Posts filed under 'Holy Roman Empire'

1540: Hans Kohlhase, horse wild

Add comment March 22nd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1540, the legendary outlaw Hans Kohlhase — a crime victim turned revengeful crime lord — executed* in Berlin. It’s a classic case of stubborn cusses escalating a minor property dispute.

En route to the Leipzig fair in 1532, Kohlhase (English Wikipedia entry | German) was stopped by a Saxon nobleman who confiscated some of his horses. In dueling publications years later, Kohlhase would charge that Guenther von Zaschwitz accused him of stealing the horses; von Zaschwitz countered that Kohlhase looked suspicious and got uppity with his retainers when questioned.

Proceeding to Leipzig in a huff, Kohlhase obtained the commendations necessary to confirm his identity and then demanded his property back from von Zaschwitz. The lord agreed … if Kohlhase would pay for the horses’ days of upkeep in his stables. Just a little crap sandwich from the neighborhood bully. Kohlhase didn’t feel like having a bite of it.

Fast forward a couple of years. Suits in the courts bogging down, Kohlhase at his wit’s end resorted to an older form of redress, one consecrated by centuries of tradition but now forbidden by a landmark 1495 legal reform: he declared a feud. Kohlhase really vented his spleen in this one, not bothering as a plausibly wronged party to play for hearts and minds but rather pronouncing his vendetta against the whole Electorate of Saxony.

Thus “justified,” he turned out-and-out bandit, gathering a crew of desperados to his banner and robbing with opportunistic promiscuity while staying a step ahead of a bounty issued against him by Elector Johann Frederick I. To repeat: this is all over a question of who foots the bill for a feedbag. Even Martin Luther tried to talk this vengeful fury off his grudge.

What is just, you will do justly, says Moses; wrong is not justified by other injustice … What you rightly do, you do well; if you can not obtain justice, there is no other advice than that you suffer injustice … Therefore, if you desire my council (as you write), I advise, accept peace.

Kohlhase accepted only the peace of the grave.

The German romanticist Heinrich von Kleist immortalized (and renamed) this uncompromising litigant in the novella Michael Kohlhaas; the same story has been re-adapted for cinema several times more.

* No surviving document specifies whether the execution was by breaking wheel or beheading.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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1616: Vincenz Fettmilch

Add comment February 28th, 2019 Headsman

Among the ancient remains, that which, from my childhood, had been remarkable to me, was the skull of a State criminal, fastened up on the tower of the bridge, who, out of three or four, as the naked iron spikes showed, bad, since 1616, been preserved in spite of the encroachments of time and weather. Whenever one returned from Sachsenhansen to Frankfort, one had this tower before one; and the skull was directly in view. As a boy, 1 liked to hear related the history of these rebels, — Fettmilch and his confederates, — how they had become dissatisfied with the government of the city, had risen up against it, plotted a mutiny, plundered the Jews’ quarter, and excited a fearful riot, but were at last captured, and condemned to death by a deputy of the emperor. Afterwards I fc!t anxious to know the most minute circumstance, and to hear what sort of people they were. When from an old contemporary book, ornamented with wood-cuts, I learned, that, while these men had indeed been condemned to death, many councillors had at the same time been deposed, becanse various kinds of disorder and very much that was unwarrantable was then going on; when I heard the nearer particulars how all took place, — I pitied the unfortunate persons who might be regarded as sacrifices made for a future better constitution. For from that time was dated the regulation which allows the noble old house of Limpurg, the Fiauenstein-honsc. sprung from a club, besides lawyers, tradespeople, and artisans, to take part in a goverument, which, completed by a system of ballot, complicated in the Venetian fashion, and restricted by the civil colleges, was called to do right, without acquiring any special privilege to do wrong.

Goethe

On this date* in 1616 the muffin man Vincenz Fettmilch was executed for a Frankfurt guild revolt that became a notorious anti-Jewish pogrom.

