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.
On this date in 1573, 19-year-old Frantz Schmidt — heretofore only an apprentice to his father’s craft — conducted his first solo hanging. As the body of the thief hung there, his father or perhaps another established Scharfrichter stepped forward and ritually slapped the teenage hangman three times, announcing his successful passage into the ranks of Germany’s master executioners.
“Leinhardt Russ of Zeyern, a thief. Executed with the rope at the city of Steinach. Was my first execution.” Those words begin Meister Frantz’s remarkable diary* of 361 hangings, beheadings, breakings-on-the-wheel, drownings, and burnings — as well as many other sub-capital punishments, primarily as the executioner of Nuremberg from 1578 to 1617.
Nuremberg executioner Frantz Schmidt at work in 1584.
Executioners occupied a strange outcast social niche, with charge not only of death sentences but of other dishonorable public tasks. Either as cause or consequence of this, the profession carried its own stigma for underworld less-than-respectable behavior; it was not unheard-of for a shady executioner to wind up climbing the scaffold as patient rather than hangman.
But in his 45-year career, the sober Meister Frantz operated with ahead-of-his-time dignity and sobriety, so much so that Schmidt was granted citizenship in Nuremberg and eventually had his civic honor officially restored. He freed himself and his heirs from the social pollution inherent to his life’s work.
ET: Your book is built around a sort of life’s mission by Frantz Schmidt to return himself and his family to respectable-ness. Certainly he accomplished this marvelously in the end, but I’m curious how firm do you feel is the inference that this was his specific intent from the start?
JH: I have no doubts that as a child, Frantz Schmidt was repeatedly told the tale of his family’s fall from grace, especially since he can still remember so many details even as an old man. We also know from his own words in his appeal to the emperor to restore that lost honor that his grandfather, father, and his own children all felt the sting of this stigma. Finally, the late-in-life struggles to assert that regain honor — against the challenges of his bitter successor — further underscore the centrality of this mission in Frantz Schmidt’s life.
Executioners often had a family trade at this point, but the Schmidts — specifically the father, Heinrich Schmidt — had a bizarre path into this business via the German nobility’s old prerogatives. Could you explicate the “ancient custom” that allowed Albrecht Alcibiades to force Frantz’s father Heinrich, who was not an executioner, to become one? And for that matter, the social customs that then led Heinrich’s neighbors in Hof to treat him as a dishonored untouchable after he was forced to carry out these three executions — rather than viewing him, as we might today, as himself a victim who ought to be helped to get back to his real life?
Most European laws in the early sixteenth century were customary and highly localized. Legal codification throughout jurisdictions was just getting underway. This meant that two villages only a few miles apart might have very different traditions regarding something like execution. In the larger cities, such as Nuremberg, and well organized territorial states, such as the prince-bishopric of Bamberg, standing executioners on salary were the norm. But in many of the hundreds of tiny German states during this period, execution by the victim’s oldest male relative or by another local male was still practiced.
In the case of Hof, the margrave intentionally invoked an ancient and outdated tradition because he was in a hurry to get the job done. The stigma around the job of executioner in general was, by contrast, nearly universal. There seems to have been a little less hostility in southern German states but nobody would have openly socialized with an executioner or his family. As I describe in the book, the severity of this stigma — like all social prejudices — would depend on the individual or occasion in question. So, while some people clearly had sympathy for Meister Frantz, there were still stark boundaries of propriety as to how they might express that sympathy.
Executioners had charge of a variety of disreputable tasks and spheres of civil live: refuse, prostitutes, lepers, torture, and so forth. I’m struck by the importance of Schmidt’s Nuremberg assistant, “the Lion”, in allowing the faithful executioner to (somewhat) separate some of the most visibly dishonorable tasks from Schmdit’s direct purview. Just as a realistic matter, could Frantz Schmidt have reached respectability had he himself had to handle everything personally?
You’re right, the Lion played a key role in this respect. The broader evolution of the job was also significant, from a kind of catch-all for various unpleasant tasks to a civic professional focused on interrogation and punishment. You can also see this in the clothing that executioners start to wear in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, usually either colorful bourgeois outfits or military garb.
