It depends on the person.
Carl Panzram, a notorious serial killer in the U.S., was caught, tried and sentenced to death.
When the hangman was fitting the noose over his head, Panzram remarked, “Hurry up, you bastard, I could kill a dozen men with my bare hands while you are fooling around.” He was more worried about the safety of the executioner than for himself!
Irma Grese was a female SS guard, and has caused untold atrocities to Jewish and other women in Nazi camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbruck and Auschwitz.
That awful woman was sentenced to death by hanging by a British Military Court in 1946. Upon execution, she was also recorded as saying to the executioner, “Hurry, please. Hurry.” In a hurry to meet Satan, maybe? But whether Satan would be in a hurry to meet her is another matter…
Irma Grese, the hyena
William Kemmler, the first man to die in the electric chair (in New York in late 19th century), was recorded as saying, “Take it easy and do it properly, I’m in no hurry.” If only people were that cooperative in general! The execution was botched, unfortunately. I will spare you the details.
One of the earliest executions on the electric chair
James French. who was about to sit in the electric chair in 1966 in Oklahoma, remarked to the reporters present, “Boys, how about this for a headline? French fries.” The traumatized reporters apparently did not take this advice, as the headlines were very sober and respectful the next day.
Danton, a famous French revolutionary, remarked to the executioner even as he was about to be guillotined in front of a baying crowd, “You will show my head to the people, it’s worth it !” To be fair, he was ugly as f—k.
Another female revolutionary, Charlotte Corday, expressed curiosity about the guillotine. She asked technical questions to the irate executioner about how it functioned. As she explained to him, “I have never seen one. I have the right to be curious!” The talkative woman was silenced forever shortly afterwards. The executioner, Sanson, picked up her head and showed it to the crowd. It was said that her eyes and her mouth opened for a few seconds — possibly to ask a final question.
Queen Marie “Let Them Eat Cake” Antoinette, climbed on the scaffold, walked on the toes of the executioner, and said to him, “Please excuse me, Mr. Executioner”. Talk about grace, manners and style…
Execution in public in Paris in the 1930s
The body – and head – of a notorious criminal, after being guillotined. French doctors claimed that the head remained conscious for several seconds after the decapitation.
Now, for those who were scared shitless.
Hebert, another French revolutionary journalist, was spending his time printing a rag newspaper, Le Journal du Pere Duchesne. He wrote inflammatory articles at the height of the French Revolution, calling for the guillotining of everyone he disagreed with.
His faction lost power, and he was brought to trial. He was sentenced to death, and fainted in the courtroom. In his jail cell, he is recorded as screaming with fear the whole night. In the wee hours of the morning, he kept fainting on the way to the guillotine at the Place de La Revolution, and had to be forcibly dragged, and finally executed.
Edith Thompson was a beautiful woman in her twenties who was sentenced to death by hanging in 1920s England, for the death of her husband, who was severely abusing her. He was killed by her lover, Frederick Bywaters.
Edith Thomson, with her lover Frederick Bywaters on her right, and her husband
Any evidence of complicity was flimsy, and she was executed more for amorality than for anything else. England took a dim on adultery then.
She was very distraught after being sentenced to death, and spent her days crying hysterically, unable to face the horror to come. Her hair turned white in the space of a few weeks. She was heavily sedated before the execution.
Her execution was horrible: possibly being pregnant, it was said “her insides fell out”.
The executioner committed suicide some time later after witnessing his handiwork. After that time, women who were executed in England had to wear special knickers (panties for our U.S. friends). First, a victim of domestic violence, then a victim of judicial violence!
So what conclusions can we draw from this? Chroniclers record that at the height of the ‘Great Terror’ during Revolutionary France, during which hundreds of people were sent to the guillotine simply for not being revolutionary enough, most people went to the guillotine with calmness, composure and dignity.
If this is anything to go by, it would seem most people show bravery when confronted with death, or if they have time to prepare for it.
Revolutionaries, or people fighting for a principle, seem scornful of their own death. The psychopaths seem to not display any fear. “Professional” criminals also seem to show a lot of contempt for their own execution.
Other psychologically “abnormal” people seem to welcome death as they have learnt that they will never be like other people, and that death will “liberate” them.
It would seem that people who have led a charmed life, or who had a good social or familial life or who have known financial or professional success, in other words, accepted members of society, would show the greatest fear, as they stand to lose everything.