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 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 gravely harmed by his crime, e.g. for failing in vital sentinel duty or stealing from a ship’s limited food supply.

Many executioners were professional specialists who travelled a circuit or region performing their duty, because executions would rarely be very numerous. Within this region, a resident executioner would also administer non-lethal physical punishments, or apply torture.

The term is extended to administrators of a severe physical punishment that is not prescribed to kill, but which may result in death.

Executions in France (using the guillotine since the French Revolution) persisted until 1977, and the French Republic had an official executioner; the last one, Marcel Chevalier, served until the formal abolition of capital punishment in 1981.



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