The Faithful Executioner by J.F. Harrington describes the lives and careers of Heinrich and Frantz Schmidt as executioners. The book is filled with details and prints and is a joy to read if you love history.
We go back to Germany in the sixteenth century. Heinrich Schmidt made a good living as woodsman and fowler in the town of Hof near Brandenburg-Kulmbach. Hof was the fortified city of Albert II Alcibiades. His warrior attitude and shifting alliances made for troubled times.One day in October 1553, tragedy struck the Schmidt family.
Hof had no resources to employ a full-time executioner. When needed, they called upon a travelling executioner who went where he was needed. You could compare them with a freelancer now.
On October 16, Alcibiades needed an executioner and he needed one fast. There was no time to wait for the travelling professional to arrive. So Alcibiades invoked an ancient custom. On the spot he commanded a bystander to become executioner. His eye fell on Heinrich.
Heinrich protested as being an executioner meant being marginalized, not having a respectable position for generations to come. Alcibiades gave him a choice: execute or be killed yourself. From that day forward, the Schmidt family lost their place in Hof’s honorable society.
The book explains to us the consequences for the family, their status, their economic hardship, and the immense struggle to regain their respectable position. We learn about their day-to-day activities, how Heinrich raised Frantz to be an executioner, what types of executions they handled and how, their instruments, details about the various forms of torture, and their extensive medical knowledge.
Frantz kept a diary about the executions that he performed. Usually he described his tasks in an objective manner that almost seemed too distant for the gruesome tasks. It could give you the impression that he was a person devout of feelings. However, it looks far more like the diary of a man with a plan. Frantz was able to compartmentalize his job from his personal deeds. He carefully plotted a way to bring his family back into the respectable and honorable ranks of society.
The diary shows that he was not indifferent to the people he had to torture to extract confessions. He had discretion in the amount of torture to apply when he doubted the suspect’s culpability or strength to endure torture. He often recommended dismissal of charges. He found solace during extensive torture sessions in the suspect’s guilt especially when it concerned infanticide, arson, or heretics who committed incest or bestiality. The most violent acts that he had to fulfill as per court order were the ripping of the condemned person’s skin with red-hot tongs and the breaking of the body with the wheel.
Frantz’ ultimate goal was to gain citizenship in an imperial city. This would erase the shame that Alcibiades had casted on his family. In 1624, Frantz wrote to Emperor Ferdinand II to request a formal restitution of his family’s honor. In his direct appeal, he described how it was lost and what he and his father had been through. Three months later, the ornately inscribed and wax-sealed answer arrived which Frantz immediately filed with the city’s chancery.
Recommended reading with a word of caution for of course, the detailed descriptions and drawn images of the Schmidt family profession.