1780: Johann Heinrich Waser, persecuted whistleblower

Add comment May 27th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1780, statistician Johann Heinrich Waser

“One of the most spectacular and horrific treason cases of the late eighteenth century” in the words of Jeffrey Freedman (A Poisoned Chalice | here’s a review) — one that “shattered the complacent belief that such a brutal and cynical act of repression could no longer occur in an age of Enlightenment, let alone in Switzerland, the land of William Tell, republican virtue, and free, self-governing citizens.” Subsequent centuries laugh in bitter commiseration.

Initially a pastor, Waser’s idealism had not been fully wrung out in the seminary and so he got himself fired from his Zurich-area parish for complaining too loudly about the oligarchic graft that left his flock’s poor relief barren.

Nothing daunted, he effected a career change and “threw himself with zeal and success into all researches in natural history, history, agriculture and statistics.” He surely had little notion that this technocratic exercise could imperil his life … but as with his time in the ministry, he suffered for his inability to pay the tithe of politic hypocrisy to the unrighteous mighty. Freedman again:

One of Waser’s demographic studies uncovered evidence of a stagnating and even declining population in certain rural districts. To Waser (and indeed to cameralists in general) it was axiomatic that a growing population was good, that it was both cause and symptom of economic prosperity. So the evidence of a stagnating and declining population demanded an explanation, which Waser believed he had found in the trade in mercenaries practiced by the Swiss cantons. With this, Waser was touching upon a very delicate subject indeed, for the trade in mercenaries was not only a useful safety valve for disposing of excess population, it was a major source of fiscal revenue. Yet Waser condemned the lucrative trade without restraint, documenting with hard statistical evidence the population losses it caused; and he drove home his point with anecdotes such as the following, which appeared in the introduction to a study provocatively entitled, “Swiss Blood, French Money”:

With the General Stuppa in attendance, the Marquis de Lauvois, the War Minister of Louis XIV, is supposed once t0o have said to his king: “Sire, if you had all the gold and silver paid by yourself and your royal ancestors to the Swiss, you would be able to pave the highway from Paris to Basel with Thalers.” Whereupon General Stuppa declared: “Sire, that may well be so; but if it were possible to collect all the blood shed by our nation for you and your royal ancestors, one could build a navigable canal from Paris to Basel.

Waser’s incautious muckraking got him the Julian Assange treatment: he’d be condemned for treasonably stealing the information he reported for the public weal; in an attempt to blacken his name, he was even spuriously investigated for poisoning the sacramental wine.

The May 27 beheading of the “unhappy pastor” raised a clamor of European outrage against Zurich’s oligarchs. True, the salon-dwelling demographic liable to such a sentiment had no power to chastise. But it at least enjoyed the satisfaction inside of 20 years to see the lords toppled who had built Waser’s scaffold … thanks, appropriately enough, to the French.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Switzerland,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1804: Hans Jakob Willi, Bockenkrieger

Add comment April 25th, 2019 Headsman


(cc) image by Paebi

“We are free Swiss, completely equal citizens. That government that will not hear the voice of the people is a tyranny.”
Hans Jakob Willi, leader of the Bockenkrieg, who was executed on 25 April 1804.

The defeat of the Old Swiss Confederacy by Napoleon had shaken up political arrangements in Switzerland, creating the successor Helvetic Republic. As Napoleonic revolutions were wont to do, this new state aimed to centralize, universalize, and rationalize, having done with archaic redoubts of canton authority and ancient feudal privileges.

This new Republic was a short-lived affair, held up only by French bayonets; upon their withdrawal in 1802, it succumbed quickly to civil strife which necessitated the Corsican’s mediation — and a new political order which restored some powers of the prostrated cantons.

It was the consequent flex of Zurich upon its former provincial domains that brought about the Bockenkrieg insurgency — a rural rebellion near Horgen requiring Zurich to impose its will by means of a very picturesque suppression.


The Bocken estate after the battle for the manor during the Bockenkrieg, 28 March 1804 by Johann Jakob Aschmann (c. 1804)

Hans Jakob Willi, a cobbler turned soldier who gave the insurgency a veteran military man at its fore, was injured in battle, resulting in the speedy collapse of the rising. A court martial declared his death, despite Napoleon’s attempted intercession on Willi’s behalf.

