1585: Frederick Werner, the executioner’s brother-in-law

Being ‘broken on the wheel’ was an agonising and prolonged way in which to die …

The felon was secured, spread-eagled, face upwards, on a large cartwheel mounted horizontally on an upright which passed through the hub, the wheel sometimes being slightly canted in order to give the spectators a better view of the brutal proceedings …

Death was meted out by the executioner wielding a heavy iron bar, three feet long by two inches square, or using a long-handled hammer. Slowly and methodically he would shatter the victim’s limbs; the upper and forearms, the thighs and the lower legs … On being removed from the wheel the corpse would resemble a rag doll, the various short sections of the shattered limbs being completely disconnected from each other …

In some states in Germany the regulation number of blows was forty. Franz Schmidt, executioner of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, wrote in his diary that on 11 February 1585 he ‘dispatched Frederick Werner of Nuremberg, alias Heffner Friedla, a murderer who committed three murders and twelve robberies. He was drawn to execution in a tumbrel [a cart], twice nipped with red-hot tongs and afterwards broken on the wheel.’

This multiple murderer was in fact Schmidt’s brother-in-law and, probably in view of their relationship, the judges decreed that only thirty-one blows need be struck. One wonders whether, after that number, there was anything worthwhile left to aim at.

One thought on “1585: Frederick Werner, the executioner’s brother-in-law”

  1. For criminal law based on pain and destruction, even complete shattering left the doomed in good shape. No imminent danger of death, even from the hell of the slightest breath of a destroyed chest. Being spared just one blow to shattered bone would have been priceless. Death became the hope.

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