One of the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire, Frankfurt am Main was at this time a predominantly Lutheran city of some 20,000 souls, governed by a council comprising the city’s wealthy patricians to the exclusion of her merchants and artisans. The city also boasted one of Germany’s largest Jewish communities, consisting of well over 1,000 people concentrated in a quarter known as the Judengasse (“Jew Lane”); living in Frankfurt under imperial protection, Jews of course were subject at any given time to varying degrees of community anti-Semitism.

The small and almost accidental spark to light the Fettmilch conflagration began in 1612 when the accession of Emperor Matthias led to citizen petitions for an enumeration of civic rights and the patricianate suspiciously refused to supply the charters. The ensuing conflict brought a growing popular movement that “commanded support from a large cross-section of the city’s inhabitants,” writes Christopher Friedrichs.** “But from the outset a dominant role was assumed by one man: Vincenz Fettmilch, a citizen who had experimented with a number of occupations before becoming a pastry-baker. There is no question that Fettmilch was a dynamic and articulate leader — and a passionate foe of patricians and Jews alike.”

For many months did Fettmilch (the cursory English Wikipedia entry | the much better German) and the patricianate maneuver but the long and short of it was that the latter’s credibility to rule deteriorated fatally with damaging revelations of financial malfeasance. By 1614 the popular movement achieved the outright conquest of municipal power, forcing Frankfurt’s much-resented oligarchs to yield their governing posts to guildsmen.

Which also positioned Vincenz Fettmilch to effect his demand for rousting that huge Jewish population.

On August 22, 1614, a popular riot invaded and ransacked the Judengasse. Fettmilch himself issued the expulsion order the very next day. This event is one of the best known and most studied anti-Jewish pogroms in German history; it’s also recalled as one of the last such incidents before the Third Reich — for Fettmilchs did not commonly get the run of a city, and our Fettmilch did not enjoy his run for very long.

As imperial soldiers gathered for an order-restoring incursion that rebellious Frankfurt would be powerless to resist, Vincenz Fettmilch was summarily arrested later in 1614 by other Frankfurters, sparing the city a good deal of destruction and speedily collapsing the new order he had created. Fettmilch had over a year as a ward of the empire’s torturers before he with three associates was beheaded and quartered on February 28, 1616 — the same day that Frankfurt’s Jewish refugees were officially re-admitted back to the Judengasse.


Broadside of the punishment of Fettmilch and associates by Johann Ludwig Schimmel.†

From the time of Fettmilch to this day inconclusive debate has raged among historians and other Germans about how to weigh, interpret, and reconcile those two thrusts of the rebellion — the resistance to Frankfurt’s optimates, and the chauvinism against her Jewry.

* You’ll also find the date of March 10 in various sources; this 10-day discrepancy is that commonplace calendar complication, the Julian-Gregorian split. Frankfurt am Main was a free imperial city within the Holy Roman Empire, and while the empire had gone Gregorian from its introduction in 1582, the mostly Protestant Frankfurt (along with many other German states) stayed away from this papist device until 1700. Our dating here defers to the local Julian sentiment.

** Friedrichs, “The Fettmilch Uprising in German and Jewish History,” Central European History, June 1986.

† Image from Karl Harter in From Mutual Observation to Propaganda War: Premodern Revolts in Their Transnational Representations; that author contextualizes the scene as follows:

