“Lord Judge, Have I Executed Well?”

Then, again.
May 30 2013 7:22 AM

The Director of the Theater of Horror

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

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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.

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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.

Joel F. Harrington is a professor of history at Vanderbilt University.