1589: Franz Seuboldt, broken parricide

Add comment September 22nd, 2015 Headsman

We have had occasion to profile the famous Nuremberg executioner (and diarist) Franz Schmidt, who is the subject of a recent book on his life and times.

This date in 1589 marked one of executioner Schmidt’s more high-profile appearances. The occasion was the execution of parricide Franz Seuboldt, who killed his own father by ambush while dad was setting bird traps.

For this transgression, Seuboldt was condemned to be drawn through Nuremberg and “nipped” by the executioner’s red-hot tongs. With these, Franz Schmidt ripped bloody chunks of the murderer’s flesh. When at last they reached the “raven stone” execution platform outside Nuremberg’s sturdy walls, Schmidt stretched out his patient and set about methodically smashing his limbs with a heavy wooden “Catherine wheel”: “only” two limbs in Seuboldt’s case, before administering the coup de grace.

This broadsheet illustration traces the case in a U shape from crime (upper left) to tongs (foreground) to execution (right) and finally the mounted wheel.

Although reserved for more exceptional crimes than the everyday thefts that merited hanging, breaking on the wheel was a fairly common form of execution in Germany, France, and elsewhere in continental Europe for many, many years. Indeed, while the wheel would fade from the Nuremberg scene during the 17th century, the horrible device remained in (increasingly rare) use in France right up to the French Revolution.

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

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1589: Hemmerlein, chief-ranger of the Margrave

Add comment July 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1589, Hans Volckla of Onoltzbach, alias Hemmerlein, was beheaded by Nuremberg.

In early modern Germany’s crazy quiltwork of rivalrous fiefdoms and principalities nominally confederated in the Holy Roman Empire, the free imperial city of Nuremberg and its surrounding lands stood irritatingly athwart the non-contiguous Margravate of George Frederick — who ruled Ansback to Nuremberg’s southwest, and also Brandenburg-Bayreuth to Nuremberg’s northeast.

Local rivalries in this period could easily boil over into micro-wars, and this had happened before between Nuremberg and the Margravate. In 1502, George Frederick’s grandfather* had raided the disputed village of Affalterbach causing several hundred casualties; in 1552, that long-running dispute saw the village burned to the ground.

Tensions were running high again (or still) in the late 1580s,** and the margrave’s chief ranger did not mind making provocations out in the disputed (and unpopulated) frontiers. According to Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt, our man Hans Volckla, alias Hemmerlein, “had been so bold as to seize the snares of the fowlers” and “took wares from the pedlars.”

Moreover, he led a little gang that shot three men fatally in 1587. Nuremberg declared him an outlaw.

Nuremberg, for its part, tried to check the poaching threat through the use of informers. We know of one man in particular, one Michael, resident of the wealthy nearby town of Furth whose sovereignty was likewise the subject of regional squabbling. (The town’s emblem is still today a three-leafed clover, said to represent (pdf) the “triple government” of Nuremberg, Ansbach, and the Prince-Bishopric of Bamberg.)

Like 20% or more of Furth’s population, Michael was Jewish — but Nuremberg didn’t mind so long as he caught poachers, which he did. George Frederick did mind: he had Michael put to death in 1596, and buried under an insolent marker reading “Michael, Nuremberg Jew, Betrayer.”

But this date our concern is Hemmerlein, and it was a serious concern of Nuremberg as well: they meant to cut off the head of a man in the train of the very tetchy next lord over. Only weeks earlier, on May 28th, Nuremberg had likewise executed a man named Hans Ramsperger as a betrayer and a spy for the Margrave, but at least that man was a Nuremberger.

Schmidt remembered that in preparation for Hemmerlein’s execution “some cannon were placed on the walls, some sharpshooters posted, and precautions taken against an attack by the Margrave’s men. Orders were also given to me, Master Franz the executioner … that I should put him to death on the bridge or elsewhere in case the Margrave’s men attacked us, so that they might not find him alive.”

In the event, there was no attack and the execution went off without incident in the early morning.

* He openly encouraged allied nobles to shake down Nuremberg merchants, according to Hillay Zmora.

** Nuremberg erected its Zeughaus armory in 1588.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,Murder,Public Executions

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1589: Dietrich Flade, for leniency towards evildoers

5 comments September 18th, 2008 dogboy

On Sept 18, 1589, a magistrate and deputy governor in Trier, a city embroiled in a witch-burning campaign, was himself delivered that fate.

The winds of the Reformation swirled mercilessly at that time, and Dietrich Flade sat on the bench charged with maintaining order in Trier. Flade held a Doctorate of Civil and of the Canon Law, and he was well-connected in the magisterial Germany of the day. He just happened to be alive at the wrong time. George Lincoln Burr provides an extensive account of Flade’s ill-fated time on the bench, including this foreboding look:

But the storm that was to rob him of fortune, fame, and life was already brewing all along the horizon. The witch-trials, which, during the earlier part of the century, had appeared only sporadically, were settling here and there into organized persecutions. In the neighboring Lorraine, the terrible Nicolas Remy was already exercising that judgeship, as the fruit of whose activity he could boast a decade later of the condemnation of nine hundred witches within fifteen years; and just across the nearer frontier of Luxemburg, now in Spanish hands, the fires were also blazing. Nay, the persection had already, in 1572, invaded the Electorate itself.