In the middle of the picture we see the scaffold set up at the market place of Frankfurt cordoned by heavily armed soldiers and railings with posts showing the imperial eagle: The punishment of the rebels is taking place within the separated legal space of the empire, where only the delinquent, the executioner, the judge and several officials (representative of the imperial commission) and the soldiers appear. The city council and the representatives of the guilds on the two platforms in the centre of the background as well as the burghers of Frankfurt surround that space, watching from the outside. The executioner decapitates one of the delinquents, the recently severed finger of whom can be seen in front of him. The dismembering of the finger – the Schwurfinger – clearly points at the illegal conjuration or conspiracy in terms of penal law. Two more decapitated corpses of ringleaders are positioned on the scaffold. In the background on the left, outside the city three gallows are set up; one with a corpse hanged at the feet and another exposing part of quartered corpse. Both death penalties — reverse hanging and quartering — are typical of the aggravated and infamous punishment of treason. In the case of the Fettmilch-revolt, the four main ringleaders were dismembered, decapitated, quartered and parts of their corpses were exposed at the gallows outside of town. Furthermore, their heads were impaled and exposed on the gate tower on the Rhine side, which was the main entrance to the city, depicted with the four decapitated heads and a super-sized imperial eagle in the left background of the broadsheet. The symbolic implication, communicated and enhanced by the broadsheet, is quite obvious: The ringleaders and the revolt are to be commemorated as a serious political crime. This was emphasized by the total demolition of Fettmilch’s house shown in the foreground of the illustration on the right and the infamous shaving, flogging and banning of his family depicted in the background on the right: the total social disintegration and exclusion of the main ringleader — comprising his family, his name, his house — for eternal memory (“zum ewigen Gedächtnuß”). Apart from the ringleaders and their families, the punishment of other rebels (17 associates and followers) by flogging and banning, shown in the background on the left, seems almost lenient. In addition to the punishment of the rebels, the restitution of the legal and imperial order is represented by the re-entry of the Jewish community in form of a procession, just passing the scaffold.

All other broadsides dealing with the punishment of the rebels depict the same scene and make use of similar iconic elements: scaffold, armed soldiers, imperial posts and eagle, the dismembering of the Schwurfinger and decapitation, the tower with the heads, the gallows with the quartered corpses, whipping and expulsion, the demolition of the house, the re-entry of the Jews etc.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Gibbeted,History,Holy Roman Empire,Martyrs,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason

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1525: Jacques de La Palice, “lapalissade”

Add comment February 24th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1525, a French marshal’s was executed during a crucial battle of the France-vs-Habsburg Italian War, beginning a long posthuous journey to a wordplay gag.


The Battle of Pavia, by Ruprecht Heller (1529).

The Battle of Pavia is best remembered for the fate — not lethal, but much more damaging to statecraft — of King Francis I of France, who was captured during on the field by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.* Francis spent two years in comfortable but discomfiting imperial custody until he agreed to the humiliating Treaty of Madrid ceding vast tracts of French territory (notably Burgundy) to Charles.**

For all that, Francis kept his head and eventually resumed his station. Jacques de La Palice (English Wikipedia entry | the much longer French) did not exit the Battle of Pavia nearly so well.

The lord of La Palice (or Lapalisse), grandson to a comrade of Joan of Arc, our man had spent a lifetime bearing French arms; he’d been personally knighted by King Charles VIII for his prowess at age 15 in his very first engagement.

The great bulk of his time ever since had been spent on various campaigns in Italy, where France remained more or less continuously at war against the Holy Roman Empire until 1559.

Fighting up and down the peninsula, La Palice earned the impressive rank of Grand Master of France, and it had nothing to do with his chess acumen. He’d actually retired to the pleasures of domesticity after being captured in 1513 at the Battle of the Spurs — so named for the panicked spurring a fleeing French cavalry gave to their horses — only to be recalled to his post in 1515.

Late in 1524 he was among the host accompanying King Francis’s march to recover France’s on-again, off-again transalpine beachhead of Milan. This objective the French achieved with scant resistance, but the expedition turned disastrous in a further advance to Pavia. There, 9,000 imperial troops were dug in to defend; unable to take the city by storm the French put it to siege, fatally overextending themselves.

Come the following February, the Habsburgs had cut Pavia off from Milan and the French encampment was weakened by defecting mercenaries. On the morning of February 24, the imperial forces mounted an attack on the French that turned into a comprehensive slaughter. La Palice was captured early on by the Habsburgs’ landsknecht mercenaries and executed by them at some point later on during the fight. Although his fate was a bit more premeditated, he was only one of many blue-blooded commanders who lost their lives on the field that dark day for France† — suspending French ambitions in Italy, if only for a few years.

The knight’s alleged feats are celebrated in a ballad known as “La chanson de la Palisse” (“The Song of La Palice”). Rather, there are dozens of versions of that ditty, dating from the 16th to the 18th century, of unknown original authorship but agglomerated by the French poet Bernard de la Monnoye into a humorous caper in the 18th century.

