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Killing and Torturing for 16th Century Justice



Rob Hardy


The death penalty, the punishment of legally killing someone guilty of a crime, is controversial now. More than half the nations of the world do not allow it, and the number of US states banning it has increased to eighteen. It was taken for granted centuries ago that you could be hanged for theft, and also that you might have your ears cropped or fingers cut off for other crimes, or that torturing people was in the legal interest of governments. Governments would pay executioners to carry out this handiwork, so there were lots of executioners who were government employees within cities and states. Meister Frantz Schmidt of Nuremberg was just one of these functionaries, working from 1573 to 1618, but he was different: he kept a journal. That journal is the basis for The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by historian Joel F. Harrington. The journal is sparse. There are a few pages in this book that have lengthy quotations from it, with most quotations being a few sentences regarding a particular miscreant or the administration of a particular punishment. It seems, however, that Harrington has dug deep into the archives of the times, and fills out Schmidt's ambitious life story, along with giving insight to his time's views of crime, punishment, and the social role of the executioner. 




Schmidt got his life vocation as executioner from his father, who had been unwillingly forced into the job by a local leader, the margrave over the town of Hof. The father was a respectable woodsman, but when the margrave wanted three men executed and had no executioner on his staff, he commanded the father to assume the role. This forever placed the father in the role of hangman, and excluded him from any respectable society. Schmidt had little choice but to follow his father into the trade. Since the duties of the executioner were diverse, and since they required skill, the father gave instruction to the boy. Wielding the seven-pound "judgement sword" was not easy, and the father gave the boy practice on pumpkins and gourds, and then moved up to rhubarb, the sinewy stalks of which might better simulate a human neck. After that, he would have practiced on livestock or stray dogs. Eventually, Schmidt was to be a skillful handler of the sword; beheading a victim, even if the victim were restrained in a chair, could not be done by just anyone. Ideally, one swift stroke would do the job; it didn't always go that easily and sometimes (although seldom) it required a bit of hacking, which Schmidt would note with self criticism: "Botched." 




Decapitation by the sword was the most honorable way of being executed, and the swiftest and most painless. Hanging someone required far less skill, and indeed Schmidt's first executions were by the rope. The process was not the swift drop via a trap door with which we are familiar. The executioner would climb a double ladder with the condemned, arrange the rope, and simply push the victim off. There was no sharp drop to break the neck, so death was by slow strangulation, which Schmidt or an assistant might mercifully accelerate by pulling on the legs. The corpse was left on the gallows until it decayed and dropped into the bone pit below. 




Schmidt would have learned the techniques of killing from his father, but just as important was learning how to apply instruments of torture. Sometimes these would be applied to torment someone on the way to the gallows; a court might prescribe that a certain number of nips with red-hot tongs, pulling off flesh, were needed before death happened. Torture was used also to get information; we might now call it by the euphemism "enhanced interrogation," but no euphemisms were needed in Schmidt's time. Inquiry by torture was a simple judicial procedure since investigations would often be "stalled because of the paltry capabilities of pre-nineteenth-century forensic science." In other words, self-incrimination was often the exclusive means of finding a culprit. In Nuremberg, the legally sanctioned options were thumbscrews, leg screws, candles or torches to the armpits, stretching on the rack, or pressure applied to the head by a gradually tightening metal and leather band. The descriptions of the use of such techniques makes for gruesome reading, and we may be rightly glad that civilized people class them as torture and are pleased that they are part of the past. However, Schmidt would also have legally used the torture called "water," known these days as waterboarding, and some of our contemporaries still think this a dandy technique. Schmidt would have been adept at all the approved arts of the torturer, which not only included using such tools enough to bring in a confession although not so much as to cause death, but also intimidation; a subject shown the implements of torture might confess so as to avoid their application. The degree that such confessions were sincere rather than a means to avoid pain remains impossible to judge. 




Schmidt would have been responsible for patching up those that he had tortured, perhaps just to make them presentable on execution day. He would have used salves and herbs, and he would have known how to set bones broken by his more violent techniques. He didn't make any extra money for helping to heal prisoners in this way, but he would have had extensive hands-on insight into human anatomy. Because of this experience, Schmidt, like many other executioners, was in demand as a healer, not for prisoners but for the general public. Not only did he make more money as a practical doctor than he did for his civic work, he treated thousands of patients and was well respected in this role. 




This is just what he wanted. Harrington makes the case that Schmidt worked all his decades in an effort to lift himself and his family out of the degrading role of being hangmen, an occupation into which his father had been forced and which Schmidt himself had no ability to decline. While an executioner played a vital role within a government which wanted to show how it could mete out punishment, and while there were guilds and convention meetings for professional executioners, the social caste system of the time made him and his family outcasts. He would have to deal with other government officials professionally, like magistrates, jailers, or notaries, but could not otherwise freely converse with them. He could not sit at their tables, visit their homes, or greet them in the street. Schmidt was valued for his skills at work, and at a time when executions were public, the audience for them liked a show of skill, too; a botched execution could result in boos from the crowd, or even assault by the mob. He never drank alcohol, perhaps hoping that abstemiousness would engender the respect of others, even though avoiding alcohol was exceedingly eccentric at the time. He was responsible in his duties, and well-appreciated as a healer. So it is a pleasure to read that his efforts paid off. After he retired from his civic job, he appealed to the city to lift "the inherited shame of Frantz Schmidt that prevents him from being considered upright," and the city did so. 




This is an engrossing history. The punishments described are unpleasant to read about, but so are the crimes as committed by highwaymen, burglars, and arsonists, often preying upon countrymen who were far removed from any civic protection and who might thereby lose all their crops, cattle, home, and family. Through Schmidt, Harrington makes real a lawless and brutal world, and readers 400 years later will be thankful that the routines of justice are different now, at least for most of us and for most of the time.



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