1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies with conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,Torture

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1621: Bohemia’s “Day of Blood”

5 comments June 21st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1621, the Habsburg crown took 27 nobles’ heads in Prague’s Old Town Square for attempting to lead Bohemia to independence.

A century into the Protestant Reformation, the many conflicts between the prerogatives of princes and prelates were about to spawn the Thirty Years’ War — a settling of accounts eventually to lay the cornerstone of modern national sovereignty.

And it all got started in the mother of cities.

Predominantly Protestant Bohemia was at loggerheads with the doctrinaire Catholic slated to become the next Holy Roman Emperor, and as rising tensions in Prague between the faiths took on a patriotic tone, a mob chucked a couple of imperial representatives out the window of Prague Castle.

The Defenestration of Prague. It’s a great word for a great political tradition — there are multiple Defenestrations of Prague in Czech history.

The royal retainers survived the plunge, thanks to miraculous angelic intervention [Catholic version], or to fortuitously landing on a dunghill [Protestant version]. (Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.)

Either way, it was game on. The Protestant nobility refused to recognize the Habsburg heir and offered the crown to a Calvinist toff instead.

This Frederick V, Elector Palatine answers to the nickname “the winter king” — because by the next winter, the Catholics had overrun Bohemia and driven Frederick off to the dissolute life of exiled nobility, where he anonymously knocked around the Low Countries and accidentally sired the modern line of British royalty.

Good choice: the Czech lands soon felt the monarch’s wrath.

J.E. Hutton’s History of the Moravian Church — which treats especially a distinctive strain of local Christianity with roots in the pre-Lutheran Hussite movement, and which although shattered by the failed revolt still persists today — narrates the result for the 27 unluckiest nobles:

There fell the flower of the Bohemian nobility … Among these were various shades of faith — Lutherans, Calvinists, Utraquists, Brethren; but now all differences were laid aside, for all was nearly over …


Detail view (click for the full image) of the Bohemian nobles’ execution. Note the block on the scaffold foreground for chopping off hands.

Swiftly, in order, and without much cruelty the gory work was done. The morning’s programme had all been carefully arranged. At each corner of the square was a squad of soldiers to hold the people in awe, and to prevent an attempt at rescue. One man, named Mydlar, was the executioner; and, being a Protestant, he performed his duties with as much decency and humanity as possible. He used four different swords … The first of these swords is still to be seen at Prague, and has the names of its eleven victims engraven upon it. … In every instance Mydlar seems to have done his duty at one blow. At his side stood an assistant, and six masked men in black. As soon as Mydlar had severed the neck, the assistant placed the dead man’s right hand on the block; the sword fell again; the hand dropped at the wrist; and the men in black, as silent as night, gathered up the bleeding members …

Much more general reprisals were in store, too. One of Europe’s most liberal writs of religious toleration was swiftly revoked. Catholicism was imposed from above, with Marian columns thrown up in every town. German became the official language. Books were burned by the thousand. Protestants fled or were expelled over the years to come in such numbers that (combined with the general devastation of a war that wrought famine on Europe), modern Czechia’s population had dropped by a third by the Peace of Westphalia.

And while the war the Bohemians helped touch off would win recognition for several small polities breaking away from dynastic imperial formations and cement the principle for other such states to follow, Bohemia itself would remain yoked to the Habsburgs until World War I.

Nobody’s nursing any grudges against the headless nobles for all this, however. Now that the Czech Republic has finally got a place to hang its hat in the community of nations, it keeps 27 white crosses in the Old Town Square bricks as homage to the Day of Blood.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,God,Habsburg Realm,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason

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1628: Johan Bernhard Reichardt, a nine-year-old witch

2 comments May 9th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1628, a prepubescent boy went to the stake at Würzburg, the victim of a witch-hunting spasm amid the confusion of the Thirty Years’ War.