This poem presumably (though not certainly) began as a genuine praise song for the dead marshal, opening with this garment-rending stanza:

Hélas, La Palice est mort,
Il est mort devant Pavie ; 
Hélas, s’il n’était pas mort, 
Il ferait encore envie.

Alas, La Palice is dead, 
He died before Pavia; 
Alas, if he were not dead, 
He would still be envied.

Somewhere along the way fulsome became winsome — perhaps via deliberate spoof or maybe the well-known phenomenon of old-timey letter s written to look like f, transforming the verse into a comical tautology:

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il ferait encore envie (“if he was not dead he would still be envied”)

s’il n’etait pas mort, / Il serait encore en vie (“if he was not dead he would still be alive”)

It’s thanks to this amusing misreading that the French tongue today enjoys the term lapalissade, meaning a laughably obvious truism — and in Monnoye’s composition the entirety of the lyrics consist of such jests; e.g.

Monsieur d’la Palisse is dead,
He died before Pavia,
A quarter of an hour before his death,
He was still alive.

He was, by a sad fate, 
wounded with a cruel hand.
It is believed, since he is dead,
that the wound was mortal.

Regretted by his soldiers,
he died worthy of envy;
And the day of his death
was the last day of his life.

He died on Friday,
the last day of his age;
If he had died on Saturday,
he would have lived more.

(That’s just an excerpt; the much longer full French verse is available at the song’s French Wikipedia page.)

* Ample unverifiable folklore attaches an event so memorable as the capture of a king; a site such as this is bound to note the one that reports that Francis might have been killed on the spot by rampaging foes but for the timely intercession of a young Spanish soldier named Pedro de Valdivia … who would go on to become the conquistador of Chile, and eventually an execution victim himself.

** Francis renounced the treaty as soon as he was released, on the accurate grounds that it was made under duress. In this betrayal of honor, he did his kingdom much the better turn than his distant predecessor John II had done when, captured by the English during the Hundred Years’ War, he dutifully set about extracting from his subjects the ruinous ransom and even returned voluntarily to English custody when he could not fulfill the terms of his parole.

† Another corpse at the Battle of Pavia was Richard de la Pole, Plantagenet pretender to the English throne ever since his brother had been executed back in 1513.

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1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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984: Pope John XIV

Add comment August 20th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 984, the deposed Pope John XIV* was killed in prison.

Pietro Canepanova was his name by birth, and Bishop of Pavia was his rank when elected.

The papacy’s political axis in these prostrated times was the influence of the Holy Roman Empire. The Saxon emperor Otto II had given years of exertion to projecting imperial power over Rome and the Holy See, which although much weaker than the empire lay spatially at the fringes of effective imperial influence. The upshot was a fractious curial snakepit directed at any given moment by Otto’s degree of proximity and attention.**

John’s death, whose circumstances aren’t known with certainty,† was a sort of tragic middle act for the empire’s Roman project.

A decade before, the imperial-backed pontiff Benedict VI had been overthrown and murdered by a rival, known to history as Antipope Boniface VII. Boniface was backed by a Roman patrician family known as the Crescentii — rivals to Otto in our story.

The Boniface/Crescentii usurpation required Otto’s Italian hand to seize the city, and Boniface legged it for Constantinople with as much of the Vatican treasury as he could stuff into his chasuble. Behind, in his cloud of dust, the Germans installed a new guy, Benedict VII.

When Benedict died in 983, Otto was personally knocking about Italy,‡ so he popped into Rome to guarantee John XIV’s succession. But the pestilential atmosphere was not merely figurative in these parts, and a malaria outbreak killed Otto within days. His unexpected death left the succession to a three-year-old son, Otto III … which meant a period of ebbing imperial muscle as felt by remote marches like Italy. John XIV had lost his protection.

Still hanging around all this while, Antipope Boniface VII jumped at the opportunity to mount St. Peter’s throne once more and invaded Rome with the support of Byzantium and of the Crescentii, sending Pope John to the dungeons of Sant’Angelo where he was quietly offed.

