1895: Lafayette Prince 1729: Philippe Nivet, “Fanfaron”

1868: Georg Ratkay, the last public hanging in Vienna

May 30th, 2019 Headsman

Vienna’s last public execution was the raucous May 30, 1868 hanging of Georg Ratkay.

The 23-year-old Hungarian proletarian had migrated to the bustling capital where he found accommodation as a “bedwalker”, literally renting hours in a bed shared by shifts with others. In January of 1868, he bludgeoned a carpenter’s wife to death in the course of robbing her.

For a few months that year it was the outrage on the lips of every Viennese and when the day came lips and limbs and leering eyes thronged as one into the square surrounding the Spinnerin am Kreuz tower, where the execution was to take place. By report of the Neue Freie Presse, the plaza was already bustling with early campers by 2 in the morning although the hanging wouldn’t go off until the evening. Roofs of adjacent taverns and factories made their owners a tidy profit charging gawkers for the vantage point, as did custodians of improvised grandstands hastily thrown up on the scene.

There were many reports of the indecencies of this bawdy and bloodthirsty gaggle, making merry for the “unusually pleasurable spectacle” and lubricated on beer served by vendors who also plied their trade here. Essayist Friedrich Schlögl gave voice to the disdain of respectable Vienna, in a piece quoted from Unruly Masses: The Other Side of Fin-de-siecle Vienna:

These were the habitues of the gallows, of both sexes — pinched faces, regular customers of the noisiest bars, inmates of the dirtiest cellars of poverty and squalor, a composite mixture of the many-headed company of knaves … All who had not been detained in prisons, asylums, and other Imperial establishments for improvement had come out for crude pleasure. Right through until dawn, the mob made the most appalling nuisance; then when day eventually broke and the food sellers came around hawking their “criminal sausages,” “poor sinner pretzels,” “gallows sandwiches,” etc., all hell broke loose and thousands upon thousands became as frenzied as was the fashion at the Brigittenauer Kirtag in days long past.

Only with difficulty (and rifle butts) could the hussars escorting the death party actually force their way through the mob to bring the star attraction to the post for his Austrian-style “pole hanging”.*

Then the “poor sinner” arrived and the official procedure took its undisturbed course. Was the crowd enraged? Was it shocked by the frightful sin? A jubilant cheer echoed through the air when, at the moment the executioner adjusted the candidate’s head, a pole broke and hundreds of curious spectators pressed forward. The joyous cries of at least a thousand throats went on to reward the clever trick of a man who knocked a coachman’s hat off because he “thoughtlessly” kept it on when the priest began his prayer.

The Emperor Franz Joseph I, who was already commuting most of the empire’s death sentences as a matter of policy** and had lost his own brother to a firing squad the year before, was so disgusted by the commotion that he never again permitted such a scene in Vienna. Ratkay’s hanging is commonly described as the last public execution in all of Austria, although according to the Austrian State Archive there were actually six more, all lower-key affairs away from the imperial center, before 1873 legislation formally moved all executions behind prison walls.

* For images of this distinctive execution method, see photos of Italian nationalist Cesare Battisti or video of World War II war criminal Karl Hermann Frank undergoing the punishment.

** The Austrian State Archive page linked above claims that of 559 death sentences from 1868 to 1876, only 14 came to actual execution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Austria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

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