The Director of the Theater of Horror

What was it like to be an executioner in the 16th century?

The only fully reliable portrait of Frantz Schmidt that has survived, drawn in the margin of a legal volume of capital sentences by a Nuremberg court notary with artistic aspirations.
The only fully reliable portrait of Frantz Schmidt that has survived, drawn in the margin of a legal volume of capital sentences by a Nuremberg court notary with artistic aspirations. At the time of this event, the beheading of Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591, Meister Frantz was about 37 years old.

Courtesy of Staatsarchiv Nürnberg

This is an excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington and out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

In the medieval era, public executions were meant to accomplish two goals: first, to shock spectators and, second, to reaffirm divine and temporal authority. A steady and reliable executioner played the pivotal role in achieving this delicate balance through his ritualized and regulated application of violence on the state’s behalf. The court condemnation, the death procession, and the execution itself constituted three acts in a carefully choreographed morality play, what historian Richard van Dulmen called “the theater of horror.” The “good death” Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th-century Nuremberg, sought was essentially a drama of religious redemption, in which the poor sinner acknowledged and atoned for his or her crimes, voluntarily served as an admonitory example, and in return was granted a swift death and the promise of salvation. It was, in that sense, the last transaction a condemned prisoner would make in this world.

Let us take the example of Hans Vogel from Rasdorf, who, as Schmidt wrote in his extensive journals, “burned to death an enemy in a stable [and] was my first execution with the sword in Nuremberg” on Aug. 13, 1577. As in all public performances, the preparation behind the scenes was crucially important. Three days before the day of execution, Vogel was moved to a slightly larger death row cell. Had he been seriously wounded or otherwise ill, Frantz and perhaps another medical consultant would have tended to him and perhaps requested delays in the execution date until Vogel regained the stamina required for the final hour.

While awaiting judgment day, Vogel might receive family members and other visitors in the prison or—if he was literate—seek consolation by reading a book or writing farewell letters. He might even reconcile with some of his victims and their relatives, as did a murderer who accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim’s widow “as a sign that she had forgiven him from the depths of her heart.” The most frequent visitors to Vogel’s cell during this period would be the prison chaplains. In Nuremberg the two chaplains worked in concert and sometimes in competition, attempting to “soften his heart” with appeals combining elements of fear, sorrow, and hope. If Vogel couldn’t read, the clerics would have shown him an illustrated Bible and attempted to teach him the Lord’s Prayer as well as the basics of the Lutheran catechism; if he was better schooled, they might engage him in discussions about grace and salvation. Above all, the chaplains—sometimes joined by the jailer or members of his family—would offer consolation to the poor sinner, singing hymns together and speaking reassuring words, while repeatedly admonishing the stubborn and hardhearted.

Whatever their success in effecting an internal conversion, the clerics were at minimum expected to sufficiently calm the condemned Vogel for the final component of his preparatory period, the famed “hangman’s meal.” As in those modern countries that still maintain capital punishment, Vogel could request what ever he wanted for his last meal, including copious quantities of wine. The chaplain Hagendorn attended some of these repasts and was frequently appalled by the boorish and ungodly behavior he witnessed. One surly robber spat out the warden’s wine and demanded warm beer, while another large thief “thought more of the food for his belly than his soul … devouring in one hour a large loaf, and in addition two smaller ones, besides other food,” in the end consuming so much that his body allegedly “burst asunder in the middle,” as it swung from the gallows. Some poor sinners, by contrast (especially distraught young killers of newborns), were unable to eat anything whatsoever.

Once Vogel was adequately satiated (and inebriated), the executioner’s assistants helped him put on the white linen execution gown and summoned Frantz, who from this point on oversaw the public spectacle about to unfold. His arrival at the cell was announced by the warden with the customary words, “The executioner is at hand,” whereupon Frantz knocked on the door and entered the parlor in his finest attire. After asking the prisoner for forgiveness, he then sipped the traditional Saint John’s drink of peace with Vogel, and engaged in a brief conversation to determine whether he was ready to proceed to the waiting judge and jury.