Boniface’s own reign is largely obscure to posterity but it can’t be considered successful given that at his death in July 985, “the body of Boniface was exposed to the insults of the populace, dragged through the streets of the city, and finally, naked and covered with wounds, flung under the statue of Marcus Aurelius.”

Still, the Crescentii held the whip hand for years … until little Otto III grew up and returned to Rome in the 990s with a vengeance.

* Fun papal trivia: owing to some confusion in Middle Ages scriptoria, it was for a time erroneously believed that our Pope John XIV in fact compassed two different and very short-lived Popes John — “Iohannes XIV and Iohannes XIV bis” (the second). As a result, the regnal numbering for this particular name went all wonky and eventually skipped an increment: a pope took the name John XXI in 1276 mistakenly thinking himself to be the 21st of that name, even though the previous John (more than 200 years before — the span during which the numbering goof entered the parchments) was John XIX. There has never been a Pope John XX.

** Although the players are different, the situation reminds of the circumstances around the Cadaver Synod a century prior — when the imperial instigator in question was Charlemagne’s waning Carolingian dynasty.

† He might have been starved to death, or strangled, or poisoned, or indeed slain via almost any means convenient to the new pope’s goons. The probability that the death was ordered by the new pope qualifies this borderline case for consideration as an “execution.”

‡ He was campaigning against the Byzantines and the Saracens to extend imperial power to southern Italy and Sicily.

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Entry Filed under: Borderline "Executions",Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Holy Roman Empire,Italy,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures

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1726: Franz Laubler, Hermann Joachim Hahn’s murderer

Add comment July 18th, 2018 Headsman

Franz Laubler was broken on the wheel in Dresden on this date for assassinating Protestant deacon Hermann Joachim Hahn.

Hahn was a well-connected pastor who had been plying his trade in the Lutheran Kreuzkirche for nigh 20 years. That trade consisted heavily in the evangelization of Catholics in a confessionally split city;* indeed, his murderer, a Catholic-reared butcher and mercenary, had himself once upon a time been converted by Deacon Hahn.

Said Franz Laubler had in time returned his soul to the Roman fold but the unsettled mind suggested by his sectarian vacillation is supported by Laubler’s strange conviction that a communion wafer taken in 1720 had lodged permanently in his gullet. “Schlaget mir den Kopt ab, und ihr werdet noch die Hostie in meinem Halse finden!” he exclaimed: “Cut off my head, and you’ll still find the Host in my throat!”


Not to be confused with the Ghost to the Post.

On May 21 of that same year of our Lord 1726, the Host-throatened Laubler presented himself at the divine’s residence under the guise of seeking spiritual counsel, but instead sent Hahn straight to his maker with a hidden blade.** He’d thrown down Dresden’s Lucifer, he explained to the gendarmes who took him into custody — and made his heavy heart light.

The murder triggered a massive Protestant pogrom against Catholics which required several days to quell.

There’s a public domain volume from 1826 about these events available free here, as well as a 2009 book Die Hostie im Hals. (The Host in the Throat | here’s a review) Both titles are in German. Hahn’s Wikipedia page itemizes a number of other German pamphlets about his murder dating to the 1720s.

Hahn’s tomb can be found in the Trinitatiskirche Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-19th century from the old Johanniskirchof.

* Dresden, and Saxony in general, were predominantly Protestant. However, Catholics enjoyed a broad grant of tolerance thanks in part to the Elector of Saxony, Augustus the Strong, who converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to become King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

** Okay, it wasn’t straight to his maker: Laubler started by trying to strangle Hahn with a rope, and resorted to the knife as his victim resisted him.

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1581: Christman Genipperteinga

Add comment June 17th, 2018 Headsman

June 17 of 1581 was the alleged condemnation date — the best specific calendar date we have — for the German robber/murderer Christman Genipperteinga or Gniperdoliga, who was broken on the wheel for a reported 964 murders.


See? June 17.

