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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1783: Johanna Catharina Höhn, by Goethe’s vote

8 comments November 28th, 2010 Headsman

“To think is easy. To act is hard. But the hardest thing in the world is to act in accordance with your thinking.”

-Goethe

On this date in 1783, Johanna Catharina Höhn lost her head for infanticide … thanks to the vote of the man who wrote the most recognizable infanticide story in literature.

Eleven years before, then-22-year-old Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had been a firsthand witness to the trial of another infanticide who ultimately lost her head. This case very likely inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s best-known work, Faust.

Faust was a lifelong project for the author, but evidently the same could not be said of empathy for infanticidal mothers.

As a Privy Councilor to Carl (or Karl) August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Goethe was presented with the case of Höhn, a 24-year-old unmarried servant girl who cut her newborn son’s throat.

Infanticide was an Enlightenment wedge issue touching not only evolving standards of humane criminal justice, but “as the main eighteenth-century area of conflict surrounding social repression and female sexuality.”*

Was it justice to put mothers to death for infanticide? Was it efficacious for a state to do so — given that such crimes were committed in a state of desperation that might negate deterrence, and that the offenders attracted the pity of potentially unruly scaffold mobs?

And if the executioner’s sword** was not depended upon to keep women keeping it in their britches, what social policies ought to replace it?

Infanticide and its prevention was the favorite theme of the criminologists of that time. [Christian] Rothenberger calls attention to the wide discussion of means to care for the poor, to the evil effects of luxury, and then to a “formliche Kindermordlitteratur.”† [L.W.] Seyffarth, the editor of the best edition of [Johann Heinrich] Pestalozzi‘s works, says: “The question how infanticide might be stopped was at that time a burning one.”

The great interest in infanticide can best be brought to view by the contest for a prize of 100 ducats offered by [Karl Theodor] von Dalberg, intendant of the Mannheim theater, for the best essay on the subject: “What are the best and most practicable means to eradicate infanticide without promoting prostitution?” The contest closed at Whitsuntide, 1781. The offer of the prize was published in most of the newspapers and magazines of that time and was generally accompanied by editorial comments. The editorial in August Ludwig Schlozer‘s magazine Briefwechsel is typical. “There are crimes committed among us,” the editor writes, “which are the most horrible and at the same time the most common, and among these is infanticide; crimes which are related to virtues, virtues which develop into vices, and among these too is infanticide; crimes which experience teaches are not made less frequent by increasing the severity of the punishment, while not to punish them would bring disgrace to mankind and destruction to law and order, and among these too is infanticide … How long shall we lead to the block these unfortunate girls as sacrificial victims, whose love and the natural weakness of their sex, whose adornment of innocence and modesty has made them to be mothers and murderesses?

The Duke inclined very strongly to the progressive answer gaining ground at the time, and when Hohn’s case surfaced, he put to his aides the prospect of eliminating the death penalty for infanticide and replacing it with other legal sanctions.

Those aides produced a mixed response. Goethe, perhaps the duke’s closest advisor, was ultimately in a position to exercise decisive influence on whether to adopt the duke’s proposal. (Whether it was the decisive influence is a matter of some dispute.)‡

Despite his sensitive portrayal of the fictional Gretchen/Margarete in Faust, the great writer took a distinctly retrograde stance on sparing actual flesh-and-blood women … and Goethe’s position, which he formally voted only 24 days before the execution, carried the day.

The evidence is clear that there was substantial (though not necessarily unanimous) agreement with the duke’s proposal to abolish the death penalty for infanticide.

… Without doubt, then, Goethe’s vote carried considerable weight. How could it not? He was the duke’s best friend and thus easily the most powerful member of the Council after Carl August because of his immense influence over him … [and] Goethe unquestionably cast his vote to retain the death penalty for a crime that was widely seen in his time as resulting from social injustice and harbouring wide potential for extenuating circumstances (in principle, not only in particular cases). His vote thus ran entirely counter to his depiction of the case of Margarete in Faust, in which ‘extenuating circumstances’ abound. While the question of Goethe’s guilt is a moral one that need not concern us, his part in the responsibility for retaining the death penalty for infanticide and thus also for the execution of Johanna Hohn is crystal-clear.*

A Weimar journalist called it “state murder.”

Hohn’s body was delivered to a Jena professor for anatomization.

A recent German book, Goethes Hinrichtung (Goethe’s Execution), novelizes the case.

* W. Daniel Wilson “Goether, his Duke, and Infanticide: New Documents and Reflections on a Controversial Execution,” German Life and Letters, January 2008. This volume includes the (German) text of the previously unpublished Halsgericht, a very detailed “script” for the actual execution. This volume of German Life and Letters also features a ceremonious dialogue between der Scharfrichter, the executioner, and der Richter, the judge, conveying possession of the criminal and legal direction for her punishment, which would all have been enacted in public in the doomed woman’s presence.

** Hohn was beheaded with a sword; this was itself a “mercy,” as she could have been dispatched by drowning.

† Most notably, Die Kindermörderin by Heinrich Leopold Wagner (both German links).