A few poor sinners were at this point actually jubilant and even giddy about their imminent release from the mortal world, whether out of religious conviction, exasperation, or sheer intoxication. Sometimes Frantz decided that a small concession might be enough to ensure compliance, such as allowing one condemned woman to wear her favorite straw hat to the gallows, or a poacher to wear the wreath sent to him in prison by his sister. He might also ask an assistant to provide more alcohol, sometimes mixed with a sedative he prepared, although this tactic could backfire, leading some women to pass out and making some of the younger men still more aggressive. Once confident that Vogel was sufficiently calmed, Frantz and his assistants bound the prisoner’s hands with rope (or taffeta cords for women) and proceeded to the first act of the execution drama.

The “blood court,” presided over by a patrician judge and jury, was a forum for sentencing, not for deciding guilt or punishment. Vogel’s own confession, in this case obtained without torture, had already determined his fate. At the end of Nuremberg’s chamber, the judge sat on a raised cushion, holding a white rod in his right hand and in his left a short sword with two gauntlets hanging from the hilt. Six patrician jurors in ornately carved chairs flanked him on either side, like him wearing the customary red and black robes of the blood court. While the executioner and his assistants held the prisoner steady, the scribe read the final confession and its tally of offenses, concluding with the formulaic condemnation “Which being against the laws of the Holy Roman Empire, my Lords have decreed and given sentence that he shall be condemned from life to death by [rope/sword/ fire/water/the wheel].” Starting with the youngest juror, the judge then serially polled all 12 of his colleagues for their consent, to which each gave the standard reply, “What is legal and just pleases me.”

Before confirming the sentence, the judge addressed Vogel directly for the first time, inviting a statement to the court. The submissive poor sinner was not expected to present any sort of defense, but rather to thank the jurors and judge for their just decision and absolve them of any guilt in the violent death they had just endorsed. Those relieved souls whose punishments had been commuted to beheading were often effusive in their gratitude. A few reckless rogues were so bold as to curse the assembled court. Many more terrified prisoners simply stood speechless. Turning to Frantz, the judge then gave the servant of the court his commission: “Executioner, I command you in the name of the Holy Roman Empire, that you carry [the poor sinner] to the place of execution and carry out the aforesaid punishment,” whereupon he ceremoniously snapped his white staff of judgment in two and returned the prisoner to the executioner’s custody.

The second act of the unfolding drama, the procession to the site of execution, brought the assembled crowd of hundreds or thousands of spectators into the mix. Typically, the execution itself had been publicized by broadsheets and other official proclamations, including the hanging of a bloodred cloth from the town hall parapet. Vogel, his hands still bound in front of him, was expected to walk the mile or so to the gallows. Violent male criminals and those sentenced to torture with hot tongs were bound more firmly and placed in a waiting tumbrel or sled, pulled by a work horse used by local sanitation workers. Led by two mounted archers and the ornately robed judge, also usually on horse back, Frantz and his assistants worked hard to keep up a steady forward pace while several guards held back the teeming crowd. One or both chaplains walked the entire way one on either side of the condemned, reading from scripture and praying aloud. The religious aura of the entire procession was more than a veneer, and in Frantz’s career only the unconverted Mosche Judt was “led to the gallows without any priests to accompany or console him.”