A 1581 pamphlet “Erschröckliche newe Zeytung Von einem Mörder Christman genandt” is the earliest account we have of our inaptly named Christman (German Wikipedia entry | the surprisingly much more detailed English), and even this first source supplies us the seemingly outlandish body count.

Our man is supposed to have made a lair in the Rhineland wilds from which he preyed on German and French travelers, and even turned murderer of other bandits after partnering with them.

We of course lack any means to verify independently this murder toll exceeding six per month throughout the whole of his thirteen-year career; if we’re honest about it, we’re a little light on verification that this guy wasn’t a tall tale from the jump. Whether or not he really drew breath, or profited from the pre-modern propensity to overcounting bodies, his fame was certainly magnified by the burgeoning print culture … and its burgeoning fascination with crime. Joy Wiltenburg in Crime & Culture in Early Modern Germany:

It was in the 1570s that reports of robber bands multiplied, reaching a peak in the 1580s and continuing in lower numbers into the seventeenth century. Accounts of such activity were far-flung, from Moravia in the modern Czech Republic to Lucerne in Switzerland and from Wurttemberg in southwestern Germany to Bremen in the north. Although violence and malevolent magic were the most sensational aspects of the bands’ reported activities, stealing was central to their existence.

Even among these ubiquitous broadsheet outlaws, Christman Genipperteinga’s near-millennium stuck in the public imagination.

As years passed, the story has resurfaced in chronicles, histories, and popular lore running all the way down to our present era of listicle clickbait … and they’ve all somehow made this monster into an even more sinister figure than a mere nongenti sexagintuple slayer. Dubious evolutions include:

  • Genipperteinga kidnapping a woman and forcing her to become his mistress, murdering all the children they produced. (She subsequently betrays him to the authorities by arranging to leave a trail of peas to lead them to his hideout.)
  • Genipperteinga cannibalizing his victims, including his own infants.
  • And, Genipperteinga having literal supernatural powers (invisibility, congress with dwarven artificers).

For a larger-than-life criminal, a longer-than-death execution. The story goes that our Christman endured nine agonizing days on the breaking-wheel, his tormentors fortifying him with hearty drinks every day in order to prolong his sufferings.

Again, this real or fanciful detail profits by comparison to the trends in enforcement emerging to meet the social panic over crime. This was a period when Europe saw the death penalty flourish both in terms of its violent spectacle and, as Wiltenburg notes, its raw frequency:

There is some evidence that the swell in crime reports in the later decades of the sixteenth century coincided with a time of generally intense prosecution. According to figures compiled by Gerd Schwerhoff, a number of localities had especially high levels of execution in this period. Augsburg, for example, shows a distinct rise in the proportion of criminals executed in the last four decades of the sixteenth century — double or more the proportions of the preceding and following periods. Nuremberg too had a substantial rise in the last decades of the sixteenth century, with lower numbers before and much lower figures by the mid-seventeenth century. Zurich similarly executed a much higher proportion in the sixteenth century than in the fifteenth or the seventeenth, although its figures are not broken down by decade.

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1525: Jäcklein Rohrbach, for the Weinsberg Blood Easter

Add comment May 21st, 2018 Headsman

On the 21st or perhaps the 20th of May in 1525, the peasant rebel Jakob Rohrbach — more commonly known as Jäcklein (“Little Jack”) Rohrbach — was chained to a stake and burned alive as the nobility celebrated its victory in the German Peasants’ War.

Rohrbach was by history’s acclamation the most bloody-minded of the peasant revolutionaries — for Jakob perhaps had learned the lesson of the Jacquerie that rebels against the lords must vanquish or perish. (Jakob Rohrbach was literate.)

When the peasantry rose to shake Germany, Rohrbach was elected a leader in the environs of Weinsberg, in Baden-Wuerttemberg. It was here that Rohrbach’s band would author the rebellion’s most spectacular outrage, the Weinsberg Massacre, or Weinsberg Blood Easter — for on April 16, Easter Day, they overwhelmed the city and put its garrison to slaughter, collectively executing Count Ludwig von Helfenstein by forcing him to run a gantlet while peasants screamed their grievances at him.