Frantz Schmidt’s later entries have a great deal of detail, and you use that to tease out the executioner’s psychology, and the way he thinks about crime, sin, choice, and misfortune in his mature adulthood. It’s quite intriguing. Why, however, did Schmidt begin his journal in the first place? Is there something his shorter, earlier entries tell us about the younger man and the evolution of his views of the “poor sinners” he handled?
After a long time — and especially after I found the oldest version of the journal — I figured out that he started the journal upon his 1578 appointment in Nuremberg. This means that he reconstructed the executions of the previous five years from memory (and without dates).
Why then? The timing strongly suggested to me that he was already thinking about using the journal as a supporting document in his eventual appeal to have his honor restored.
As for changes over time, the most obvious ones are that his passages become much longer, more detailed, and more concerned with motivations and explanations than the earlier, bare-bones accounts. The main evolution in his thinking about poor sinners shows both harsher judgments of those who squandered countless chances to reform and greater pity for those who simply make a bad decision in the heat of the moment.
You have a fascinating chapter devoted to Schmidt’s sidelight as a healer, and to the important ways this practice intersected with executioners’ expertise in [harming] the body. I was amazed that Frantz Schmidt himself also took part in the era’s dissection trend. If one were a regular Nuremberger at this time, would one have any compunctions about a medical consultation with the executioner, a man one might otherwise shun? If a non-executioner physician were available too, would there be any intrinsic preference for the physician as a more respectable figure?
Yes, it’s quite a paradox. You would think that most people would be squeamish or embarrassed about consulting an executioner on medical matters, but by his own estimate Frantz Schmidt saw 15,000 patients over the course of 45 years — fifty times the number of individuals he executed. So he must have been doing something right.
This journal was (re-)discovered at an interesting point, at the beginning of the 19th century when public executions are ending but romantic German nationalism is beginning. How has “Frantz Schmidt” the present-day cultural figure been used and misused by we moderns? What’s the most important misapprehension that reading his diary ought to dispel for us?
This is really the focus of my epilogue, which discusses how “medieval” executioners have been used for the purposes of “enlightened” penal reform, nineteenth-century gothic fantasies, and in modern tourism to elicit disgust, amusement, or even the glorification of pain and suffering. My chief goal in writing the book was to get closer to understanding one such man in his own terms and in the context of his own society. To the degree that the book succeeds, parts of his world will look bizarre and alien, while other aspects (especially how people treat each other) will be strikingly familiar.
* Print-on-demand editions of Schmidt’s original diary are on the market. Although these derive from what I believe to be public domain translations, I have not been able to locate a free English copy online; German speakers can read it here.
Being ‘broken on the wheel’ was an agonising and prolonged way in which to die …
The felon was secured, spread-eagled, face upwards, on a large cartwheel mounted horizontally on an upright which passed through the hub, the wheel sometimes being slightly canted in order to give the spectators a better view of the brutal proceedings …
Death was meted out by the executioner wielding a heavy iron bar, three feet long by two inches square, or using a long-handled hammer. Slowly and methodically he would shatter the victim’s limbs; the upper and forearms, the thighs and the lower legs … On being removed from the wheel the corpse would resemble a rag doll, the various short sections of the shattered limbs being completely disconnected from each other …
In some states in Germany the regulation number of blows was forty. Franz Schmidt, executioner of Nuremberg in the sixteenth century, wrote in his diary that on 11 February 1585 he ‘dispatched Frederick Werner of Nuremberg, alias Heffner Friedla, a murderer who committed three murders and twelve robberies. He was drawn to execution in a tumbrel [a cart], twice nipped with red-hot tongs and afterwards broken on the wheel.’
This multiple murderer was in fact Schmidt’s brother-in-law and, probably in view of their relationship, the judges decreed that only thirty-one blows need be struck. One wonders whether, after that number, there was anything worthwhile left to aim at.
Apart from trailblazing international law, the trial was notable for the gut-punching film of German atrocities; this relatively novel piece of evidence is available for perusal thanks to the magic of the Internet. Caution: Strong stuff. An hour’s worth of Nazi atrocities.
