1590: George Schweiger, tough love

Add comment April 2nd, 2018 Headsman

In the usual telling the father welcomes back the prodigal son by slaying the fatted calf … not the son himself. This, uh, alternate version comes from the diary of Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt.

April 2nd [1590]. George Schweiger of Falckendorf near Nerzogaurach, a thief who, in his youth, together with his brother, first stole 40 florins from his own father. Later, when his father sent him to settle a debt, he kept the money and gambled with it; lastly, discovering that his father had a treasure buried in a barn behind the house, he stole 60 florins of it. He had a lawful wife, but left her and attached himself to two whores, promising marriage to both. Beheaded with the sword as a favour.*

His father let him lie in prison here, and desired and insisted that justice should be done, in spite of the fact that he had recovered his money.

(Emphasis added.)

* i.e., he was sentenced to hanging as a common thief, but was given the quicker and more honorable execution of beheading as a mercy.

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1588: Two Nuremberg highwaymen

Add comment January 2nd, 2018 Headsman

Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt on this date in 1588 broke on the wheel two of the countless violent thieves that haunted the byways of early modernity. As the meticulous Nachrichter did for all his clientele, Schmidt noted the occasion in his diary:

January 2nd. George Hörnlein of Bruck, Jobst Knau of Bamberg, a potter, both of them murderers and robbers. Two years ago Hörnlein and a companion attacked a carrier on the Remareuth, stabbed him four times so that he died, and took 32 florins. Six weeks ago he and Knau were consorting with a whore. She bore a male child in the house, where Knau baptised it, then cut off its hand while alive. Then a companion, called Schwarz, tossed the child in the air, so that it fell upon the table, and said: “Hark how the devil whines!” then cut its throat and buried it in the little garden belonging to the house.

A week later the above-mentioned Hörnlein and Knau, when the whore of the aforesaid Schwarz bore a child, wrung its neck; then Hörnlein, cutting off its right hand, buried it in the yard of the house. Six weeks ago Hörnlein and Knau with a companion, a certain Weisskopf, attacked a man between Herzog and Frauen Aurach. Knau shot him dead, took 13 florins, dragged the body into the wood and covered it with brushwood.

[A long list of murders and highway robberies follows here. Schmidt adds:]

To conclude it would require another half sheet to write down all the people they attacked … The two murderers were led out on a tumbril. Both their arms were twice nipped with red-hot tongs, and their right arms and legs broken; lastly they were executed on the wheel.

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A day in the executions of Franz Schmidt

Add comment August 4th, 2017 Headsman

The free imperial city of Nuremberg has been a regular feature on this site thanks to the detailed journal of executions kept by its legendary executioner Franz Schmidt.

We have profiled many of the more remarkable cases individually. Today, we’ll pause for a few of central Europe’s lesser criminals whose deaths at Schmidt’s hand on various August Fourths were more representative of the everyday malefactors who paid the last penalty on early modern scaffolds. All block text records Schmidt’s own words.


August 4, 1586: Hans Weber and Lienhardt Hagen

Hans Weber, of the New Town, a potter and thief, whom I whipped out of Neunkirchen ten years ago; Lienhardt Hagen, of Teusslen, a bath-keeper, alias der Kaltbader, a thief and robber, who with his companion helped to attack people by night, tortured them, burnt them with fire, poured hot grease on them and wounded them grievously; also tortured pregnant women, so that one died at Schwertzenbach; stole all manner of things everywhere. The potter was hanged, the bath-keeper executed on the wheel. The bath-keeper had broken into the church at Lohndorff and stolen the chalice, also helped once to steal 500 florins. (a list of many other small sums follows.)


August 4, 1607: Margaret Marranti

Margaret Marranti, a country girl from the knackers’ sheds, who was in service with the innkeeper there, had intercourse with a carrier whom she did not know, and became pregnant. Took service with the farmer at Dorrenhof at Candlemas, concealing her pregnancy. When she was haymaking in the meadows, was seized with pains and contortions, and when the farmer’s wife said she would send for the midwife, the girl made an excuse, and remaining behind at night, gave birth to a child near a shed by the river Pegnitz. She immediately threw the child into the water and drowned it, though it stirred and struggled. Beheaded with the sword here on this account.


August 4, 1613: Matthew Werdtfritzn

Matthew Werdtfritzn of Furth, a Landzknecht, alias ‘Eightfingers,’ a robber. With the help of a companion he attacked the carrier from Regensburg in the Neuenwald, wounded him and his son mortally, and took about 800 florins’ worth of money and goods. Took 84 florins from the baker woman of Lauff, and wounded her lad in the same way, so that he was thought likely to die. Took 40 florins from a carter and 18 florins from the fisherman of Fach; in all twelve highway roberies. For these crimes he was executed on the wheel as a robber.