“You thrust my brother into a dungeon,” one cried, “because he did not bare his head as you passed by.” “You harnessed us like oxen to the yoke,” shouted others; “you caused the hands of my father to be cut off because he killed a hare on his own field … Your horses, dogs, and huntsmen have trodden down my crops … You have wrung the last penny out of us.” (Will Durant)

As word of the blood rage went abroad, it not only horrified the respectable (Martin Luther turned his considerable vituperation upon the insurrection after hearing about it*) but split the rebellion itself between moderate and radical factions. We lack access to the peasant councils of war, but perhaps that was even intentional on Rohrbach’s part, to force the revolution towards its most extreme ends, much as French Jacobins would decapitate the king to cut off any hope of their moderate brethren making an accommodation.

If so, it failed in that objective. It would be the fragmented German polities that by dint of the danger made common cause and defeated the rebellion. For a special villain like Rohrbach, special treatment was reserved, yet his was only most exemplary among innumerable long-forgotten cruelties meted out. The lords returned stroke for stroke ten times over for every injury that Rohrbach and his kind had dealt them.

The total number of the peasants and their allies who fell either in fighting or at the hands of the executioners is estimated by Anselm in his Berner Chronik at a hundred and thirty thousand. It was certainly not less than a hundred thousand. For months after, the executioner was active in many of the affected districts. Spalatin says: “Of hanging and beheading there is no end”. Another writer has it: “It was all so that even a stone had been moved to pity, for the chastisement and vengeance of the conquering lords was great”. The executions within the jurisdiction of the Swabian League alone are stated at ten thousand. Truchses’s provost boasted of having hanged or beheaded twelve hundred with his own hand. More than fifty thousand fugitives were recorded. These, according to a Swabian League order, were all outlawed in such wise that any one who found them might slay them without fear of consequences.

The sentences and executions were conducted with true mediaeval levity. It is narrated in a contemporary chronicle that in one village in the Henneberg territory all the inhabitants had fled on the approach of the count and his men-at-arms save two tilers. The two were being led to execution when one appeared to weep bitterly, and his reply to interrogatories was that he bewailed the dwellings of the aristocracy thereabouts, for henceforth there would be no one to supply them with durable tiles. Thereupon his companion burst out laughing, because, said he, it had just occurred to him that he would not know where to place his hat after his head had been taken off. These mildly humorous remarks obtained for both of them a free pardon.

… Many places were annihilated for having taken part with the peasants, even when they had been compelled by force to do so. Fields in these districts were everywhere laid waste or left uncultivated. Enormous sums were exacted as indemnity. In many of the villages peasants previously well-to-do were ruined. There seemed no limit to the bleeding of the “common man,” under the pretence of compensation for damage done by the insurrection.

The condition of the families of the dead and of the fugitives was appalling. Numbers perished from starvation. The wives and children of the insurgents were in some cases forcibly driven from their homesteads and even from their native territory. In one of the pamphlets published in 1525 anent the events of that year, we read: “Houses are burned; fields and vineyards lie fallow; clothes and household goods are robbed or burned; cattle and sheep are taken away; the same as to horses and trappings. The prince, the gentleman, or the nobleman will have his rent and due. Eternal God, whither shall the widows and poor children go forth to seek it?”

Ernest Belfrt Bax, The Peasants’ War in Germany

* Weinsberg is also famous for a different siege centuries previous, which ended in an altogether more humane fashion.