In six years, the diocese of Trier oversaw the execution of 368 witches, many of whom confessed only under torture. The anti-witchcraft campaign was so expansive that some towns were left with few if any women. The hysteria was widely reviled by the academics of the time, including both Flade and Cornelius Loos.

Loos was so disturbed by the events occurring around him that he wrote a book in objection; before it could gain distribution, however, Loos was arrested and jailed. It was four years before he was released, only after recanting his entire treatise and acknowledging the authority of the Pope.

Flade (German Wikipedia link) was not as lucky.

As judge, he was too light with suspected witches and allowed many to go free or get off with light sentences. Worst of all, he let the unsettled Reformation continue without his intervention on behalf of the church. His “trial” was brutal*, with an extracted confession from five heinous torture sessions serving as evidence against him. As high-ranking as Flade was, though, he was executed rather mutedly in Treves.

Not without reason, Burr suspects the motive was entirely political on the part of Archbishop Johann von Schöneburg. Von Schöneburg immediately stepped up his campaign to ensure his dominion, moving to larger mass executions and damning the populace to a generation of loss — except the executioner, of course, who was paid handsomely for the deed.

The persecutions were spurred on by both similar events elsewhere in the world and the writings of those directly involved. France, and, of course, Spain both featured notable witchcraft courts. One bishop under Von Schoeneburg, Peter Binsfield, was tasked with scribing works to defend the practice, which he dutifully discharged in 1589 and 1591; these were followed shortly by Jesuit Peter Thyraeus** (1594) and the aforementioned Nicholas Remy (1595). By that time, however, the furor in Trier had, in more ways than one, burned itself out: by 1593, with too few people to tend the land and sustain the towns, the area around Trier had become an economic crater, and the persecutors put a reluctant end to the madness.

Badly damaged page from Flade’s original trial transcription, courtesy of the Cornell University Library’s Witchcraft Collection.

* One of the founders of Cornell University, A.D. White, joined forces with Burr to acquire the one known copy for that university’s library in 1883. Burr intended to transcribe the text but apparently never completed the job, instead delivering several talks and writing an tract on the subject that includes extensive footnotes.

** Thyraeus also wrote one of the age’s definitive considerations of lycanthropy, shapeshifting and werewolfism — another demonic manifestation simultaneously afoot in Germany.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Judges,Lawyers,Other Voices,Politicians,Public Executions,The Worm Turns,Torture,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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1589: Peter Stubbe, Sybil Stubbe and Katharina Trump

39 comments October 31st, 2007 Headsman

On Halloween in 1589, the “Werewolf of Bedburg” was put to a horrible death for a supposed slew of crimes committed in lupine form in the environs of the German city of Cologne.

Our knowledge of the strange case of Peter Stubbe comes primarily from a single surviving account, and with many of the potential supplementary sources lost to the ravages of time and war, interpretations are inevitably speculative.

Stubbe reportedly confessed under (or facing) torture to having practiced witchcraft and claimed to have received a magic belt from the infernal powers enabling him to transform into a wolf. The doomed man owned, during the quarter-century riot of sin that ensued this youthful acquisition, to rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, filicide, slaughtering livestock and keeping a succubus in his bed. (Authorities were unable to recover this potent belt, and sighed that Satan must have reclaimed it.)

For these crimes, he was broken on the wheel, beheaded, then burnt — the latter punishment shared with his daughter and his mistress, apparently implicated as accessories.

Was there a real wolf terrorizing the vicinity? Was Stubbe an actual murderer with a supernatural cover story? Was he nursing a genuine delusion of lycanthropy? Did he back the wrong faith as strife over Protestantism rent Germany? Or was he just unluckily caught up in an instance of demonic hysteria?

Whatever the individual circumstances of Stubbe’s death might have been, it occurred during a surge of panic over the venerable superstition of were-beasts and shapeshifters (particularly pronounced in France) coeval with Europe’s crises of religious and political authority on the eve of the Thirty Years’ War.

Yet this troubled period bore the germ of a modernity whose pervasive social changes would upend, among other things, the idea of a real werewolf. As the sixteenth century closed, both medical and theological understandings of “werewolfism” increasingly located it in the realm of the psychological instead of the supernatural.

Within a few years of Stubbe’s torture, werewolves had left the hands of magistrates for those of doctors … bound eventually for the pens of screenwriters with Halloween fare in mind.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Broken on the Wheel,Burned,Common Criminals,Germany,Gruesome Methods,Mature Content,Murder,Public Executions,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex,The Supernatural,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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