‡ Note that the consideration at the level of the Privy Council was formally about whether to abolish the death penalty for infanticide in general — not directly about Hohn’s case, which proceeded on a separate track. It seems to be generally agreed that Goethe and all other parties understood Hohn would live or die based on the statutory decision.

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1268: Conradin of Swabia

3 comments October 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1268, 16-year-old boy-king Conradin was beheaded in Naples with his best friend.

This short-lived son of German king Conrad IV inherited his call on the purple at the age of 26. 26 months.

While the infant king worked on his ABC’s in Swabia, different regents tried to keep his Sicily and Jerusalem thrones warm in the far-flung empire.

Knowing an opportunity when he saw it, Conradin’s uncle and “regent” Manfred usurped him in Sicily, tipping over the first domino in a peninsular political chain that would fell both relatives. With Manfred’s accession, the rival power of the papacy now faced an active military strongman at its doorstep — and it, in turn, sponsored French noble Charles of Anjou to oppose, and eventually overthrow, Manfred.

By the time all this played out, Conradin was, if not exactly a seasoned man of the world, at least old enough to hear his voice cracking and start noticing girls. By the standards of medieval Europe, that was plenty old enough to press his injured rights in battle.

Accordingly, Conradin — Corradino, to the Italians — led Hohenstaufen boots down the boot to reclaim Sicily. No dice.

His captor’s attitude was summed up in the sentiment, Conradi vita, Caroli mors — “Conrad’s life is Charles’s death,” somewhat doubtfully ascribed to the counsel of Pope Clement IV — so when you think about it, it was no more than self-defense to cut short that vita. And his buddy’s, too, since the scaffold was already hired for the day.


Conradin of Swabia and Frederick of Baden Being Informed of Their Execution in Prison in Naples, by Goethe buddy Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Did either try the Sicilian Defence?

He turns to clasp with longing arms his friend,
And turning, sees the fatal blow descend,
Then presses with his lips the severed head,
Last greeting of the dying to the dead.
One quivering flash, a shock that is not pain,
And those he parted death unites again.
So perished Conradin, but legends tell
That as the trenchant blade descending fell,
An eagle, that, unseen by human eyes,
Had poised aloft, down swooping from the skies,
For one short instant hovered o’er the slain,
And dyed his pinions with a crimson stain,
Then wildly shrieked, and upward soaring sped
To witness for the blood unjustly shed.

-Tribute in purple poetry by William John Rous (Here’s a more prose-y review of Conradin’s campaign and demise)

This upward-soaring, crimson-pinioned raptor saw off the Hohenstaufen dynasty of the Holy Roman Empire.

In the unstable years that followed, as rival princes and factions jockeyed for influence, there’d be some serious nostalgia for the bygone Hohenstaufens. But there is opportunity as well as peril in change, and though it may be that this fractious realm was neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire, it emerged from its interregnum with its first Habsburg ruler — of many.

What’s left of Corradino di Svevia (and Frederick of Baden) lies entombed at a Neapolitan church, watched over by a monumental 19th century marble sculpture of the youth.

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1772: Susanna Margaretha Brandt, Faust inspiration

2 comments January 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Susanna Margaretha Brandt was beheaded with a sword in Frankfurt am Main for murdering her infant child.

The orphaned maid (German Wikipedia entry), not yet 26, had the previous August given birth to the child of a passing goldsmith who had drugged and seduced/raped her.

Brandt got rid of the child, and when caught hysterically attributed the murder to infernal influence.

Faustian Bargain

Affecting as Brandt’s small tragedy might be, she is remembered today not in her own right but because of her proximity to a 22-year-old lawyer living a few hundred yards from her cell: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

Several of Goethe’s family and friends were directly involved in Brandt’s case, and her death through seduction and infanticide are widely taken (pdf) to have inspired the character Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust: the character and the infanticide plotline are additions the German author made to an age-old legend.

Goethe began Faust in this same year of 1772, and continued reworking it throughout his life.

And it was a historically timely juncture to incorporate the baby-killing angle into the old Satanic pact story: infanticide was the subject of philosophical and juridical debate, with the use of capital punishment in infanticide cases sharp declining in forward-thinking German states.

Infanticide likewise became a trendy literary topic; Faust is only the best-known example.

“Seduction, and during the second half of the century infanticide, are possibly the most popular themes in eighteenth-century German literature by men,” according to Susanne Kord.*

Lessing’s Sara Sampson and Emilia Galotti, Schiller’s Luise Millerin (Kabale und Liebe), Goethe’s Marie Beaumarchais (Clavigo) and countless other bourgeois heroines die as a direct result of a man’s — often a nobleman’s — sexual desire. Goethe’s Gretchen (Faust), Heinrich Leopold Wagner’s Evchen Humprecht (Die Kindermorderin), Lenz’ Marie (Zerbin) and many others are put to death for committing infanticide.

Like the woman-as-child, the woman-as-childkiller, fictional or not, teaches sexual morals; mounting the scaffold, the woman admits her guilt, speaks her warning, and, incidentally, absolves society of all blame.

That might be a little too pat. But despite rendering a sympathetic character in Margaret, Goethe’s own biography suggests the problematic nature of this widespread fascination with illicit sexuality.

