Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Profession of Executioner: Robert G. Elliott

What Makes a Successful Executioner?

Can we generalize from the story of Robert Elliott about the characteristics of a successful executioner? Without additional first-person accounts of their careers, the sample size of these practitioners is simply too small.

We do know enough to suggest several traits. If we consider the anonymity of the hooded ax man of Medieval Europe, the masked operator of the gallows or the guillotine of 100 years ago, we can arrive at the conclusion that it is desirable for the executioner to be unknown and faceless. Elliott, up until the writing of his memoir, certainly lived up to this expectation. He was about as colorless and unpretentious a man as one could find. If it had not been for his involvement in the three high profile cases described earlier, he probably would not have been known at all, and his house would not have been bombed.

There are several reasons for this. First, to dispatch the condemned to their Maker, one must assume the role of an impersonal arm of the state. An executioner with a personality would suggest that capital punishment is an act of vengeance (which it often is) on the part of government, and this would make the idea of execution distasteful to many citizens who reluctantly support it. Second, while Elliott appeared to be indifferent to threats, anonymity provides some protection for the individual carrying out the executions from the deranged, the angry, and irrationally passionate people who are found in every society. In effect, the executioner must be invisible and without personality.

If Elliott is to serve as an example, then it appears that the executioner should be a person who is, for want of a better word, workmanlike. A home-loving, middle-class craftsman, as was Elliott, can go about his duties of executing the condemned efficiently, without guilt or regret, just doing his job.

Finally, it seems that Elliott represents the need for a third general characteristic. The executioner must balance a strong moral sense, perhaps with basic Christian values, with a suspension of any ideology. In essence, Elliott assured himself that someone had to do what society demanded, and whether he personally opposed capital punishment (which he says he did) or supported it, such positions were irrelevant.

Whether the profession of executioner really exists today is doubtful, at least not in the sense of Robert Elliott, who worked at it for more than 30 years. True, the people who depress the series of plungers that result in execution by lethal injection meet our criterion of anonymity, but they seem to be mere technicians rather than professionals. And, of course, with the exception of Texas and Virginia, there arent that many executions carried out in the United States today, compared with the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally, can we make a distinction between professional executioners, hired by the state to carry out sentences imposed by judges and juries, and the Nazis at Auschwitz and Buchenwald? Is there any essential difference between Robert Elliott and Adolph Eichmann? This is an observation often made with executioners, that they are simply state-sanctioned murderers. However, it is an invidious comparison. There are several differences. First, while not always true, for the most part Elliotts clients were guilty of crimes that were defined by law as capital crimes. The victims of the Nazis had committed no crimes. Thus, while both executioners and Nazis are instruments of their respective states, the latter carried out their duties not by law, but by edicts pronounced against people who had committed no crimes. Second, sensibilities of the Western World demand that execution for crimes be undertaken soberly and humanely. Certainly, being herded into a shower room naked, gassed, and thrown into a furnace does not meet this standard. Third, there is the subtle difference in the source of authority for carrying out the killings. The professional executioner, such as Elliott, is engaged for the act, receives a legally constituted order, and, in the presence of confirming witnesses, carries out the execution. The victims of the Holocaust were killed on command.

The executioners of Elliotts time were continually described by newspapers and magazines as tortured by remorse for what they did, but if we can believe Elliott, that seems unlikely. Both of his predecessors, Davis and Hulbert, were, like Elliott, old-shoe types, and even Hulberts suicide doesnt indicate that he shot himself because of his profession. As much as tabloid journalism would have liked executioners to wring their hands in guilt, those who practiced the craft for any length of time seemed not to worry much about what they were doing.