Here is the story as related by Midelfort’s Witch Hunting in Southwestern Germany, 1562-1684:

Bernhard Reichardt, a magistrate and wealthy man of Markelsheim, had tried to give his young son, Johan Bernhard, a decent education by sending him to school at Neuen Münster in Würzburg. In December of 1627, however, the father became convinced that his son had been seduced into witchcraft there, and transferred Johan Bernhard to the Jesuit school at Dettelbach. By mid-March 1628 the authorities in Würzburg were aware that this nine-year-old boy had been involved in witchcraft and wrote politely to the Teutonic Order in Mergentheim to ask for assistance in extraditing the child to Würzburg for questioning. Johann Caspar, Administrator of the Teutonic Order, responded at once that the boy was to be delivered up formally to the authorities at the border. By the end of March he was under the jurisdiction of the Würzburg authorities. Far from merely questioning him, the Würzburg court got Johan Bernhard to sign a confession on April 8 that he had been seduced into witchcraft by a classmate. Among other horrors, he had denied God, Mary, and all the saints and angels. With his own blood he had written “Ich, Johannes Bernhardus Reichard, hab mich dem Teüfel vergeben.” He had flown to numerous dances and, although only nine years old, had had intercourse with the devil on numerous occasions. Like adults, Johan Bernhard always found the devil “hard as horn” and “of a cold nature.” Implicating his complices, the boy noted that he had seen three other persons known to him at the dances.

One month later, on May 9, 1628, the authorities at Würzburg burned Johan Bernhard Reichardt and four others. Johann Caspar in Mergentheim heard of the execution only after it had occurred, but agreed fully that it had been justified.

Little Johan was far from the only child prosecuted as a witch in Europe, and many very young children number among the casualties of the Würzburg witch trials. With Catholic and Protestant armies romping back and forth over German principalities, it was a ripe moment for feeling the presence of existential threats to the civilization … and for trying children as adults.

Midelfort, again:

[A] “New Treatise on the Seduced Child-Witches” thundered against the rapid increase in childhood witchcraft. The author asserted that the first reason for such conditions was the sins of the parents, for whom witch-children were a fitting punishment. But more important, such witchcraft was due to the sins of the children themselves. One should not think that they were innocent merely because they were young. Their cursing, coveting, and immoral words and games were proof enough that these children had fallen into mortal sin.

And why, after all, shouldn’t children be witches? Everybody else was. The chancellor of Würzburg’s Catholic Prince-Bishop wrote a comrade in the summer of 1629:

As to the affair of the witches, which Your Grace thinks brought to an end before this, it has started up afresh, and no words can do justice to it. Ah, the woe and the misery of it — there are still four hundred in the city, high and low, of every rank and sex, nay, even clerics, so strongly accused that they may be arrested at any hour … a third part of the city is surely involved … there are children of three and four years, to the number of three hundred, who are said to have had intercourse with the Devil. I have seen put to death children of seven, promising students of ten, twelve, fourteen, and fifteen.

In the version of this story preserved in Mackay’s Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, desperate public demonic incantations repeated by “witches” who were either persuaded of their own guilt or hopeless of any source of aid save the infernal were absorbed by youngsters’ timeless instinct for that which is forbidden by their elders, further feeding the frenzy:

Many an unhappy urchin, who in a youthful frolic had repeated it, paid for his folly the penalty of his life. Three, whose ages varied from ten to fifteen, were burned alive at Wurzburg for no other offence. Of course every other boy in the city became still more convinced of the power of the charm. One boy confessed that he would willingly have sold himself to the devil, if he could have raised him, for a good dinner and cakes every day of his life, and a pony to ride upon. This luxurious youngster, instead of being horsewhipped for his folly, was hanged and burned.

However locally and temporarily overwhelming this current, it was never without resistance — everyday people willing to complain that charges were absurd, judges inclined to skepticism. An onset of acquittals was known to presage the end of a witch-hunting spasm.

A particular voice left to us is Friedrich von Spee, a Jesuit theologian whose tract Cautio CriminalisPrecautions for Prosecutors — accepted the existence of witches but argued forcefully against the legal apparatus of accusation and torture. To Spee’s mind, not two in fifty burned witches were truly in league with the devil, and his book quickly became influential to both Catholic and Protestant audiences. It remains in print down to the present day

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Public Executions,Witchcraft,Wrongful Executions

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