Satisfying his superiors’ expectations of a dignified and orderly ceremony put even more pressure on the “theater of horror’s” director. In addition to fending off derisive shouts and thrown objects, the executioner needed to maintain the somber mood of the proceedings. Frantz was understandably frustrated and embarrassed when one incestuous old couple turned their death procession into a ludicrous race, each attempting to outrun the other: “He was in front at the Ladies’ Gate, but from here on she frequently outpaced him.” Frantz often laments when a prisoner behaved very wildly and gave trouble, but his patience appears to have been especially tried by the arsonist Lienhard Deürlein, an audacious knave who continued to drink hard from the bottle during the entire procession. Deürlein bestowed curses—rather than the customary blessings—on those he passed, and upon his arrival at the gallows handed the wine bottle to the chaplain while he urinated in the open. When his sentence was read to him, he said he was willing to die but asked as a favor that he should be allowed to fence and fight with four of the guards. His request, Meister Frantz drily notes, was refused. According to the scandalized chaplain, Deürlein then seized the bottle again “and this drink lasted so long that at last the executioner struck off his head while the bottle was still at his lips, without his being able to say the words ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.’ ”

Outward signs of contrition carried particular significance for Frantz, especially during this third act, at the execution site. He writes with approval when one remorseful murderer wept all the way until he knelt down or when a penitent thief took leave of the world as a Christian.

The greatest terror for any executioner—particularly a young journeyman—was that his own errors might effectively ruin the carefully managed drama of sin and redemption and endanger his own job or worse. The large crowd of spectators—always including many loud drunks among its number—put immense performance pressure on the sword-wielding executioner. Long farewell speeches or songs with multiple verses helped build suspense for the crowd, but also tried the patience and nerves of the waiting professional. Elisabeth Mechtlin started out well on the path to a good death, weeping incessantly and informing Magister Hagendorn “that she was glad to leave this vile and wicked world, and would go to her death not otherwise than as to a dance [but]… the nearer she approached to death, the more sorrowful and faint-hearted she became.” By the time of her execution procession, Mechtlin was screaming and yelling uncontrollably all the way to the gallows. Her continued flailing while in the judgment chair even apparently unnerved a by then very experienced Frantz Schmidt, untypically leading him to require three strokes to dispatch the hysterical woman.

Fortunately, Hans Vogel’s execution passed without any incident worthy of note. Bungled beheadings, though, appeared often in early modern chronicles, in Nuremberg several times before and after Frantz Schmidt’s tenure. During his own 45-year career and 187 recorded executions with the sword, Meister Frantz required a second stroke only four times (an impressive success rate of 98 percent), yet he dutifully acknowledges each mistake in his journal with the simple annotation botched. He also refused to fall back on the usual excuses proffered for a bungled beheading: that the devil put three heads in front of him (in which case he was advised to aim for the middle one) or that a poor sinner bewitched him in some other way. Some professionals carried with them a splinter from the judge’s broken staff of justice to protect them against just such magical influences, or covered the victim’s head with a black cloth to forestall the evil eye. Frantz’s well-known temperance had fortunately immunized him from the more mundane explanation favored by contemporaries, namely the executioner “finding heart” for the big moment in the bottle or an alleged “magical drink.” Most crucially, his slips did not occur during these journeyman years or even his early career in Nuremburg, but rather long after he had become a locally established and respected figure, his reputation and personal safety both secure.

Mishaps leading to mob violence and lynch justice jeopardized the core message of religious redemption and state authority. In some German towns an executioner was permitted three strikes (really) before being grabbed by the crowd and forced to die in place of the poor sinner. Frantz recognized the constant danger to my life in every execution, but whether by skill or luck, he himself only faced one such total breakdown in public order—a flogging that turned into a riot and fatal stoning—and that came long after his journeyman years. Every beheading, by contrast, ended like his dispatch of the arsonist Vogel, with Frantz turning to the judge or his representative and asking the question that would complete the legal ritual: “Lord Judge, have I executed well?” “You have executed as judgment and law have required” came the formulaic response, to which the executioner replied, “For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.” Still at center stage (literally), Frantz then directed the anticlimactic mopping up of blood and appropriate disposal of the dead man’s body and head—always fully aware of the hundreds of eyes still upon him. As Heinrich Schmidt had taught his son, the public performance of the executioner never ended.

From The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington and out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Republished with permission.