History’s Most Interesting Executioner

It’s been a while since I last posted here, hasn’t it, my dear readers?  To get back into the habit, I simply want to endorse an excellent history written by Joel F. Harrington titled The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century.  In this work, we read about the life and times of Meister Frantz Schmidt, who served as Nuremburg’s executioner from 1573 – August 10, 1618.  (The author forgot to note how ironic it is that a person whose main line of work is torture and execution retired on the feast day of the early Roman martyr reputed to have suffered the most painful martyrdom: St. Lawrence.)  Aided by the discovery of the first edition of Frantz Schmidt’s journal in an old German bookstore (published under the title A Hang Man’s Diary) and using many primary sources, Harrington deftly brings both the so-called long sixteenth century, aka the Golden Age of the Executioner (1480- 1620), and the work’s main subject to life.

The only attempted portrait of Frantz Schmidt as he prepares to send a poor sinner to God.

The only attempted portrait of Frantz Schmidt as he prepares to send a poor sinner to God.

First, I had no idea that Europe also had a caste system of sorts.  Sure, I knew that there were classes of people and some classes held more honor than others; but, I did not know that associating with certain classes of people were considered to contaminate one!  Executioners stood as one of these classes, and clans of executioners formed in Europe precisely because other people would not associate with them.  However, Frantz Schmidt was not born into such a clan: his father was pressed into service as an executioner by the Margrave Albrecht Alcibiades.  (Who names their son Alcibiades?  Did his parents want him to turn out to be a villain?)  After this, Schmidt’s father and his male offspring could find no work besides that of executioner.  When still a young boy, Frantz Schmidt learned the techniques of how to hang people, break someone upon a wheel, torture, maim, decapitate (by practicing on dogs, cats, and livestock), and–oddly enough–heal wounds, broken bones, and other ailments.

Broken on a Wheel

The severest form of execution performed by Frantz Schmidt: breaking someone on a wheel.

One would think that a monster would be the result of such a education, but Schmidt comes off as a pious, temperate (unlike 99.999% of the period’s executioners, he never drank a drop of alcohol in his life), compassionate, suave, docile, and law-abiding.  His character particularly pleased the city officials of Nuremberg, as did his efficiency: of 187 beheadings in his career, Schmidt only needed a second stroke three times and a third once–most of which occurred after he reached the age of 57.  However, executioners also functioned as esteemed physicians, and Schmidt prides himself at having treated over fifteen thousand patients over the course of his career.  The goal of his long and dutiful life seems to have been the restoration of family honor.  Does his petition to the Emperor Ferdinand II succeed?  Read the book to find out!

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