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The Faithful Executioner:

Life and Death, Honour and Shame in Turbulent 16th Century

by Joel F. Harrington

In 1577 Niklaus Stüller was put to death in the Bavarian town of Bamberg. A large crowd of townsmen turned out to watch the serial killer known as the Schwartz Kraeker (“Black Banger”) meet his grisly end. The condemned man was dragged through the streets on a sled: as he bumped along his flesh was torn three times with red-hot pincers. When he reached the place of execution he was staked, spreadeagled, to the ground. Wooden slats were pushed under his elbows and knees. Then he was beaten to death with a heavy wooden wheel, each blow designed to shatter his bones. After perhaps 40 blows his mangled corpse was tied to the wheel and left to be pecked at by ravens.

Grotesque? Unusual? Not in Germany during the 16th century. Stüller’s crimes were atrocious: he had murdered three pregnant women, slitting each through the belly and ripping out her unborn child. Twin boys were found kicking inside one mother’s womb; Stüller’s accomplice Phila von Sunberg picked up the babies by their legs and smashed their heads to pulp on the ground. Hanging, to borrow the modern expression, was too good for them.

We know about the Black Banger thanks to the man who killed him. Meister Frantz Schmidt was a public executioner for more than 40 years, first in Bamberg, then from 1578 until 1617 in the large imperial city of Nuremberg. And, unusually, Schmidt kept a diary.

The journal gives a rare, intimate view into early modern Europe’s fierce justice. Schmidt’s diary records more than 600 hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, wheel-breakings, floggings, brandings, ear-croppings and finger-choppings. Schmidt killed, whipped or mutilated men and women, thieves and cutpurses, rapists and buggers, brigands, arsonists, babykillers, horse rustlers, home invaders, fraudsters, traitors, tricksters, gambling cheats, blasphemers, whores, pimps and spies. In 1585 he executed his own brother-in-law — a robber and murderer — with the wheel. He also served as the city torturer, racking and burning suspects until they confessed, then patching them up so they were healthy enough for execution.

Some entries are laconic — “two thieves hanged”. Others are short, dark parables of life’s cruel chaos: “Carl Reichardt ... who was a simpleton; formerly whipped out of town because of Schinbein’s wife, with whom he had had immoral relations, as well as with other married women, stole here [ie in Nuremberg] and everywhere ... also at the knacker’s yards where he lodged — beheaded with the sword as a favour”. Not much of a favour, obviously, but beheading was more respectable than hanging and the least painful way to go.

That was the theory at any rate. Execution with the sword required the executioner to remove the head in one swipe, using a huge blade swung twohanded while the victim stood or knelt, justifiably afraid and liable to flinch.

Sometimes, therefore, it was botched: death was messy, the crowd would riot and the executioner himself could end up stoned to death. That Schmidt lasted four decades was testament to his sobriety — he was a teetotaller in an alcoholic age — and his sheer skill.

Schmidt’s work made him an outcast. The executioner was well paid, kept decent lodgings and enjoyed tax-exempt status, but in Germany’s status-obsessed society he was untouchable. His job forbade him to drink in taverns, let alone marry well or mingle in polite company. The final administrator of justice was socially indispensable but culturally despised.

Worse, the taint was hereditary. Schmidt became an executioner because his father had been one. (Much like Britain’s so-called “last hangman”, Albert Pierrepoint.) He had not chosen the life: the life had chosen him. Thus, although he performed his role soberly, diligently and well, Schmidt’s singular aim was somehow to claw his way out of dishonour. Amazingly, he succeeded. Retiring after nearly half a century of impeccable execution and setting up as a medicine man, Schmidt received papers from the Holy Roman Emperor, officially cleansing him of all dishonour.

Harrington’s book is a study in historical identity, a psychological reconstruction produced by forensic readings of the diaries. The aim is to tease from an impersonal logbook of slaughter a deeply empathetic biography of a butcher with a heart of gold. In general he succeeds, although sometimes Harrington seems to read deeper attitudes and emotions in Schmidt’s diary entries than are merited by the terse, factual text.

Nevertheless, this is a sympathetic, intelligent and surprisingly tender book, especially given a body count worthy of a Tarantino flick. Harrington busts plenty of myths about early-modern torture and execution and his portrait of Nuremberg’s civic life and legal world is compelling. No one, I think, will finish the book admiring Schmidt quite as much as the author does. But we may well think of the conclusion of the Victorian executioner James Berry, who wrote in his own memoirs that “the law of capital punishment falls with terrible weight upon the hangman”.

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