German speakers might enjoy this public domain history on the rebellion.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Soldiers,Switzerland,Treason

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1489: Hans Waldmann, mayor of Zurich

Add comment April 6th, 2018 Headsman

An equestrian monument to Hans Waldmann at Zurich’s the Münsterhof plaza reminds of that onetime mayor’s beheading on this date in 1489.


(cc) image from Roland zh.

His city’s most outstanding personality of the age, Waldmann (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed German) sprang from merchant stock. He’d soared to the top in his Swiss city-state via his gift for military command, which stood Zurich in good stead during the Burgundian Wars.

Despite his war heroism, the peasantry of Zurich’s rural proximities soon grew to hate Waldmann as the spear tip of the urban oligarchy. Notoriously, he ordered the destruction of peasants’ dogs to preserve the hunting privilege for the powerful.

On the first of April, a revolt toppled Waldmann’s authority. He was arrested on a diverse slate of accusations including treason, peculation, and sexual corruption.

For the four days intervening, he endured “ceaseless torture, hanging, and stretching,” but the mayor retained enough vigor to walk “manly” and “proud” (in the words of a Bernese observer) to his scaffold.


Waldmann’s Farewell, by Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1847).

Detail view (click for the full-page illustration) of Hans Waldmann’s beheading, from the Lucerne Chronicle (1513).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Soldiers,Switzerland,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1482: Richard Puller von Hohenburg and Anthony Mätzler

2 comments September 24th, 2015 Headsman


The Alsatian knight Richard Puller von Hohenburg and his servant, Anthony Mätzler, burned for sodomy at Zurich. From illustration in Die Grosse Burgunderchronik by Diebold Schilling de Altere, c. 1483.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Nobility,Public Executions,Sex,Soldiers,Switzerland

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1527: Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr

3 comments January 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1527, Anabaptist Felix Manz was trussed hand and foot and shoved into the Limmat in Zurich — the first martyr of the Radical Reformation.

As the Protestant Reformation made theologians of everyone without a concomitant social embrace of religious pluralism, it wasn’t long before men who would have been fire-eating heretics in Catholic eyes a decade before were turning their swords on one another for deviation from their own new orthodoxies.

As the Martyrs Mirror put it,

this was also the century in which Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and afterwards Calvin in France, began to reform the Roman church; and to deny, oppose and contend with the authority of God’s holy Word against the supposed power of the Roman Pope, and many papal superstitions, however, in order to avoid too great dissatisfaction, as it seems, they remained in the matter of infant baptism, in agreement with the Roman church

They also have retained with the papists, the swearing of oaths, the office of secular authority, war against enemies, and sometimes also against each other, etc.

In Zurich, former Zwingli follower Felix Manz (sometimes spelled Felix Mantz) co-founded a splinter group of Anabaptists and picked a fight with city hall over adult vs. infant baptism.

Zwingli has been dinged by many a true believer then and now for his compromises, but the man had a city to run and better reason to worry about the movements of nearby Catholic armies than an endless disputation over baptism. When the city had had enough, it declared drowning for adult baptism (“rebaptism,” to its opponents). Water for water, see?

Manz got first in line. (He wouldn’t be the last.)

Zwingli’s eventual successor recorded the scene.

As he came down from the Wellenberg to the fish market and was led through the shambles to the boat, he praised God that he was about to die for His truth. For Anabaptism was right, and founded on the Word of God, and Christ had foretold that His followers would suffer for the truth’s sake. And the like discourse he urged much, contradicting the preacher who attended him. On the way his mother and brother came to him, and exhorted him to be stedfast; and he persevered in his folly, even to the end. When he was bound upon the hurdle, and was about to be thrown into the stream by the executioner, he sang with a loud voice: “In manus Tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum.” (“Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”) And herewith was he drawn into the water by the executioner, and drowned.


Felix Manz drowned in the Limmat.

If this dispute seems rather shallow cause for spilling human blood, it’s part of a fathomless theological debate only now becoming water — ahem — under the bridge.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drowned,Execution,Famous,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Ripped from the Headlines,Switzerland

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