While browsing Quora, I came across the fascinating tale of a family of executioners in the Late Medieval era. I just know this will inspire your writing, so here it is. Thanks to Jean-Marie Valheur for the great answer.
A Reluctant Executioner
Imagine you’re a strapping young lad and a noble lord, known as a bit of a tyrant, decides to randomly execute three farmers to “show those peasants who’s boss.” He has no official executioner present, so he picks you out of the crowd to hang the men. Now you are an official executioner. This happened to the father of young Franz Schmidt in the early 1500s.
Now, in these days, being an executioner was a bit of a big deal. It was a position that made you fearsome and impressive, but at the same time, one that came with a lot of stigma. So great was the stigma that you couldn’t really work in any other fields anymore. Nor could your descendants. So Heinrich, the simple craftsman, became an executioner. And he was forced to take his little boy Franz along on the job — a nice father-son-bonding, killing, torturing, and maiming people, together.
Like Father, Like Son
Heinrich died eventually, and young Franz took over the job officially. His father was already a large and strong man, picked out for his size, but young Franz was even larger and stronger. He excelled in his job. And when in his early twenties, he married the daughter of the ‘head executioner’, taking over that position not much later after the old guy retired. He was now the most important executioner in the region of Nuremberg.
Franz had seven kids and became a friendly member of the community. He dabbled in medicine on the side, studying in his free time. Before long, he became a successful citizen. He kept a diary in which he described all his executions, including instances of torturing people, cutting off hands, fingers, and other body parts in punishments made to fit certain specific crimes — you can guess which body parts a thief or rapist would soon be missing! — and also noting for which crime each person was to be tortured or killed.
His diary is among the few such diaries to survive until today and offers a detailed and fascinating glimpse into the life of a late medieval executioner. It’s particularly interesting how some days he goes into detail about the case and some days he just… can’t be bothered talking about the person he just killed:
First entry: “June 5th, Leonhardt Russ, of Ceyern, a thief, hanged at Staff Steinach. Was my first execution.”
Fifth entry: “A thief hanged.”
Two entries later he describes how Kloss Renckhart murdered three people, robbed two mills, raped two women at the second mill, on which occasion he laid out the miller’s corpse and forced the wife and maid (whom he raped) to fry up some eggs and eat them off the corpse, which he then kicked and verbally abused. “For these things he was executed on the wheel at Graytz.”
Franz retired when he was around sixty. And now comes the most interesting twist of a lifetime, his ultimate redemption story: Franz Schmidt, having practiced medicine on the side for decades, now became a full-time doctor. He served in this capacity for almost twenty years before dying at the age of nearly 80.
Besides killing some 300 accused criminals and amputating body parts of another 300, it is estimated that he saved the lives of over 10,000 people as a doctor.
If that doesn’t inspire you, nothing will!
So the stigma that prevented the executioner from working in other fields did not apply to the field of medicine?
Apparently so! I guess you don’t care what your doctor did before, as long as he cures you 🙂
Wow, so strange and gruesome. Great share for the holidays, Nicholas. Lol. 🙂
I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Diana. I’ll have something more appropriate for Christmas, I promise 😀
A strange but fascinating story and an interesting if repugnant way to make a living. But I suppose someone had to do it. He must have been able to compartmentalize.
Thanks, Nicholas for this!
I can only imagine the stress his job put on him! And we complain about our jobs 🙂
Yes, that is a very bizarre story!
And inspirational, right? 🙂
Wow, what an amazing story. Thank you for sharing.
Thank you, Viv! I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as I did 🙂