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1584: Five young thieves

Add comment February 12th, 2017 Headsman

Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt on this date in 1584 hanged a gang of five young — very young — thieves. He marked the occasion in his diary:

February 12th. Hennsa of Geyselwind, alias the fat lad; Hennsa Pallauf of Hernda; Killian Wurmb of Virnspach, alias Backendt; Hans Schober of Weher, alias Pulfferla; and Hennssla Klopffer of Reigelsdorff; five thieves who, with the previously executed ‘Silly Mary’ and ‘Country Kate,’ had burgled and stolen (they had also formerly been whipped out and put in the stocks ten times). They had to be clothed, for they were naked and bare; some of them knew no prayers and had never been in a church; the eldest were 22, 17, 16 and 15 years old, the youngest 13 years. All five hanged here in Nuremberg.

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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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1593: Gabriel Wolff, Nuremberg adventurer

1 comment October 11th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1593, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded one of that city’s finest con artists.

Gabriel Wolff, a burgher’s son, had gone on a picaresque swindling bender through central Europe and all the way to Constantinople, posing as a V.I.P. in various courts for fun and profit.

As Schmidt recounted it, Wolff first “called himself George Windholz, Secretary to the Elector at Berlin, also took the name of Ernst Haller and Joachim Furnberger, borrowed 1,500 ducats from a councillor here in Nuremberg by means of a forged letter in the Elector’s name and under the seal of the Margrave John George in Berlin; was arrested at Regensburg and delivered over to Nuremberg.”

And this was far from all.

The inveterate trickster had made off with 1,400 crowns from the Duke of Parma in the Netherlands and fled to Ottoman Turkey. He had had a misadventure with an Italian abbess, netting a silver clock for his trouble; conned a Knight of St. John out of his mount; and ensconced himself as the Habsburg emperor’s personal attendant in Prague, where he perpetrated “many other frauds, causing false seals of gentlemen to be cut, wrote many forged documents and was conversant with seven languages; carrying on this for twenty-four years.” In his time he got the best of “a councilor at Danzig, the count of Ottingen, his lord at Constance, two merchants at Danzig, a Dutch master,” and similar worthies crisscrossing Europe from Lisbon to Crete to Krakow to London and seemingly every point worth mentioning in between.

As Schmidt’s biographer observes, it’s more than likely that the crowd under the scaffold beheld Wolff with admiration as much as opprobrium, for this native son’s silver tongue and brass balls had enabled him to spend a lifetime in material luxury, hobnobbing with the masters of Europe — and certainly ensured him an afterlife in pleasurable folklore he could scarcely have conjured had he spent his days respectably haggling for a better price on the ell. Frankly, we in drab modernity could ourselves do with a Gabriel Wolff book.

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1806: Johann Philipp Palm, press martyr

Add comment August 26th, 2014 Headsman

Gentlemen, you must not mistake me. I admit that the French Emperor is a tyrant. I admit that he is a monster. I admit that he is the sworn foe of our nation, and, if you will, of the whole human race. But, gentlemen, we must be just to our great enemy. We must not forget that he once shot a bookseller.

Thomas Campbell

Nuremberg bookseller Johann Philipp Palm was shot on this date in 1806 for publishing a manifesto against the French occupation.

For centuries a proud Free Imperial City, Nuremberg had over the few months preceding Palm’s martyrdom been smushed up by the conquering Grande Armee into an amalgamated French client, the Confederation of the Rhine.

This was a huge political shakeup. Even the Empire of which Nuremberg had been a Free Imperial City was no more: the 854-year-old Holy Roman Empire was dissolved in 1806, a casualty of the Battle of Austerlitz. At just 25,000 residents and far removed from its mercantile preeminence of yesteryear,* Nuremberg wasn’t even one of the Confederation of the Rhine’s 16 constituent polities: it had been rolled up into Bavaria, in a partial cleanup of the tiny Kleinstaaten pocking the old German map.

Nuremberg’s prostration in this arrangement mirrored Germany’s as a whole vis-a-vis the Corsican. Napoleon was the official “protector” of the Confederation of the Rhine, and its end of the protection racket entailed shipping conscripts to the French army.

