Jack Ketch and his famous knot

I attended a presentation on public hangings in Oregon last night. I was specifically interested in the knots that hangmen used, because it is my understanding that the so-called Jack Ketch knot (named after a 17th century London executioner) of movie fame was less popular than simpler slipknots. The matronly speaker said that this was not the case in Oregon, adding that she had seen a Jack Ketch knot in a museum.

I hadn’t imagined that the same knot would be used repeatedly, although this would explain why hangmen’s ropes sometimes broke. Ropes can only survive a limited number of drops, which is why mountain climbers throw away ropes that still look good. Age also weakens a rope, four years being the maximum for climbing ropes even if they are unused.

I was also interested in the disposal of the bodies of the executed because my lodge has the skeleton of a man who was supposedly hung (literally a skeleton in the closet). The speaker said that the two men who were legally hung in Lane County were buried, although she couldn’t speak for those who were lynched.

Even many legal hangings were botched, with the prisoner either strangling or being decapitated. The real life Jack Ketch was notorious for such ineptness. Ironically, he never hung anyone, and didn’t even create the knot that is named for him. Instead, he used an axe, which he welded so badly that he once took eight blows to sever a man’s head. His victim spent much of this time complaining bitterly, because he had tipped Jack to expedite the proceedings. When Jack Ketch died, his name was popularly applied to subsequent executioners, which is why—when hanging became the method of choice for executions—the knot of choice bore his name.

Knotted ropes break under less strain than unknotted ropes. The common square knot, for example, weakens a rope by 50%, because it is tied with 90° turns. Knots with numerous and winding turns are stronger, which means that the hangman’s knot is a strong knit indeed.

I suspect that my knot repertoire numbers about a hundred, although I rarely have need of them. Tape, hooks, screws, nails, straps, buckles, buttons, snaps, zippers, Velcro, bungee cords, and tensioners, have made knots nearly obsolete. So, why study knots? People who love knots are brothers to those who love steam engines in that both are drawn to inventions that have been superseded in practicality while remaining unequalled in beauty. Much of life is that way. Few of us would want to cook over an open fire, yet stoves and microwaves are ugly by comparison.