guillotine since the French Revolution) persisted until 1977, the French Republic had an official executioner, Marcel Chevalier, until the formal abolition in 1981.

Executioners in society

In Europe and its colonies, executioners have often been shunned by their neighbours. This attitude can be observed in numerous novels and films, for instance in Alexandre Dumas, père's The Three Musketeers or in the film La veuve de Saint-Pierre (The Widow of Saint-Pierre) in which executioners, who are minor characters, were ostracized by villagers. The profession of executioner sometimes ran through a family, especially in France where the Sanson family provided six executioners between 1688 and 1847, and the Deibler dynasty provided five between 1879 and abolition in 1981 (Louis Deibler, his son Anatole, Anatole's nephew Jules-Henri Desfourneaux, another nephew of Anatole, André Obrecht, and finally André's nephew, Marcel Chevalier). In Britain, the most notable dynasty was the Pierrepoints, who provided three executioners between 1902 and 1956 - Henry, his brother Thomas, and Henry's son Albert.
Native societies in Asia, Africa, The Americas, and the Pacific seem rarely to display such prejudice towards executioners, even when, as in North America, there is significant and vocal opposition to the death penalty itself.
In "Memories of Silk and Straw", by Junichi Saga, one of the families surveyed in the Japanese village of Tsuchiura is that of an executioner family ("The Last Executioner", P. 54). This family does suffer social isolation, even though the family is somewhat well-off financially. Where the paragraph above cites little social shunning for executioners in places like North America, one needs to bear in mind the infrequency of executions in modern times and the ease of a prison official not telling his family what his actual job at the prison is, something that was not possible when most executions were carried out in view of the general public.
executioner in Czech: Kat
executioner in Danish: Bøddel
executioner in German: Scharfrichter
executioner in Spanish: Verdugo
executioner in Esperanto: Ekzekutisto
executioner in French: Bourreau
executioner in Italian: Boia
executioner in Dutch: Beul
executioner in Japanese: 死刑執行人
executioner in Norwegian: Bøddel
executioner in Polish: Kat
executioner in Portuguese: Carrasco
executioner in Romanian: Călău
executioner in Russian: Палач
executioner in Sicilian: Carnìfici (sintenza)
executioner in Finnish: Pyöveli
executioner in Swedish: Bödel
executioner in Chinese: 刽子手
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