The writer 11 years later found himself in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in position to help decide whether another infanticide should live or die.

Goethe voted for Johanna Catharina Höhn’s execution.

* “Women as Children, Women as Childkillers: Poetic Images of Infanticide in Eighteenth-Century Germany,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, Spring 1993. More in this vein on Goethe in “Infanticide as Fiction: Goethe’s Urfaust and Schiller’s ‘Kindsmörderin’ as Models” by Helga Stipa Madland, The German Quarterly, Winter 1989.

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1568: The Counts of Egmont and Hoorn, insufficiently Inquisitorial

3 comments June 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1568, two Flemish nobles were beheaded at Brussels’ Grand Place for treason to the Spanish crown that then ruled the Low Countries.

Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Hoorn had a beef with the introduction of the Inquisition into the Netherlands by Egmont’s cousin, King Philip II, and got to hanging around with dubious characters like William of Orange.

Unluckily for this day’s duo, William didn’t teach them to read the writing on the wall.

After the Counts went easy on an outbreak of Protestant Iconoclasm, the Catholic king sent the hammer in the person of the Duke of Alba (or Alva).

Let this long-expired generation counsel posterity to find itself elsewhere when one’s door is darkened by a man known as “the Iron Duke”. William had the wit to get out of town. Egmont and Hoorn hung around, depending on their (professedly) clean consciences.

Oops.

Count Egmont Before His Death, by Louis Gallait

The beheadings were widely protested both locally and abroad, and festered as a grievance against the empire — a grievance that, as the nascent conflict evolved into a revolution that would detach the Netherlands from Spain, elevated these distinctly non-revolutionary wealthy nobles into freethinking martyrs of independence.

Two centuries later, Goethe put the story on the stage with his play Egmont (original German | English translation), a production for which Beethoven subsequently composed gorgeous orchestral companion pieces.

Here’s the lovely, lovely Ludwig Van’s beloved (including by Goethe himself) Overture to Egmont, Op. 84:

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Unspecified Year: Faust’s Gretchen

6 comments May 2nd, 2008 Headsman

In Goethe’s Faust (original German | English), the title character’s lover on this date spurns his rescue and is put to death for killing their illegitimate child.

In the text, Faust and Mephistopheles celebrate Walpurgisnacht. The next day — “dreary day,” Goethe has it — the hero realizes his Faustian bargain is coming due, to the indifference of his infernal patron. (This is the work’s only scene in prose.)

FAUST

In misery! In despair! Long wretchedly astray on the face of the earth, and now imprisoned! That gracious, ill-starred creature shut in a dungeon as a criminal, and given up to fearful torments! To this has it come! to this!—Treacherous, contemptible spirit, and thou hast concealed it from me!—Stand, then,—stand! Roll the devilish eyes wrathfully in thy head! Stand and defy me with thine intolerable presence! Imprisoned! In irretrievable misery! Delivered up to evil spirits, and to condemning, unfeeling Man! And thou hast lulled me, meanwhile, with the most insipid dissipations, hast concealed from me her increasing wretchedness, and suffered her to go helplessly to ruin!

MEPHISTOPHELES

She is not the first.

Faust nevertheless browbeats the devil into infiltrating him that night into the prison where Gretchen (a German nickname for Margaret, Margarethe, or Marguerite), terrified, mistakes him at first for the executioner who will come for her in a few hours:

Risen at Dawn, Gretchen Discovering Faust’s Jewels — a scene from Gretchen’s seduction by Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

GRETCHEN (on her knees)

Who, headsman! unto thee such power
Over me could give?
Thou’rt come for me at midnight-hour:
Have mercy on me, let me live!
Is’t not soon enough when morning chime has run?

(She rises.)

And I am yet so young, so young!
And now Death comes, and ruin!
I, too, was fair, and that was my undoing.
My love was near, but now he’s far;
Torn lies the wreath, scattered the blossoms are.
Seize me not thus so violently!
Spare me! What have I done to thee?
Let me not vainly entreat thee!
I never chanced, in all my days, to meet thee!

Yet she refuses to flee with him — sensing the change in his character, fearful of living as a fugitive, resigned to a death incurred by her own culpability.

Day? Yes, the day comes,—the last day breaks for me!
My wedding-day it was to be!
Tell no one thou has been with Gretchen!
Woe for my garland! The chances
Are over—’tis all in vain!
We shall meet once again,
But not at the dances!
The crowd is thronging, no word is spoken:
The square below
And the streets overflow:
The death-bell tolls, the wand is broken.
I am seized, and bound, and delivered—
Shoved to the block—they give the sign!
Now over each neck has quivered
The blade that is quivering over mine.
Dumb lies the world like the grave!

Faust has had innumerable interpretations in performance, typically omitting the intervening “dreary day” scene, which makes the prison sequence appear to take place at the conclusion of Walpurgisnacht. The prison confrontation, for instance, caps a Gounod opera:

In F.W. Murnau‘s masterful 1926 silent adaptation, the sentence is carried out by burning rather than beheading. This film is in the public domain and available in its entirety free online:

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