** Luther wrote a Blood Easter of his own in Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants.

they are starting a rebellion, and violently robbing and plundering monasteries and castles which are not theirs, by which they have a second time deserved death in body and soul, if only as highwaymen and murderers. Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you

a prince and lord must remember in this case that he is God’s minister and the servant of his wrath (Romans XIII), to whom the sword is committed for use upon such fellows, and that he sins as greatly against God, if he does not punish and protect and does not fulfil the duties of his office, as does one to whom the sword has not been committed when he commits a murder. If he can punish and does not — even though the punishment consist in the taking of life and the shedding of blood — then he is guilty of all the murder and all the evil which these fellows commit, because, by willful neglect of the divine command, he permits them to practice their wickedness, though he can prevent it, and is in duty bound to do so. Here, then, there is no time for sleeping; no place for patience or mercy. It is the time of the sword, not the day of grace.

hey may die without worry and go to the scaffold with a good conscience, who are found exercising their office of the sword. They may leave to the devil the kingdom of the world, and take in exchange the everlasting kingdom. Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1517: Konrad Breuning, Tübingen Vogt

1 comment September 27th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1517, aged magistrate Konrad Breuning was beheaded as a traitor for helping negotiate a landmark limitation of the Duke of Württemberg’s powers.

Fruit of a wealthy Tübingen family — one can still see in the church there the donative Breuning BellKonrad Breuning was a Vogt, one of the Holy Roman Empire’s important municipal administrators.

In 1514, crushed by taxation and written out of political power, commoners both urban and rural mounted a rebellion known as “Poor Konrad”. (Its title had nothing to do with our post’s star character; “Konrad” was just a common name that had come to denote the everyman.)

Wealthy elites were able to leverage the rebellion’s pressure,* and Duke Ulrich‘s increasingly desperate need for revenues that only they could authorize, into a sort of Magna Carta for the duchy: the Treaty of Tübingen. As the name implies, it was negotiated right in Konrad Breuning’s stomping-ground; the site was his own suggestion.

This great coup was attained at a great cost, for Duke Ulrich was a mercurial fellow who would eventually be run out of Württemberg altogether after he outright murdered a guy. That murder, in 1515, perhaps drove Ulrich to an attempted (and backfiring) show of authority with the 1516 arrest of Bruening, his brother Sebastian (who was Vogt of a different town), and Konrad Vaut (yet another Vogt, and see what we mean about the popularity of the name?). Their rank did not protect them from the torture necessary to extract confessions.

All three were condemned to death for treason in a stacked trial in December 1516. For reasons that are not self-evident to me from the mostly-German sources that I have found, the other two Vogts lost their heads more or less promptly after their conviction but Konrad Bruening was maintained as Ulrich’s most unwilling guest for most of a year before he finally followed them. Maybe it was the duke protracting the savor of his revenge upon Tübingen’s bourgeoisie for that treaty.

* Despite the role of Poor Konrad in catalyzing the Treaty of Tübingen, the urban lower orders got much less out of the deal than the 1% types, and the peasantry was shut out altogether. It would not be long before the frustration of the latter class again conjured an insurrection: the devastating 1524-1525 Peasants War.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Judges,Lawyers,Politicians,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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1801: Franz Troglauer

Add comment May 6th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1801, robber prince Franz Troglauer was hanged at Amberg.

A lifelong picaro, Troglauer had several brushes with the law at his back when around 1790 he formed up the Fürth Diebesbande, or Great Franconian Robbers’ Band.

This lot delivered what their name promised throughout the 1790s. Troglauer’s* gang took enterprising advantage of the emerging technologies that were driving the classical outlaw figure into myth and memory, setting up their own printing press to churn out forged papers and compassing a vast shadow economy ranging from thieves to fences to look-the-other-way inkeepers. Troglauer’s most famous caper was engineering the heist of a Bamberg bishop’s vestments. (And more significantly, his silver plate.)

Some in the latter-day Upper Palatinate aspire to make his haunts into a tourist attraction a la Troglauer’s Rhenish contemporary Schinderhannes, but his life is surprisingly ill-documented and so his fame has little spread to the wider world. (That’s why all the links here are in German.)

The gang was betrayed and broken up in 1798. Troglauer managed to escape and briefly resume his career, but his overt threats to assassinate a prominent landlord who had been involved in his previous prosecutions helped to intensify the search that brought him once more to prison and at last to the gallows.

* This is a network rather than a hierarchy; Jakob Meusel was another important leader, and it’s sometimes also called the Meusel Band after him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Hanged,Holy Roman Empire,Outlaws,Public Executions,Theft

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