The Confederation of the Rhine ultimately included four kingdoms, five grand duchies, 13 duchies, 17 principalities, and the Free Hansa towns of Hamburg, Lübeck, and Bremen, and covered much of the territory of present-day Germany (sans Prussia). For some odd reason, Germans whose dreams of national unification were beginning to stir weren’t too enthusiastic about having it marshaled by France.

In July of 1806, Palm gave voice to the sentiment by publishing a 144-page treatise, Germany in its Deep Humiliation. (It’s available online in an 1877 printing at archive.org.) The identity of the seditious author(s) he resolutely kept secret, but it’s commonly attributed now to Count Friedrich Julius Heinrich von Soden.

Palm had the fortune or sense to be safely away in Prussia by the time irate Frenchmen raided his shop, but was caught after he boldly slipped back into the city against all sensible advice. He was transferred to a fortress at Braunau am Inn, and shot there.

His death made him an early national martyr (“involuntary hero”, in the words of a 2006 Braunau bicentennial remembrance), and his name is still preserved on a variety of streets in German cities. In Palm’s native Schorndorf, the Palm Pharmacy building sports plaques honoring the martyr. And a Palm Foundation awards, every two years, a Johann Philipp Palm Prize journalism prize. It’s announced on this date, each even-numbered year. (Update: Salijon Abdurakhmanov of Uzbekistan and Nazikha Saeed of Bahrain received the 2014 Palm awards.)

A publishing house, Palm und Enke, actually founded post-Napoleon by the uncle under whom our Johann Palm completed his apprenticeship, still exists today. (It is no longer in the control of any Palm relative, however.)

Braunau am Inn, now a charming little burg of 16,000 just over the border into Austria, is probably best recognized in the wider world these days as the birthplace of Adolf Hitler … and it turns out the little future Nazi was deeply stirred by Palm’s model of patriotic sacrifice, albeit less so his model of an independent press. We find out all about Hitler’s admiration of Palm in the very first stanzas of Mein Kampf.

Volume 1: A Reckoning

CHAPTER 1
IN THE HOUSE OF MY PARENTS

Today it seems to me providential that Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn as my birthplace. For this little town lies on the boundary between two German states which we of the younger generation at least have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.

German-Austria must return to the great German mother country, and not because of any economic considerations. No, and again no: even if such a union were unimportant from an economic point of view; yes, even if it were harmful, it must nevertheless take place. One blood demands one Reich. Never will the German nation possess the moral right to engage in colonial politics until, at least, it embraces its own sons within a single state. Only when the Reich borders include the very last German, but can no longer guarantee his daily bread, will the moral right to acquire foreign soil arise from the distress of our own people. Their sword will become our plow, and from the tears of war the daily bread of future generations will grow. And so this little city on the border seems to me the symbol of a great mission. And in another respect as well, it looms as an admonition to the present day. More than a hundred years ago, this insignificant place had the distinction of being immortalized in the annals at least of German history, for it was the scene of a tragic catastrophe which gripped the entire German nation. At the time of our fatherland’s deepest humiliation, Johannes Palm of Nuremberg, burgher, bookseller, uncompromising nationalist and French hater, died there for the Germany which he loved so passionately even in her misfortune. He had stubbornly refused to denounce his accomplices who were in fact his superiors. In thus he resembled Leo Schlageter. And like him, he was denounced to the French by a representative of his government An Augsburg police chief won this unenviable fame, thus furnishing an example for our modern German officials in Herr Severing‘s Reich.

In this little town on the Inn, gilded by the rays of German martyrdom, Bavarian by blood, technically Austrian, lived my parents in the late eighties of the past century; my father a dutiful civil servants my mother giving all her being to the household, and devoted above all to us children in eternal, loving care Little remains in my memory of this period, for after a few years my father had to leave the little border city he had learned to love, moving down the Inn to take a new position in Passau, that is, in Germany proper.

* Back when being the executioner of Nuremberg was a plum assignment.

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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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1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

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1584: Anna Peihelsteinin, beheaded by Franz Schmidt

Add comment July 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded Anna Peihelsteinin (Peyelstainin) for “lewdness and harlotry.” (Despite the image above, Schmidt notes that she was beheaded standing, not sitting.)

The married woman had been intimate with 21 other men, even including a father and a son. But Anna’s own husband was more understanding of her than the cruel law of the time; as the executioner recorded in his diary, the lonely widower Jerome — whipped out of town for countenancing her whoredom — left behind a miserable reproach scrawled on the wall of a church:

Father and son should have been treated as she was, and the panderers also. In the other world I shall summon and appeal to emperor and king because justice has not been done. I, poor man, suffer though innocent. Farewell and good night.

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