The climactic hangings in the predawn hours this day in Nuremberg were conducted by an American hangman who used the American standard drop rather than the British table calibrated for efficacious neck-snapping. As a result, at least some hangings were botched strangulation jobs, a circumstance which has occasionally attracted charges of intentional barbarism.
At that instant the trap opened with a loud bang. He went down kicking. When the rope snapped taut with the body swinging wildly, groans could be heard from within the concealed interior of the scaffold. Finally, the hangman, who had descended from the gallows platform, lifted the black canvas curtain and went inside. Something happened that put a stop to the groans and brought the rope to a standstill. After it was over I was not in the mood to ask what he did, but I assume that he grabbed the swinging body of and pulled down on it. We were all of the opinion that Streicher had strangled.
There were in all 12 condemned to death at Nuremberg; all hanged this day except Martin Bormann (condemned in absentia; it was only years later that his death during the Nazi regime’s 1945 Gotterdammerung was established) and Hermann Goering (who cheated the executioner with a cyanide capsule two hours before hanging). The ten to die this day were:
On this day in 1381, probably the most infamous robber baron in Germany was flogged, done in on the breaking wheel, and beheaded in Postbauer, near Nürnberg.
Eppelein von Gailingen (or Egkelein Geyling, or some variation thereof) has been dramatized across the ages, but little is known of the man’s life. His death, certainly, but his life is clouded in myth and folklore. What’s clear is that von Gailingen met his grisly end for robbery and a subsequent escape from incarceration. The rest is a tad murky (German link).
Von Gailingen belonged to the class of original robber barons, who supplemented their income with unauthorized tolls and, sometimes, flat-out theft. While the term is more popularly known for its application to the so-called industrial robber barons, it derived from a literal description from centuries past — Raubritter, in German, “men of birth who elected to live, in a lawless age, by saddle and by sword; who sought gain by masterful spoliation, and strove for glory by despiteful deeds of arms.” (Source)
A combination of factors led to the slow and steady dissolution of the former feudal system in favor of a money-based economy during the Middle Ages, and after the Plague swept through Europe around 1350, the accumulated changes and decimated population left much of the continent short on labor and, as a result, short on production. This really was a spot of bother for barons who, unlike their monarchical brethren, had no way to draft extra manpower. With resources thinning and a social lifestyle to keep up, many of these former lords turned to theft and exploitation. Although Rome established the rules governing tolls and trade, many local lords, now charged with obeying distant regulations, opted for a more convenient route: they stopped ships at unauthorized points, shook down the merchants, and sometimes seized wares to stock their own shelves.
Eppelein von Gailingen (German link), a lord in the castle at Gunzenhausen, near Illesheim, was of this group, but apparently one of its more bold and populist members.
He was often felt to be a kind of Robin Hood, and the earliest celebrations of the man were largely in this vein: a knight’s knight, fighting against an out-of-control state disregarding its people. Eppelein got away with his skulduggery until 1369, when he was captured by a political rival and imprisoned in Nürnberg. Von Gailingen was sentenced to death, but shortly before his hanging, an accomplice managed to sneak him a horse, on which he rode out the tower gates and hurdled the enclosing wall and moat.
Now the leader of a loyal band of brigands flouting the Roman Catholic Church, Eppelein went on the run for six years, eventually making his way back near his home. It was there that, after six more years, his minimal forces finally yielded to the Count of Nürnberg, who carried out a much more unpleasant version of the death sentence.
As if all that attention weren’t enough, von Gailingen’s run from the law lives on through the legend of Nürnberg: locals pushing the town on tourists claim that two hoofprints from his daring escape are imprinted in the stonework near the the castle’s five-pointed tower.* And perhaps most indicative of his endurance as a cultural icon, a neighboring town has devoted a festival to him, which is more than most robber barons of any day can claim.
* Not surprisingly, the tower was destroyed and rebuilt at least once — just five decades after Eppelein’s alleged leap. But the new sandstone structure does bear the marks of what could conceivably be a horse’s hooves.